Do you purposely push your partners buttons? It seems that many of us do, whether on purpose or unknowingly. It's easy for couples to fall victim to negative patterns and bad habits in their relationship. Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson came by to talk about those demon dialogues and how to avoid them.
Three Demon Dialogues That Can Wreck Your Relationship
If negative strategies become front and center in a relationship, then we are liable to get stuck in what I call the Demon Dialogues. These dialogues can take over your relationship. They create more and more resentment, caution, and distance until we reach a point where we feel the only solution is to give up and bail out.
There are three main Demon Dialogues that trap couples in no-solution emotional starvation and insecurity:
1. Find the Bad Guy.
This dead-end pattern of mutual blame keeps a couple miles apart. Fights look like a "who gets to define who" contest. As Pam says, "I am waiting for his put down. I have my gun ready. Maybe I pull the trigger when he isn't even coming for me." Both partners define the other as uncaring or somehow defective. Everybody loses. But this attack-attack pattern is hard to keep up. It is usually the opening measure to the most common and ensnaring dance of all - the Protest Polka.
2. The Protest Polka.
Psychologists knew for years that this demand-withdraw dance leads to divorce, but they weren't able to figure out why is it so widespread and so deadly. We now understand that potent emotions and compelling needs keep this pattern going: the wired in need for emotional connection and the fear of rejection and abandonment. Even if our brains know that we are somehow making things worse by criticizing or shutting our partner out, we cannot just switch off this longing and fear. It is this spiral that is the enemy, not the other partner, though neither partner recognizes this. They talk this way because they sense an alarming answer to the attachment question, "Are you there for me?" In the Protest Polka, each person, in an attempt to deal with their sense of emotional disconnection unwittingly confirms the other's worst fears and keeps this spiral going. In the end, the demanding protesting partner begins to give up the struggle for connection, grieve the relationship, and also move away. This leads into the last dance of all.
3. Freeze and Flee.
In this dance, both partners feel helpless. No one is reaching for anyone here. No one is taking any risks. Everyone has run for cover. In other relationships, this might be fine for a while, but with the people we love, this "no response" dance is excruciating. Indeed, the partners here aren't really dancing at all. They are sitting out. We are not wired to tolerate this kind of isolation. If nothing changes, the relationship is in free fall.
When folks caught in Demon Dialogues come in and ask, "Is there any hope for us?" I tell them, "Sure there is. When we understand what the drama of love is all about, what our needs and fears are, we can help each other step out of these negative dialogues into positive loving conversations that bring us in to each other's arms and safely home."
First published August 2008
About Sue Johnston: