Find the Bad Guy
This dance occurs when both partners are stuck using attack as a way to protect ones self from feeling vulnerable, alone, or unsafe. Each partner blames the other for the problem because disconnection has made it unsafe to vulnerably acknowledge ones own responsibility in the problem. John blames the family’s financial issues on Mary’s irresponsible spending habits, while Mary blames John for not working hard enough to provide for the family. The pattern is cyclical in that the more one is blamed the more disconnected and unsafe they feel. The lack of safety puts each partner “on guard” for the attack of the other. A hypersensitive stance may cause the partners to see threat where there is none. This leads to more frequent attacks and ever increasing difficulty in resolving conflict.
The most common pattern encountered in marriage counseling is the pursuer-distancer dynamic or as Susan Johnson calls it the protest polka. One of the partners protests against the growing disconnection in the marriage by pursuing the other. Many times this pursuit feels more like demanding or criticism to the partner causing them to withdraw. The more the distancer withdraws the more the pursuer criticizes or protests. The pursuer is looking for reassurance about questions such as “do you care about me?”, “do I matter to you?”, “am I important” while the distancer is attempting to protect ones self from feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, and failure.
Freeze and Flee
The final dialogue is one of silence. Both partners are hunkered down in their respective fox holes and hope is nearly gone. The pursuer has no more energy to protest and therefore shuts down to protect ones self from hurt and loneliness. The distancer is finally enjoying some peace but remains disconnected as a way to protect against a sneak attack. Each partner has tried everything they know to fix the problem but nothing has worked. They feel frozen, stuck in a dance that brings deeper and deeper hurt; therefore they flee by either leaving the marriage or resigning themselves to a lonely loveless relationship.
An accessible partner is one that is “there” when reached for. When feeling alone, scared, and vulnerable we reach out to our loved ones in an attempt to gain comfort and safety. When a partner is accessible they remain present for their spouse and provide empathy, validation, and compassion. Although this reaching may come across as anger the responsive spouse views the “reach” as a need driven by hurt and fear. An accessible spouse sends an implied message of “you are not alone”, “I am here for you” and “we will get through this together”.
A responsive partner is one that is “moved” by the reach of the other. Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by someone else’s emotion we hide it, stuff it down, or deny it. This appears as cold, unresponsive, and distant to a partner in pain. A responsive partner is able to “feel” the other with a deep understanding of the hurt, loss, and fear. Understanding ones partner in this way creates a sense of moving toward each other. The reaching out has worked and the hurting partner experiences reconnection.
An engaged partner is one that has been “moved” by the emotion and pain of his/her partner and stays “in” it. They are able to maintain the connection with the partner throughout the difficult time. They do not run away from the powerful emotions, downplay them or seek to minimize them. An engaged partner is able to feel the emotion while experiencing a safe connection with self and the other.