You can see the same old argument coming from a mile away.
Worse yet, you already know how it ends.
You’ve tried all the positive communication strategies you can think of; a soft lead in and using “I statements” but somehow in the heat of it all, things fall apart.
Have a look at it now, and then read on to learn more about what is keeping the two of you stuck.
Maybe for you, a repeating argument with your partner goes something like this:
You: I’m just wondering why are you always on your phone?
You: You know how much I hate that. I’m so sick of coming home and finding you on the couch.
You: Did you hear me?
You: (more angrily now) Then why are you still sitting there like that? What are you doing? Who are you texting?
Them: Why are you being so controlling? You’re always telling me what to do and how to live my life. I’m sick of it. You’re so cranky and irritating. I’m done talking to you about this.
Of course, you never intended for this conversation to turn into an argument with your partner!
You have no idea why things seem to go sideways in your conversations and you are genuinely confused about why you consistently misunderstand each other.
If all couples argue, why do some couples end up getting more and more distant and pissed off with each other while others seem to be able to work it out?
The short answer is that couples can get stuck in a negative pattern of reacting (triggering) each other that they don’t know how to get out of.
This predictable pattern can get started over virtually any topic.
The argument gets started, and keeps going, because each person is pushing the others person’s buttons in an attempt to get their needs met and find a sense of emotional balance.
If you and your partner score low on emotional responsiveness, you are more likely to get caught in these predictable patterns of heated exchanges. Over time, this stuck pattern will leave you both feeling frustrated and alone. ( If you haven’t taken last week’s quiz, check that out here.)
Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, coined the term Demon Dialogues to describe these stuck patterns of communication.
Maybe you recognize yourself in one of these:
1. FIND THE BAD GUY
You know you’re caught up in this destructive communication pattern if you and your partner accuse or blame each other for the struggles in the relationship. The hallmark of this pattern is mutually attacking, blaming and faulting the other person.
This happens when one person is triggered by feelings of being misunderstood, judged negatively or blamed unfairly by the other. They then resort to pointing out all the faults and shortcomings of their partner in a reactive way.
This ‘blame game’ goes around and around leaving both people feeling distant and disconnected. This heated attack-attack pattern is hard to keep up, and often leads to the second demon dialogue.
2. THE PROTEST POLKA
It is widely accepted that a demand-withdraw pattern of communication between partners is connected to higher levels of divorce. But why?
It’s because our brain’s wired in need for connection and security keep this negative cycle in play with one partner demanding connection and the other shutting down or turning away.
It might sound like one person criticizing the other for being on the phone too much or spending too much time our with friends or at work.
Although it may not seem like it, this partner is protesting the feeling of being disconnected from their significant other.
However, in response to this perceived criticism, the other partner withdraws, shuts down or moves away emotionally. They may shut down conversations, dismiss the other person’s concerns or leave the room when the tone of the conversation heats up.
Both partners are missing each other’s distress signals. They are unknowingly confirming each others work fears. One partner is demanding, actively protesting the disconnection; the other is withdrawing, quietly protesting the implied criticism.
Over time, this stuck cycle leads to the most disconnected dance of all, freeze and flee.
3. FREEZE AND FLEE
You’ll know that you and your partner are caught up in this negative cycle if things are remarkably quiet between the two of you. Both of you are so committed to avoiding conflict that hard topics and points of contention just don’t get talked about. To borrow Dr. Johnsons’ metaphor, in this dance, “both partners are sitting it out. It looks like there is nothing at stake; no one seems invested in the dance.”
This often happens when the ‘Protest Polka’ has gone on for so long that the pursuing partner has given up hope that things will change. The pursuing partner has resorted to dealing with the loss of connection in other ways rather than continuing to seek it in the relationship.
It’s not impossible to rebuild your relationship from this demon dialogue, but I strongly encourage you to seek out the help of a skilled marriage & couples counsellor.
As an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist I have a map that will help me guide you and your partner back to a close and connected relationship.
THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO
1. Recognize that it’s this stuck negative cycle, not an unfixable defect or flaw in your partner that is keeping you apart.
2. Get clear about your steps in the dance. Here is a worksheet for you to reflect on so that you know how you are contributing to the stuck dynamics between you and your partner.
3. Talk about it with your partner. Acknowledge how tough it is when the cycle gets the best of you and how much you want that to change. Maybe you can give your cycle it’s own name and notice when you are getting caught in it.
Relationships are complex, and having a skilled marriage & couples counsellor who can help slow you down and sort through the stuck spots, can be a huge help.
If you’re sick of being caught up in frequent arguments with your partner and feel like you can never get to the bottom of it, consider couples counselling to learn new ways to get unstuck.
If after checking out this blog post you and your partner realize that you’d benefit from some help to improve the connection and communication in your relationship, let’s chat. I work with couples in Halifax and surrounding areas from my Bedford Office. You can book a free 15 minute consultation online or call Stephanie at (902) 702-7722 to book an appointment.
I look forward to hearing from you,