When our relationship with a partner doesn’t feel emotionally safe, when we struggle to connect with our partner, we often get stuck in a repeated pattern. The content of the argument may be different, but the process is usually the same. Dr. Sue Johnson called these stuck patterns “demon dialogues”. While most couples have a demon dialogue they play out more often than others, it is possible that all three are present in the same argument if it goes on long enough!
The Protest Polka
According to Dr. Johnson, this is the most common dialogue. At the heart of this pattern is a misunderstood or miscommunicated bid for connection, and a step back and away by the other partner. This becomes a cycle. The more one partner tries to connect, the more the other withdraws, so the attempts at connection become more desperate-louder or more aggressive, which makes the other partner retreat even more, which increases the desperation and protests of the partner trying to connect. The pursuing partner is trying to fight and protest against the emotional distance he or she feels. For the withdrawing partner, each misguided attempt at connection brings up more feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or failure. He or she may feel like they can’t do anything right, or whatever they do isn’t enough, so they close off.
Common statements in this dialogue:
“You are doing it right now! I am trying to talk to you, and you just sit there with your arms crossed staring into space!”
“She starts yelling and I just…can’t. It’s like I can’t stay present. I feel all sorts of awful and can’t do anything about it, so I just stand there and say nothing. Nothing I do say is going to change it anyway.”
Find the Bad Guy
This pattern typically begins when we feel hurt by our partner and fight to get a sense of safety and control back. This is the “fight” part in the “flight or fight” response when we are triggered. In this dialogue, we tend to lash out at our partner, placing blame on him or her for anything we can. Sometimes our attack can be preemptive, a sign that this well-known dance between you and your partner has gotten to be so familiar, we are ready to deal the first blow. The danger with this dialogue is the more we attack our partner, and they attack back, the more each of our defenses goes up. Our attacks get bigger, our walls get thicker, and eventually it can feel like we have hardened completely to each other.
Common statements in this demon dialogue:
“My mother was always right about you. She could see how selfish you were from the very beginning!”
“I am here, trying every day to make this relationship work, but it doesn’t matter. You are just determined to be the victim. You always play up my mistakes, and you are SO perfect that you don’t do anything wrong!”
Freeze and Flee
This is the pattern I call “silent but deadly.” It isn’t loud like the Find the Bad Guy pattern, with couples often arguing back and forth. It isn’t a lopsided see-saw like the Protest Polka so often is, with one partner often doing most of the talking and the other sitting silent. The hallmark of this pattern is silent tension. The answers of both partners are short. Both people seem worn out. This dialogue is often the result of a too-long lasting protest polka dialogue. It is what happens when the partner that kept trying to pursue, kept looking for a connection, has now also withdrawn from the relationship. The couples who sit before me in this dialogue often describe themselves as “roommates” more than husband or wife or partners. There is a significant pall of hopelessness over the relationship. Both partners have turned off their emotions and their needs.
Common statements in Freeze and Flee demon dialogue:
“I tried to talk to her. For years I tried. I just got so tired of trying and hitting a wall. I don’t have it in me to keep trying anymore.”
“I don’t know why we are even trying therapy honestly. The relationship is lost. We really just have to find a way to fake it enough until our son graduates.”
Thankfully, we can do things to end our demon dialogues. Knowing what our go to demon dialogues are is just the start. A skilled couple’s therapist can help couples work together to not only become aware of their cycle and the demon dialogues that keep them stuck in it, but also to go deeper into the issue. In couples’ therapy, couples can work together to identify and hear each other’s unmet attachment needs. Together, they can work to meet the needs of their partners, and express their attachment needs in a clear way. Perhaps most importantly, a relationship therapist can assist couples in healing wounds left by years of demon dialogues.
Sometimes life can be a struggle. Some parts of ourselves and our pasts can be uncomfortable and difficult to share with someone else. Therapy is a safe place where those memories and parts of our self that bring shame and hurt can be met with compassion, empathy, and support. As a therapist, I am here to help guide you through life’s troubles and help you to create a space where you can be heard. My goal is to help people reconnect, discover their strength, and identify their authentic self. I seek to help people improve their relationships with themselves and those they love most in their lives.
Anyone following the news is finding themselves in a place of abnormal isolation. While the world is shutting down in many regards, we remain in the constant presence of our own thoughts. Regardless of how you view the current international crisis, your life has changed compared to just a few weeks ago.