The Dance

Variously called: fuser/isolator or blame/defend or pursuer/distancer or injustice collector/people pleaser

Difficult relationship pairs at work and at home can be described by a negative interaction cycle. It disconnects participants as if they were trapped on opposite sides of a revolving door trying to point to the stop button outside. One appears to blame or criticize, whilst the other appears to placate or defend themselves. It is almost impossible to decide who starts it because the actions and reactions are so nuanced. In fact, the dance is a transaction of influence.

Any reaction even no reaction can escalate it, until both withdraw exhausted only to begin again from a very small start-up event. Both feel powerless, despairing and bewildered by the apparent inevitability of the downward spiral. Resignation or separation seem the only answer, but the pattern is the problem not the people. When there is a power differential, it drives the dance underground and the push back toxic.

In an intimate relationship, one gets more and more upset and the other retreats and shuts down. One hammers the other like a nail and buries them in the ground. Sometimes the roles reverse or both hammer at each other competitively – to see who can get the last word, inflict the deeper wound.

One of my clients described what drove her to this extreme as, ‘I’m not going to get a real connection with them so I might as well win the argument’. This is usually a mutual ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ pattern with a lose-lose outcome for both.

Neither of the partners needs are heard or met. Both get buried.

The tendency of the interaction to escalate is an example of reciprocal influence – one can’t get there without the other, two to tango, one to load the gun the other to pull the trigger.

The pattern repeats over and over, generating high adrenalin, cortisol stimulated flight-fight-freeze reactions that eventually lead to depleted exhaustion.

A false calm follows.

Then from a small start-up event, they wind it up again.

Each experiences despair and an inability to stop or divert the cycle from repeating itself.

And so it goes, the relationship cycling between two fall-back positions – adversarial and withdrawal. Here are some articles on solving the moment when love turns to anger, by the late Dan Wile

The pattern is the problem not the person.

When empathy and collaboration seem a long way off, disrespect and then contempt grows.

For intimate couples, separation, divorce, or resignation takes shape as the ultimate circuit breaker.

That will not be a farewell to the pattern. It is not a good-bye built on love and dignity.

Turning your back on that pattern just forwards it to your next location. It doesn’t end up in the lost property office. That is because the dance is rooted in your default attachment styles and physiological responses, triggered by often quite trivial events in the relationship.

It seems easy to understand the impact of a blamer (criticizer) on a withdrawer (placater) and to see the blamer as the more disturbed one and have empathy for the withdrawer, who is getting so much criticism.

However, it isn’t as easy to understand the impact of the withdrawer, the non-responder, on the partner. In other words, it is normal and natural to react adversely to significant non-responsiveness from the person you love and are attached to. The longer their placating, withdrawal or non-responsiveness goes on the more extreme the other’s reaction is likely to become.

Often the withdrawer has a self-sufficiency or an ‘I can do it on my own’ modus operandi, which comes out of their own attachment history. Inside them this can feel like complete overwhelm and shut down but appears on the outside as stonewalling or immovability.

The pursuer can describe themselves as being driven crazy inside by a stonewalling partner. They blame themselves for the extremes they go to in response to their partner’s shut down and withdrawal. Inside, however, they can feel powerless and out of control but on the outside, they can appear in control even powerful.

It is a pattern or a dance of reciprocal influence. Have a look at the still face experiment

Timely repair of these breaks in connection is the most significant predictor of a long and happy relationship. Every couple behaves badly at times – even the best relationships can be screwed up. It’s the success of repair that makes the difference.

When the pattern is repaired, the withdrawer can say to the pursuer:

‘It’s easier to hear what you want and how you feel, than to hear how I’ve failed you. I can focus on how I want you to be happy with me instead of feeling threatened and focusing on how to protect myself.’

The most important actions are the repair efforts. Occurring as soon after the dance has begun as the couple can catch it.

I think two of the best books on understanding and processing the origin of the pattern and of repairing it in the couple relationship, come out of the attachment perspective.

One is Sue Johnson’s ‘Hold Me Tight’.

The other is Ruth Cohn’s ‘Coming Home to Passion’. Here’s one of her articles: