Marriage counseling is the process of recognizing and reshaping the relational dance between two partners. In a previous post (linked here) I discussed this process as presented by Susan Johnson the developer of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy. Susan describes emotion as the music that drives the interaction (dance steps) of the marriage relationship. In her book Created For Connection she discusses the three most common “dances” of a distressed marriage and calls them the “demon dialogues”. According to Johnson, these dialogues are rooted in the couple’s deep need for connection with one another rather than conflict, communication deficits, or skill deficits.
The demon dialogues emerge when a couple that has lost their sense of connectedness encounters a moment of stress or conflict. When the partners feel disconnected from one another the normal stressors of marriage tend to get sidetracked by one of the three demon dialogues. However, when both partners in the marriage feel safely connected to one another managing the stress of parenting or financial concern can be navigated in a way that creates more connection. The demon dialogues spin out of control leading to more stress, hurt feelings, and increased disconnection.
Marriage Dialogue 1: 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 situation. 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.
Marriage Dialogue 2: Protest Polka
The most common pattern encountered in marriage counseling is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. Susan Johnson calls it the protest polka. One partner 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.
Marriage Dialogue 3: Freeze and Flee
The final dialogue is one of silence. Both partners hunker 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.
The solution to the three demon dialogues is connection. When couples feel safely connected to one another they are able to navigate stress and conflict in more flexible, vulnerable, and adaptive ways. Connection creates the secure sense that your partner will be there for you, will notice you, will respond to you, and is reliable for you no matter the circumstance. Restoration is possible even in the most difficult of situations. It takes incredibly hard work, it takes time, and it takes risk.
If you would like to start this journey toward restoring connection with your spouse call me at 217-231-1413.
Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K (2016). Created for connection: The “hold me tight” guide for Christian couples. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.