Where Does Love Go Wrong?, or The Three Demon Dialogues That Can Wreck Your Relationship

Unhappy couples always tell me that they fight over money, the kids,
or sex. They tell me that they cannot communicate and the solution is
that their partner has to change. “If Mary would just not get so
emotional and listen to my arguments about our fiancés and the kids, we
would get somewhere,” Brian tells me. “Well, if Brian would talk more
and not just walk away, we wouldn’t fight.I think we are just growing
apart here,” says Mary.

After 25 years of doing couple therapy and couple research studies, I know that both Mary and Tim are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Submerged below is the massive real issue: both partners feel emotionally disconnected.

They are
watching their backs, feeling criticized, shut-out and alone.
Underneath all the loud arguments and long silences, partners are
asking each other the key questions in the drama of love: “Are you
there for me? Do I and my feelings matter to you? Will you respond to
me when I need you?”  The answers to these questions, questions that
are so hard to ask and so hard to hear in the heat of a fight, make the
difference between emotional safety and emotional peril and
We know from all the hundreds of studies on
love that have emerged during the past decade that emotional
responsiveness is what makes or breaks love relationships. Happy stable
couples can quarrel and fight, but they also know how to tune into each
other and restore emotional connection after a clash. In our studies we
find that seven out of ten couples who receive Emotionally Focused
Therapy or EFT can repair their relationship. They do this by finding a
way out of emotional disconnection and back into the safe loving
contact that builds trust. But why can’t we all do this, even without a
therapist? What gets in our way?  The new science of love tells us.
loved one is our shelter in life. When this person is unavailable and
unresponsive we are assailed by a tsunami of emotions — sadness, anger,
hurt and above all, fear. This fear is wired in. Being able to rely on
a loved one, to know that he or she will answer our call is our innate
survival code. Research is clear, when we sense that a primary love
relationship is threatened, we go into a primal panic.

are only three ways to deal with our sense of impending loss and
isolation. If we are in a happy basically secure union, we accept the
need for emotional connection and speak those needs directly in a way
that helps their partner respond lovingly. If however we are in a
wobbly relationship and are not sure how to voice our need, we either
angrily demand and try to push our partner into responding, or we shut
down and move away to protect ourselves. No matter the exact words we
use, what we are really saying is, “Notice me. Be with me. I need you.”
Or, “I won’t let you hurt me. I will chill out, try to stay in

If these strategies become front and center in a
relationship, then we are liable to get stuck in what I call the Demon
Dialogues. These dialogues can take over your relationship. They create
more and more resentment, caution and distance until we reach  a point
where we feel the only solution is to give up and bail out.       
There are 3 main Demon Dialogues that trap couples in no-solution emotional starvation and insecurity:

the Bad Guy. 
This dead-end pattern of mutual blame keeps a couple
miles apart. Fights look like a “who gets to define who” contest. As
Pam says, “I am waiting for his put down. I have my gun ready. Maybe I
pull the trigger when he isn’t even coming for me.” Both partners
define the other as uncaring or somehow defective. Everybody loses. But
this attack-attack pattern is hard to keep up. It is usually the
opening measure to the most common and ensnaring dance of all — the
Protest Polka.

The Protest Polka.  Psychologists
knew for years
that this demand-withdraw dance leads to divorce, but they weren’t able
to figure out why is it so widespread and so deadly. We now understand
that potent emotions and compelling needs keep this pattern going: the
wired in need for emotional connection and the fear of rejection and
abandonment. Even if our brains know that we are somehow making things
worse by criticizing or shutting our partner out, we cannot just switch
off this longing and fear. “The more he refuses to talk to me or
dismisses my feelings, the angrier I get and the more I poke him” says
Mia. “Anything to get a response from him.” Her partner Jim picks up,
“And the more I hear that angry tone in her voice, the more I just hear
that I can never please her. I just get hopeless and more silent.” It
is this spiral that is the enemy, not the other partner, though neither
partner recognizes this. Mia is protesting Jim’s distance. Jim is
frantically trying to avoid her disapproval. They talk this way because
they sense an alarming answer to the attachment question, “Are you
there for me?” In the Protest Polka, each person, in an attempt to deal
with their sense of emotional disconnection unwittingly confirms the
other’s worst fears and keeps this spiral going. In the end, the
demanding protesting partner begins to give up the struggle for
connection, grieve the relationship and also move away. This leads into
the last dance of all.   

Freeze and Flee. In this dance both
partner feel helpless. No-one is reaching for anyone here. No-one is
taking any risks. Everyone has run for cover. In other relationships
this might be fine for a while, but with the people we love, this “no
response” dance is excruciating. Indeed, the partner’s here aren’t
really dancing at all. They are sitting out. We are not wired to
tolerate this kind of isolation. If nothing changes, the relationship
is in free fall.  

When folks caught in Demon Dialogues come in
and ask, “Is there any hope for us?”  I tell them, “Sure there is. When
we understand what the drama of love is all about, what our needs and
fears are, we can help each other step out of these negative dialogues
into positive loving conversations that bring us in to each other’s
arms and safely home.

Dr. Sue Johnson Written by Dr. Sue Johnson

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