In Emotionally-Focused Therapy for Couples, Sue Johnson discusses 3 everyday no-win marital situations that prevent couples from safely connecting to manage conflict.
She calls them Demon Dialogues. They are Freeze and Flee, the Protest Polka, and finally, Find the Bad Guy. Let’s take a closer look at each of them one by one.
This is a volatile high-conflict Dance. It takes a lot of energy, and it hard to maintain over time because when you see your intimate partner as a “Bad Guy,” it’s very hard on your nervous system.
They’re on the attack… blaming, shaming, accusing and criticizing. Gottman would point out that they are “flooded” and are in diffused physiological arousal (DPA). Safety is gone. Your partner has become your enemy.
They do that to protect themselves from yet another attack that they often can predict, even before it happens.
These couples anticipate escalation because constant fighting is the way they roll. They cannot relax with each other, and they certainly cannot confide or connect. Safety in that relationship is gone.
It’s not about feelings anymore. It’s about finding the Bad Guy. And until this couple recognizes that the search for the blameworthy bad guy is the real culprit, they will remain in emotional gridlock.
Unless this couple somehow finds a way back to sharing feelings, they’re not going to get anywhere.
A good EFT therapist would probably start with inviting this couple to see what they’re doing, seeing the exhausting and demanding dance that is Find the Bad Guy. My EFT trainer George Faller said it best:
“Our job as therapists is to help our couples de-escalate, and hold a safe space for them to be softer, open up, and put words to the painful reactivity that is tormenting them both.” George Faller.
Usually, the exhausting “Find the Bad Guy” dance is the chaotic overture to the Protest Polka.
EFT calls it the Protest Polka. But’s it’s been called many things; Pursuer/Withdrawer, Attack/Defend, etc.
It’s what happens when one partner (often the husband) withdraws, and the other spouse responds by escalating their criticism and anger.
This is the stage when Michele Weiner Davis says the “Walk Away Wife” is making her last stand.
Withdrawal and stonewalling are the worst responses to the Protest Polka because any response is better than silence.
Gottman calls this criticism followed by stonewalling and would instruct the couple to separate and have a “time-out” for 20 minutes to calm down their nervous systems.
The escalated critic is flailing for connection, but the withdrawer is just trying to keep their head down and stay safe. The more the critic protests, by attacking…the more the withdrawer pulls away. The more the withdrawer pulls away, the more the pursuer seeks to command and control.
This Demon Dance is mutually reinforcing and could continue indefinitely if nervous systems permit.
In the Protest Polka, each partner, by trying to handle their emotions safely, confirms each other’s worst fears and keeps this Demon Dance going. In the end, the demanding, protesting partner abandons the struggle for connection, grieves the relationship, and also withdraws.
But before the couple learns how to change the Dance, or ends their relationship, their exhausted nervous systems will typically collapse into Freeze and Flee.
When I think of what Sure Johnson means by Freeze and Flee, I am reminded of one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen, Stonewalling.
But Stonewalling is only a physiological reaction. Freeze and Flee is a stuck-stance toward your spouse. It is the most Dangerous Dance of all.
Gottman calls it the Distance/Isolation Cascade.
It dawned on me that while Gottman and Johnson are describing similar marital dynamics, Gottman is describing behaviors, but Johnson is focused on interactional patterns.
Johnson points out that when couples are stuck in the Freeze and Flee dance…it looks like nothing is going on. No one is talking. Or reaching out.
She reminds us that human beings are not wired for this excruciating isolation. Freeze and Flee is about self-protection. Nobody’s fighting because nobody is invested enough to take a risk.
No risking. No reaching. Elvis has left the building. We can take cold distance from other relatives, but not from intimate partners. There is no Dance of conflict here. Freeze and Flee is a “dance of distance.”
There is just a running away to some imagined form of safety where we can lick our wounds and imagine what might have been. The pursuer is now “burned-out.”This is what Michele Weiner Davis describes when the Walk Away Wife “goes dark.”
In EFT, this is seen as a withdraw-withdraw pattern, but some husbands are so relieved that their wives have stopped “nagging” them, they process this silence as an improvement. Often they mistakenly believe that the situation has calmed down.
As in Stonewalling, there is a turning away from feelings, a sense of not being up to the task, and perhaps even self-loathing. What’s interesting is that in helping couples stop Freeze and Flee, an EFT therapist will often focus on the intrapsychic realm.
What is the partner’s negative self-talk chatter? What negative beliefs about the partner in their head are getting in the way? EFT works on Freeze and Flee by unpacking the implicit internal negativity by making it explicit.
When our intimate partner becomes unavailable to us, we struggle with powerful emotions that are hard-wired into the human condition. Anger, pain, profound sadness, but most importantly… fear.
Research studies clearly show that when our most intimate bond is threatened, we slide into an intense, primal fear. This fear is hard-wired into the human brain. Humans actually need to be able to rely on an intimate other.
We are pair-bonding creatures. Our survival depends on it.
In Freeze and Flee, the couple is living parallel lives. They have an “as-if” relationship. They have given up the struggle because they can’t bear the alternative. They are emotionally disengaged and well on their way to divorce or dissolution.
The couple’s therapist’s responsibility is to put the blame on the Dance and take it off of the partners. If both partners can commit to stopping the unhealthy cycle, and change how they interact, then hopefully, they can restore the relationship and fulfill their needs for a safe and intimate bond.
Change comes when the pursuer protests in a softer and clearer voice and the withdrawer is committed to being more receptive and responsive to the pursuer’s requests. The Dance changes when both partners have a different experience of connection and attachment with one another.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is incredibly effective. Research shows that 70-90% of couples who are with an EFT trained therapist can completely restore their otherwise damaged intimate bond. And some studies have registered that success level even higher.
Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy are the twin pillars of proven, evidence-based couples therapy. They are the gold standard of effective marriage counseling. At Couples Therapy Inc., we encourage all of our clinicians to become well-trained in both models.
Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples describe the experience of distressed couples in a different vocabulary, but what they have in common is a keen focus on the importance of carefully unpacking the emotional disconnection between the partners.
Both models are highly effective in restoring safe, loving connections, which rebuilds the capacity trust to return once more.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.