Stopping the Vicious Cycle of Blaming each Other with the help of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy
As Dr Sue Johnson writes in her book 'Hold Me Tight', when two partners are in distress they tend to get stuck in some difficult patterns of dialogue – she calls them the ‘Demon Dialogues’. The most common of these, which Sue Johnson calls ‘Find the Bad Guy’, is where couples get stuck blaming each other in a never-ending cycle that keeps them miles apart emotionally.
Most of us get stuck in this pattern at times, but if our relationship is generally secure we can come out of it and recover quite quickly. For some couples however, if their relationship doesn’t feel so secure, this can become a habitual way of relating with each other and over time create more and more distance between partners.
The aim of ‘Find the Bad Guy’ is to protect oneself, but the primary moves are of mutual attack and blame. What starts this pattern is that we feel hurt or vulnerable with our partner, and as a result we suddenly lose control and feel emotionally unsafe.
When we feel fear, we will resort to anything to regain some control. We can do this by describing our partner in negative terms; we can attack our partner with reactive rage or a preventive attack. We could even call this pattern ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’. When we feel fearful we go for the obvious choice; 'I can easily see and hear what you have done, but it’s much harder to see what impact my reactions have on you. As a result, we focus on each step and how you have just stepped on my toes rather than on the whole dance'.
Once we are trapped in a negative pattern, we expect it and react very quickly when we think it’s coming. We are on guard as we anticipate the possibility of being hurt, and in this way we can never relax with our partner; we can no longer connect and confide in them. Over time, we end up not knowing what we feel anymore and without our emotions guiding us we feel lost. We start feeling that our relationship is not working, that our partner is not thoughtful or friendly, and we invest most of our energy in trying to protect ourselves.
If this pattern is repeated regularly and we get stuck, it can be very powerful: the more you attack, the more you appear dangerous, the more I am expecting your attack and the more I retaliate aggressively. To regain some mutual trust and safety, this cycle needs to be stopped. The only way to do this is to recognise that no one needs to be the ‘bad guy’; the ‘bad guy’ is the pattern, and both partners are victims of it.
Here are some suggestions to help you stop this cycle if you see it happening in your relationship:
- Try to focus on the present and what is really happening between you at this moment – do not get lost in content and facts about who’s done what to the other and similar examples from the past to make your point and ‘win’ an argument.
- Focus on the vortex of criticism you have both fallen in – it’s hard to find the beginning of a circle.
- Consider the vicious circle and the ‘dance’ as your common enemy and think of the consequences if this circle doesn’t stop.
It is useful to reflect and ask yourself some questions to gain a better understanding of how you and your partner move in this dance when you get caught up in ‘Find the Bad Guy’.
Try to remember a situation where you blamed your partner for something that happened. What did you do to ‘win’ your fight and demonstrate your innocence? In what way did you accuse your partner? What are the answers you find yourself using most when feeling cornered? Can you describe in general terms the vicious circle in which you both get caught up? How each of you defined the other? How each of you hurt and angered the other? Did you have a ‘winner’ in the end? What happened after the fight? How did you feel about yourself, your partner and your connection? Where you able to take a step back and revisit the argument, and comfort each other? If you weren’t able to, how did you cope with the loss of safety in the relationship?
What do you think would have happened if you had said ‘I think we are starting to call each other names and blaming each other, if we stay stuck in this dance we’ll end up both hurting each other more and more. Let’s not do it, let’s talk about what happened without having to blame’?
If what you've read is relevant to what's happening between you and your partner but you feel it's too hard to work on this on your own, do seek professional help before you get too stuck.
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About Mila Palma
I've been running my psychotherapy clinic in central London, TherapyTime, since 2009 and over the years I developed a particular interest and expertise in working with people who are struggling with relationship problems and associated anxiety and stress. I offer individual psychotherapy as well as couples therapy.
I’m a relationships expert; the focus of my work has become over the y… Read more
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