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Stopping the negative cycle of protest-withdraw with the help of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy

As Dr Sue Johnson writes in her book 'Hold Me Tight', when couples are in distress they tend to get stuck in three problematic patterns of dialogue – she calls them the ‘Demon Dialogues’. 

In this article I'd like to tell you about the second 'Demon Dialogue' which she calls the 'Protest Polka'. This is unfortunately quite a common way of interacting and couples who get stuck in this way of relating early on in the relationship struggle to stay together long term. It's a negative cycle where one partner reaches out, even if in the wrong way, and the other one steps back; the cycle then repeats itself because in love relationships, and in accordance with what we know about attachment, any response is better than no response at all. If we have no emotional response from our partner we can't help but protest; it's wired in our brain. The Protest Polka is about trying to get a response that will help us feel connected and reassure us, but having a reaction from our partner that actually makes us feel more disconnected.

In this pattern usually we see one partner protesting for the disconnection, demanding, and the other one withdrawing while quietly protesting the implied criticism. Partners who get stuck in this pattern as 'pursuers', who protest, often report certain feelings like feeling unimportant or not valued by their partner; feeling excluded and alone; longing for emotional connection and feeling angry because their lover is not responsive; experiencing their partner more as a friend than a lover. Partners who tend to withdraw in response to the pursuing partner tend to report feelings of hopelessness and lacking the confidence to act; shutting down and numbing out in response to negative emotions arising; assessing oneself as failure, as an inadequate partner; doing anything to avoid the lover's anger; using rational problem solving as a way out of emotional interactions. They usually talk about their feelings in terms of numbness and depression, but the pursuing partner usually only sees a lack of emotional response which is distressing for them.

There tends to be a gender role as in our society women tend to become sensitive to emotional distance sooner than their partners, so they often tend to be in the role of the pursuer, the more blaming partner. Men have generally been taught to suppress emotional responses and needs and to sort things out rationally, to be problem solvers, which often sets them up as withdrawers. Unfortunately, if one appeals for emotional connection and the other responds intellectually to a problem rather than directly to their partner, it will be experienced as 'no response' at attachment level, and will be distressing.

Being able to recognise and accept protests about separation and exit the Protest Polka is fundamental for a healthy relationship. For a loving bond to stay strong and grow, we have to be able to repair moments of disconnection and step out of dead-end ways of dealing with them, which destroy safety and create disconnection. 

If you recognise this pattern in your relationship, below are some suggestions to help you stop it:

  • Can you think of the last time this kind of pattern of protest-withdraw took over your relationship?

  • Can you try (using an attachment perspective if you are familiar with it) to see past the argument about facts and problems to the struggle over the connection between the two of you?

  • In your current relationship, what do you tend to do when you feel disconnected and unsafe?

  • Think of the last argument or hurtful episode in your relationship. What role and moves did you have? Did you protest or withdraw? Do you find yourself becoming critical and trying to change your partner? Or is it rather that you shut down and tell yourself that all this longing for reassurance is risky and best to avoid?

All of us will at times be caught up in one of these positions. Being able to see your own moves and the impact on your lover is fundamental here, so you have to look hard and identify your usual response - the one that appears before you have had time to reflect - as this is the response that can trap you in a cycle of disconnection with your partner.

The distancing role is often the one that is hardest for us to really see if we are the one doing the distancing. Maybe you retreat into yourself and try to calm yourself by shutting out everything else? This can work at times, but if you start doing it automatically then you will find it harder and harder to stay open and responsive to your partner's emotional needs and your partner will feel abandoned and excluded and protest in response.

  • Can you think of a time when withdrawing worked for you in a relationship? What happened after the withdrawal? This is usually a strategy to prevent a fight that we worry will escalate and put the relationship in danger.

  • Can you think of a time when moving away and shutting down didn't work? What happened after this withdrawal?

It would be good, if you feel comfortable, to share some of these responses with your partner and think about your pattern as a couple. Are there times when you get stuck in this cycle, the Protest Polka? Can you identify each of your moves? Can you see the loop?

You can describe it very simply by filling in the blanks below with one word:

The more I ___ the more you __ and then the more I ___, and round and round we go.

Here is an example: "Anna" often got angry and critical with "Tom" for working late and not focusing on family enough, and Tom mostly reacted by feeling slightly numb and withdrawing, which made Anna feel even more disconnected and unloved. When they tried reflecting on their pattern, Anna was able to open up and share with Tom that she missed him in the evening and longed for more time together. She feared she wasn't important enough to him. For Tom hearing this was reassuring, as all he could hear when Anna was 'pursuing' him angrily was that he was an utter failure as a husband and father and that he was unlovable. He realised that his reaction to Anna, to become silent and withdrawn, although dictated by his despair and by not knowing how to respond, was sending Anna the wrong message - he actually really cared about her and the family, and in fact his long hours were the result of an effort to get promoted and better provide for them.

Come up with your own name for this cycle and see if you can share how it damages your sense of connection and how it changes the emotional landscape between the two of you.

Even if you do get caught up in this pattern of interacting, are there times when you can step out of it and move to a different way of interacting? Can you risk openly asking for closeness and comfort, disclose your feelings and needs to your lover rather than withdrawing? What is it that makes it possible? See if you can find a way together to keep the Protest Polka at bay. Often this comes down to seeing the attachment signals hidden in it, so even saying something like 'I see that you are really upset and need something from me but I don't know what to do here' can be helpful to change the emotional landscape of the interaction.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Mila Palma MA UKCP & BACP reg. Psychotherapist; Certified EFT Couple Therapist

I've been running TherapyTime, my psychotherapy practice in central London, 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, stress and life crises. I offer individual psychotherapy as well as couples therapy.
I'm passionate about helping people improve their relationshi… Read more

Written by Mila Palma MA UKCP & BACP reg. Psychotherapist; Certified EFT Couple Therapist

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