Confessions of a Couples Therapist: The Dance
Several years ago, I was 8 months pregnant and highly anxious, especially about issues that I had no business solving while the baby was still living inside of me. I would peruse the internet for the best dentist, the best school, and the best books to read at bedtime.
One afternoon, my husband and I were driving home from an early morning doctor's appointment. “I found the school I want us to send George to when it’s time.”
“School?” Andrew responded.
“Yes, it’s a Montessori school. It seems like just the best environment.” I pulled out my phone to pull up the website and started reading from it. “It’s the right place to send him,” I said.
Andrew smiled and said “Okay, well we can decide that when it gets closer.”
It’s in moments of anxiety that a casual, rational response can feel as if someone is dismissing the most important concern on the planet. This was one of those moments. While for Andrew his smile was just a smile, for me it was dismissive.
“So what…you'll just wait until the last minute to decide where he goes to school? I feel like you’re making fun of me.”
“Well, Liz…not last minute…but let’s get through the birth first. Plus, our parents are staying with him for the first few years. I just don’t think we need to make any decisions yet.”
He doesn’t understand, I thought, this is important! We need to plan for it! My thoughts started to race to the catastrophic consequences of not thinking this through together - even 2 years too soon -
- We won’t save enough money to pay for the school!
- We won’t get a spot on the waiting list!
- We will end up picking the wrong type of school
- We will forget to apply on time
“Okay, well I know we can’t do anything about it right now, but I also looked at the cost and it’s a lot of money. And I think we need to plan ahead and I also want to make sure I apply as soon as it’s time. You don’t understand...these types of places fill up!”
My husband was confused. And, fair enough. While he was happy to dream ahead with me, making decisions 2+ years in advance just didn’t make sense for him. As I continued to share my anxieties, my husband’s demeanor changed - he was starting to become anxious too.
“Look. I don’t think we need to be thinking about this right now. We have a lot going on!”
And with that, we had officially stepped into “The Dance”
The dance is what therapists use to describe common conflict patterns that arise within couples. As couples experience differences, they tend to develop a negative response cycle with each other. Each person makes one move that in turn motivates the next person to make their move. Over time, you take the same steps each time you are in conflict.
This cycle becomes more and more ingrained as time goes on and harder to break.
In this particular instance, my husband and I were in a pursuer/distancer dance - I was persistent about what I thought was best and Andrew was dismissive and withdrawn.
These cycles are fear driven and because of the fear, couples resist vulnerability and gentleness and become more and more ingrained within their positions.
The antidote to these fear based negative cycles, is to utilize a core intervention in Emotionally Focused Therapy - which is to learn how to identify and recognize the cycle.
To do this, couples work to map out their negative interaction cycle by exploring:
- Behavioral Reactions
- Inner Dialogues
- Emotional Reactions
During my early morning drive, we became more and more embedded in our individual positions - mine being we should already be discussing schooling and Andrew’s being it’s far too early - we stopped listening to each other and started resisting each other. As the discussion continued, I became more activated - talking and sharing more - and Andrew became more withdrawn.
“I know what’s happening” I started to think…”we are definitely stuck in a conflict dance right now. And it’s not helping.”
While I should get a round of applause for noticing it, noticing it is about as far as I got. The thing about patterns is that they are really hard to change even when we recognize that they are happening. It takes a lot of practice and self awareness to identify a pattern and then choose to change it.
It’s these “Aha” moments in life that help jump start our motivation towards doing things differently.
Later in the day, I turned to Andrew and said “Hey, our argument earlier about school felt similar to other arguments, do you agree?”
“Absolutely,” he said, “I don’t know why we do that.”
Well, aren’t you lucky, I thought! You’re married to a couples therapist…I DO know why!
“Well, I think we are doing a pursuer/distancer thing where when I get anxious I can’t stop talking about a topic and when you get anxious you can’t start.”
As our relationship grew, we continued to pay attention to exactly what was happening during our arguments. Why did they start? How did we react? And what was happening internally for both of us? These are things you can look at with your own partner.
First, let’s look at the why.
If we think about our conflict as a dance, the “why” is the beat that keeps all of the interactions going.
As Andrew and I discussed schooling, something triggered us both. It would be easy to say that the discussion about schooling itself was somehow triggering. However, Andrew and I had similar argument patterns regardless of the topic time and time again. It had nothing to do with school. Rather, it had to do with how we were both feeling about our connection at that moment.
Common conflict patterns are almost always about a fear related to connection with the other person. Fears like:
- You don’t care about me
- What I have to say isn’t important to you
- You aren’t going to have my back
- We are going to fail at this
- We are going to fight more
- You aren’t going to let me have influence
- You are going to dismiss me
- You are going to steamroll me
- Nothing is going to get resolved
- I won’t be able to get out of this conversation easily
Thinking back to my interaction with Andrew in the car, I can map out that I started to feel dismissed when he responded casually about my school suggestion. I was fearful I would not be taken seriously. As the conversation went on, Andrew likely started to feel like he was being steamrolled or trapped within a conversation he wasn’t ready to have.
When you think about your own conflict cycles, what do you notice being the core fear about connection underneath it all? What are you worried about?
Identifying this will help you recognize your triggers with each other. You should then be able to share something like:
“When I get dismissed, I start to feel anxious”
“When I am unprepared to have a conversation, I start to get shut down”
The next part of mapping your cycle is looking at your behavioral reactions.Thinking of a dance, your behavioral reactions are the dance moves.
Noting how you behave when you’re triggered will make it easier to recognize these behaviors in the future. The hope is that each time you “catch yourself” acting out, you’ll be able to remind yourself to dance a little differently.
Whenever I am dismissed, I talk more. And I start to try to convince. If that doesn’t work, I start to get critical. In this case, I likely said something to Andrew like “You never think ahead! It’s only me ever doing that!”
Whenever Andrew feels cornered, he withdraws. He starts to minimize the issue and, as the conversation progresses, he will even stop talking. He might say something like “Yeah, I don’t know. This conversation is all over the place. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Thinking of your own conflict cycle, what types of behaviors do you each play out?
Deep inside is the inner dialogue we are having. Each person within conflict is “saying something” to themselves throughout the conflict.
You can figure out what you are saying to yourself using this prompt:
“When I see my partner doing X, I start to think Y.”
In my case, when I saw Andrew smile and casually gloss over my Montesorri Mania, I started to think he didn’t care about what I was sharing. Moreso, I started to think that he would never care and I would have to deal with it all on my own.
In Andrew’s case, when he heard me continue to talk about it as if Maria Montessori was our new Lord and Savior, he started to think that he would have no influence, that his opinion wouldn’t matter, and that if he pushed back it would start a bigger conflict.
Exercise: Your Turn
Your turn - think through your last argument. What was your inner dialogue?
Inner Dialogue Prompt:
When I saw X, I thought Y. Imagining you are your partner, what do you think their inner dialogue was?
Partner Inner Dialogue Prompt
When they saw X, they thought Y. Now, let’s take it a little bit further. Beyond your thoughts, you also experience feelings during these cycles. When you see x, you think y, and feel z.
When I saw Andrew gloss over my research, I thought I was alone in it all, and I felt worried. When Andrew saw my persistence, he thought he would have no influence and he felt overwhelmed.
Exercise: Your Feelings
Here is a list of basic emotions, according to Robert Plutchik:
You can use this list to start to pinpoint the emotions you might be having underneath it all during conflict. Ta’da! Now you’ve mapped your negative cycle. Let’s recap:
Step 1 - Know the trigger
- Use the prompt “I am afraid I will be…”
- For me, “I am afraid I will be dismissed”, for Andrew “I am afraid my input will start conflict”
Step 2 - Notice your behaviors
- Use the prompt “when I fear X, I start to do Y”
- For me: “When I fear I will be dismissed, I start to get louder and more critical”, for Andrew “When he fears he will start conflict, he gets shut down”
Step 3 - Notice your inner world
- Use the prompt “When I saw X, I thought Y, I felt Z”
- For me “When I saw you smile and gloss over my research, I thought I was alone, I felt worried.” For Andrew “When he saw my persistence, he thought he wouldn’t have say without conflict, he felt overwhelmed.”
That’s great and all. But, now what?
Start with awareness. When people learn something new about themselves or their relationship, they often want to make sweeping changes. However, these rarely stick. Instead try this:
- Awareness: Choose one part of your cycle to start to bring awareness to. Make a commitment, for example, to notice your feelings or your behaviors.
- Narration: Once you’ve gotten good at noticing, start to narrate. This means that you say out loud what you see. For example, I’ve said to Andrew in the past “I notice I am feeling really dismissed right now and when that happens, i start to get critical” or even something as brief as “Wow, I just noticed myself getting really persistent.”
- Baby Steps: Choose one behavior to change. This will help you to change the dance moves and re-route the cycle. Going one step further from narration, I would say “Hey, I just realized I got critical” and then I would fix it “I really want to try to get better at this. Let me try that again.”
Use these steps to start to create a new cycle and then check back in with each other in a month about what has improved.