My eyes roll when I think about how matter-of-factly I used to tell couples about the importance of using “I” statements when talking to each other. For those who don’t know, an “I” statement is a communication skill that challenges people to deliver feedback to others by taking responsibility for their personal thoughts and feelings. So instead of Bill saying to Torrie, “You don’t give a damn about how hard I work every day to make sure we have a comfortable living,” an “I” statement would allow him to express himself this way: “It’s really hard for me to hear that you don’t think I care about spending time with you and the kids. Work has been really demanding lately, and I’ve felt like I’m being pulled in every direction. I need you to understand that until I can find a new job I’ll probably be more tired in the evenings, but I promise I still love you.” Can you see the difference? Can you feel the difference?
Don’t get me wrong, I think using “I” statements is great for healthy communication - I just don’t think they’re singularly powerful enough to change the course of a crumbling relationship. Even from the example I shared above it’s obvious that there’s more context to that story, whether Bill and Torrie got off track with one another or they picked up defensive and critical communication long before they met. Only using “I” statements to rebuild a relationship isn’t realistic because they require a great deal more personal insight, understanding, and humility than many people can muster once things feel too disconnected.
If “I” statements are a new, revolutionary concept to you, then I definitely encourage you to try using them yourself; it’s a great way to connect with your thoughts and emotions. So, what can you do when your relationship feels like a tense ice bath? Due to the complexity of relationships, it’s important to learn more about how both you and your partner respond to feeling disconnected. All relationships have periods of insecurity, and learning to move through difficult situations together helps partners stay on the same page and strengthen their connection and security. Based on your attachment style, or how you seek connection in relationships, you might find that you respond to disarray in your relationship differently than your partner. Some people become clingy and demanding when they feel an emotional wedge in their relationship, and some people disconnect and pretend they’re not bothered by it. With more secure relationships, there is less of the pursue-withdrawal dance.
Even without considering the things we bring into the relationship from our past, there are so many other opportunities for our emotional connections to be tested. Learning more about your attachment style and how you and your partner navigate through those tough times may help break the cycle of what Dr. Sue Johnson calls the “demon dialogues.” There are three demon dialogues:
Find the bad guy: As a way to protect ourselves during sensitive moments we attack our partner by blaming them. Discussions become more about building our case and proving our point to one another. It may feel like you and your partner are battling for empathy. Using our example above, Bill shares that he feels hurt by Torrie and she reminds him that he didn’t seem to care how she felt last week when he did some other thing. Most couples lose sight of when they first started blaming the other one or what it was even about, but because vulnerability doesn’t feel safe they maintain this back-and-forth dance until things escalate and explode or freeze with bitterness and shame. The only way to stop this accuse-accuse cycle in the relationship is for both partners to agree that is actually this find-the-bad-guy dance that is the enemy and not each other. When partners can agree that it’s more important to call out the pattern of blame-to-protect behavior than it is to “win” the argument, then interactions can begin to soften. Then safety can make its way back into the relationship. This can be a great opportunity for partners to learn more about their emotional needs and how to be there for one another.
Protest Polka: This type of dialogue involves not just romantic partners, but is often seen in parent-child and sibling relationships. The Protest Polka is a pattern where one person is seeking emotional reassurance and the other person is not providing the reassurance in a way that creates safety, leading to escalating demands of protest. You may have heard some of these yourself: It’s like we’re more like roommates. I can’t get him to open up about anything. Anytime I try to get close, she pushes me away. I can’t do anything right. It feels like I’m walking on eggshells so I just keep my mouth shut. Anytime I try to give her advice she seems to get angrier and I don’t know what to do anymore, maybe we’re not meant to be together. The Protest Polka reminds me of something I heard many years ago: Negative attention is better than no attention at all. When emotional connection is missing from a relationship, one partner will poke and pressure the other to reassure them that they are important and their feelings are valid. When partners are unsure of how to provide this emotional support (maybe they’re more logically minded or have limited insight into emotional needs) they may withdrawal, provide advice, or criticize their partner, inviting the Protest Polka to continue. Because of societal norms, we typically see women as the one demanding reassurance and men as protesting these demands. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, just generally what we see most often. Like before, only when both partners can see and identify that the pattern of demand-retreat-DEMAND-RETREAT-DEMAND!!-RETREAT!! is the enemy, not their partner, can they begin to make room for the role of the attachment needs of one another. When we make room for emotional expression and needs, we see a shift where demands become gentle requests from our partners.
Freeze and Flee: Often a result of the protesting partner giving up, this dialogue can more accurately be described as a non-dialogue. Partners remain in the pursue-withdrawal dance of the Protest Polka until the the pursuing partner stops trying to seek validation and connection. This partner discovers a set of skills that allows them to shut down, rationalize, or refocus their emotional needs. In short, they give up hope for emotional connection with their partner and begin to detach. It is here that we usually see the other partner, the more withdrawn one in the Protest Polka, notice and begin to feel the emotional iciness. And while this person may now begin trying to “fix” the relationship, there is so much emotional distance between partners that efforts to reconnect result in frustration and shame. Because both partners have likely created a mental narrative about their internal flaws ruining the relationship, this is when we see people leave emotionally void relationships or seek comfort outside the relationship. While Freeze and Flee is the last and most vicious of the demon dialogues, it does not necessarily mean that partners cannot kindle emotional connection. Partners that desire reconnection, are motivated to work through their disconnect, and also recognize how they ended up at Freeze and Flee can begin the process of healing their relationship.
Even though there are more people on this planet than ever before, opportunities for emotional connection seem to have shrunk. We now rely on very few people to meet our emotional needs and, regardless of which way you look at this, it makes emotional connections even more fragile. If you’ve read this post today and see you and your partnership among these passages, I’d encourage you to consider taking some steps to better understand yourself and your emotional needs. For more information on demon dialogues and creating love in relationships, check out Dr. Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. If you have questions about getting started in couple therapy, please don’t hesitate to contact me for more information.