Frequently, couples in a marriage have repeating patterns of conflict, like familiar well-practiced dance moves that take two (to tango). These negative dances are repeated over and over and run a predictable course with misunderstood moves on both sides – ending with both partners feeling more alone, more hurt, less hopeful.
One dance move is the attack/criticize – stonewall/avoid pattern – imagine a mongoose and a porcupine. This pattern is characterized by blame, criticism, resentment, emotional withdrawal and silence. What is going on? Well, here are some possibilities:
- The cycle keeps repeating because underlying causes are never identified.
- Each partner resists looking at their deeper needs for connection and how scary that is.
- They “play it forward.” In other words, the past pattern is assumed to be the only way the dance can go. They can’t even imagine any room for safe “improvisation” in the marriage. Who would we be if we didn’t do our dance?
This may be happening, at least in part because of:
- Stress and overwhelm, couples are stretched so thin between children, jobs, finances, traffic, health, ageing parents, the yard, the . . . on and on and on it goes. It just seems easier to be on autopilot with our partners.
- Our core needs for genuine connection and reliable attachment – yes, we still have those from early childhood – are being expressed in adult behaviors such as “justifiable anger”, criticism and blame, cold logic, stoic disinterest, busyness.
- Doubt. For both partners, deeper experiences of longing for a reliable, available, significant partner who is genuinely interested in seeing us just as we really are – is just too risky to ask for, and too risky to try and provide to our partner.
Couple therapy can help us hear deeper into what our partner is saying and asking for and respond from an awareness of our own fears and perceived limitations for being present. It’s not a quick fix; patterns developed in childhood are the dance steps we still lean into in our adult relationships. But it can be incredibly enriching to learn how an emotionally attuned relationship, lived outside the confines of rigid and repeating negative patterns, is so vital and life-affirming and so worth the deeper work.
Karen has been married for 29 years – unbelievable! She sees individuals and couples.