3 Killer Patterns in Relationships

Couple arguing in the kitchen
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When couples get caught in one of these killer patterns with each other and find themselves fighting, they may wonder how they can possibly be so angry about what seems like something so trivial. In reality, that trivial thing is probably not the issue they are so worked up and upset about, but it is the tenuous foundation that remains of their relationship after one of these killer patterns has taken hold of it.

If you are wondering whether your relationship may be a victim of one of these killer patterns, read on.

3 Killer Patterns in Relationships

Dr. Sue Johnson has been studying love and relationships for decades. Through her research and development of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, she has discovered three all too common destructive patterns that can easily take over and destroy relationships. In her 2008 book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, she brings these patterns to light, naming them, "Find the Bad Guy," "The Protest Polka," and "The Freeze and Flee." 

Find the Bad Guy

The name of this pattern basically says it all: You and your partner are finger pointing, blaming and proving that the other is in the wrong. This pattern can be typical of newer relationships in which partners are not feeling especially heard or seen by each other. As time goes on, and partners continue to feel unimportant to each other, it can get uglier and more hurtful.

Try to stop this on your own by slowing things down and agreeing to be nicer to each other. Consider each other more and make efforts to make each other a priority. Learn about the three key factors for a healthy relationship. It can get worse if you do not do something about it, and over time, if left unchecked, "Find the Bad Guy" can turn into an even more difficult pattern to overcome: "The Protest Polka."

The Protest Polka

The name sounds light and playful, but there is nothing cute about "The Protest Polka." Unfortunately, this pattern has overtaken countless relationships and is probably the most common out of the three. In fact, psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman found that newlywed couples who have this defining pattern in their marriages typically divorce within five years.

The protest polka is when one partner is "finding the bad guy," so to speak, pushing, possibly blaming and yet all the while trying to reach their partner, and the other is feeling criticized and copes with this by pulling away. The more one pushes, the more the other pulls away. For example, the wife nags, and the husband shuts her out and watches television. The more he watches television, the more alone and upset the wife feels, the more she nags, the more he feels criticized, and so he turns the volume up and tunes her out even more. Around and around they go. Without a resolution, partners grow further and further apart.

Fortunately, there is a way out of it this self-perpetuating pattern. Try to slow the pattern down and claim your moves within it. If you happen to push and nag, ask yourself what is happening for you when you nag? You are really protesting, here, as the name suggests. You are saying to your partner "pay attention to me," probably because one one level, you feel abandoned and alone. Letting your partner know about your fears and sadness can go a lot further in beckoning him toward you than calling him a big old jerk. If, on the other hand, you tend to be more of a withdrawer, it may be because your feelings are hurt. Letting your partner into this painful emotional experience may have the effect of curbing the insults and criticism. As a result, the two of you might even begin to get a little closer.

Halting the Protest Polka just like that is a lot easier said than done. The Protest Polka can be a fertile breeding ground for affairs and divorces. For those prone to addiction, it can also serve as a trigger to pick up a substance of choice. It also may lead to the final pattern that we will discuss, "The Freeze and Flee."

The Freeze and Flee

After the Protest Polka has run its course, partners are left tired, burned out and depleted. They both might shut down as a result, and that's when the Freeze and Flee can set in. Alternatively, if you both tend to avoid conflict, you may be in a Freeze and Flee pattern without having ever experienced the Protest Polka. Either way, your relationship is lacking connection, and you are cold and distant from each other. You may never fight, which could seem like a good thing, but even the healthiest of couples fight. If you are in a Freeze and Flee pattern, in which you might be operating as cold business partners and not emotionally connected lovers, your true needs for closeness and affection are not getting met, and neither are your partner's. Neither of you feel safe to be vulnerable with each other, for any number of reasons.

You can try to reverse the Freeze and Flee on your own by first just noting that this pattern characterizes your relationship. Once you have acknowledged this pattern, trying to take small emotional risks with each other to let each other in a bit might be just what you need to reverse this pattern. Even carving out quality time to spend together can go a long way if you are willing to show a bit more of yourselves to each other.

What if We're Caught in a Pattern and Need More Help

These patterns are called "killer" because they are so destructive, and it can be often difficult to get out of them on your own, particularly if they have taken hold of your relationship slowly over the years. Here are three steps you can take to reclaim your relationship:

  1. Read Sue Johnson's book: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. This book will illustrate these patterns in greater depth and will offer you more suggestions on how to work on them.
  2. Read about Emotionally Focused Therapy and whether it is right for you. An Emotionally Focused Therapist knows these patterns inside and out and can help you get out of them if you are both committed to each other and doing so.
  3. Attend a Hold Me Tight® workshop to learn more about each other and possibly disarm your pattern in a single weekend.

More and more science about love is showing us how incredibly important our primary relationships are. It only makes sense to take care of them.

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