Couples in distress get into a negative cycle that keeps them trapped. Despite their best intentions to find a solution to their cycle, every time they try it, they end up getting back into it. It’s sad when all they want is to improve their relationship, but their efforts just make it worse.
The most common cycle is the “protest polka” (named by Dr. Sue Johnson in her book Hold Me Tight) in which one pursues connection and the other withdraws to avoid arguments.
Do you see it happening in your relationship? The pursuer feels disconnected from the withdrawer and points out the problem. The withdrawer says there is no problem when the disconnection seems so obvious to the pursuer. The pursuer feels dismissed and ignored and becomes louder to get the attention of the withdrawer who feels attacked and shuts down. The withdrawer may also get mad and explode. As they keep on fighting for their relationship, they feel increasingly hopeless.
The pursuer’s dilemma
To better understand the protest polka cycle, let’s dive into each partner’s different row. First, let’s understand the pursuer a little better and see how he/she behaves in the cycle.
It is very frustrating when it’s clear to you that your partner is getting increasingly colder and distant, but he says it’s all in your mind. It’s so obvious to you! No more saying “I love you,” no more emojis, fewer hugs and kisses… You write him text messages, and he takes a long time to respond! You call him and he responds with a cold “what’s up?” or he simply doesn’t take the call. You point the problem out to him, and he says that everything is all right. As your frustration increases, he tells you that he does not like to be pressured to do things. Yet if you don’t say anything, nothing happens. You feel lonely and disconnected. You try to bottle up because you don’t want to feel like you are all the time nagging and complaining. Nevertheless, you get to a point where you cannot hold the frustration inside anymore, and you blow up again. It seems like the relationship is on your shoulders and you are fighting alone to save it while your partner does not seem to care about you or the relationship. if you don’t do anything about it, he will just let it fade and die.
If what I said above describes you, that means you are a pursuer. Most couples in distress create a cycle in which one of them withdraws while the other pursues closeness and connection. There is nothing wrong with you pursuing when you feel that your partner is drifting away. You care about the relationship and your partner is important to you. So, you try everything you can to bring your partner close. Yet the more you try to bring him close, the more he pulls away.
The withdrawer’s dilemma
Now, let’s understand a little bit about the withdrawer’s behavior and how he/she tries to help the relationship in a completely different way from the pursuer.
She tells you that she wants to talk to you, and you feel threatened because every time this happens, she brings up a complaint. You didn’t notice the new lingerie she dressed before going to bed, you didn’t hug her long enough when you came home, you ignored her emoji and didn’t send one of yours, you didn’t tell her what happened during the day… The list is endless, and there’s nothing you can say that will placate her frustration. You tell her “I couldn’t respond to your message because the day was crazy at work,” but she says, “I always have time to write you a note no matter how crazy my day is.” You say, “you looked nice in that lingerie,” and she says, “it’s not about the lingerie, you don’t seem to feel attracted to me anymore.” You say, “I was too tired when I got home,” and she responds, “I was exhausted from taking care of the baby, but I was still willing to go to the door to meet you.”
You hate arguing so you stay quiet and let her talk alone. You just hope that she will stop but she insists on getting an answer from you. You try changing the subject, but she cuts you off and says, “You don’t care about my feelings, you are just ignoring me.” You say, “I just want to have peace,” and she protests, “You don’t love me anymore.”
You feel like you are being trapped, cornered, and controlled. You tell her, “I don’t like when you demand things from me. If you stop, I’ll have more motivation to do what you want.” She says, “I have tried it already, but you didn’t do anything. “If it’s up to you we will be just roommates.”
You end up feeling inadequate, not good enough, a failure…. You are so discouraged that you are even afraid to look at her and see how unhappy she is.
If what I said above has to do with you, that means you are a withdrawer. Your strategy is to be quiet to avoid conflict. You know that if you say something, things will escalate, and you end up exploding and saying things that you will later regret. It’s not that you are ignoring her, but that you are doing your best to save the relationship, even at the cost of her not feeling heard.
Seeing the good in each other
It is important to notice that no one wants to hurt each other. Although each one thinks that the other is intentionally trying to hurt them, the truth is that both are trying to fix their problems in opposite ways that don't work for their partner. Therefore, it's extremely important to see the good underneath each other's position in the cycle.
For example, if your partner is a pursuer, he/she will be loud and angry. When you see that, be aware that your partner is not purposefully attacking you but fighting for the relationship. That means that you're so important her that she is working hard to connect with you and save the relationship.
On the other hand, if your partner is a withdrawer, he/she will avoid any kind of approach from you that seems threatening. Be aware that your partner is not avoiding you but avoiding negative interactions in which you argue and attack each other. He/she is also fighting for the relationship, but through seeking peace and avoiding conflict.
Therefore, try to see the good in each other and understand how your partner fights for you and the relationship in different ways. Another way to see it is to think that your partner is not fighting against you but for you.
Fighting against the cycle
You might now understand more about the protest polka cycle and how couples fight for their relationship in opposite ways. They are both trying to improve their relationship in ways that trigger their partner in the cycle. Despite wanting to fix the problem, they create more problems.
Having in mind that your partner is trying their best to improve the relationship, means that he/she is not your enemy. This idea might take you by surprise if you have been thinking for a long time that your partner wants to hurt you or does not care about you or the relationship.
Now, if your partner is not the enemy, who is the real enemy? The answer is “the cycle.” The protest polka cycle I’ve been talking about is the true enemy. Although it’s also true that you and your partner create the cycle, you are not doing it on purpose. In other words, you are the victims of the cycle that you create with the best intention of improving the relationship.
Therefore, I want to invite you and your partner to fight together against the cycle. Instead of fighting each other, fight against the true enemy. This will help you both to win the battle of disconnection. If you fight each other, the cycle will win, and you’ll lose. You can give the cycle a name and be a team that works together to stop the cycle.