Over the next couple of blog posts we will be looking into the dance options available to us, whats our go to dance and how to change dances when they aren't working for our relationship.
This blog will be focusing on the "Protest Polka", a term coined by Dr Sue Johnson. Would love to hear what you call your dance in the comments below:)
We are starting with this dance because it is the most common and starts early in relationships from research done by psychologist John Gottman. The main steps within this dance can be forever moves, without intervention. The steps involve one partner reaching out (usually in a negative way), and the other partner steps back. Repeat, like a broken record, because the needs driving this dance are powerful and hardwired. Hardwired because we are made for connection and attachment relationships are the other aspect of life on earth where any response is better than none. When the response from a partner is no response, we protest, trying for a response, a connection and reassurance. This dance can be subtle, a demanding, active protest for connection meet with withdrawing, a quiet protest against the implied criticism. Missing each others signals for connection and therapists often hearing about communication problems or constant tension/unease. Secure relationships can see the protest polka happening but the partners have skills to repair the disconnection. Insecure attached couples, the protest polka speeds up and gets more intense either creating insurmountable differences, communication issues and/or offering connection that the other partner doesn't want. For example a withdrawn husband will initiate sexual intimacy but this will not fulfill their partners attachment needs.
This has been shown in infant studies where a baby will try everything within their power to get a response from a stonewalling mother. If no response still occurs, "deadly" isolation, loss and helplessness will inevitable ensue.
This dance can be between lovers, parents and children and brothers and sisters. In fact anyone when an emotional connection is involved.
One partner can feel unimportant, not valued, experiencing separateness in regards to life and death, lonely and excluded, abandonment at a time of need, unable to depend upon their partner, anger at lack of responsiveness, and experiencing a lover more as a roommate.
Conversely the other partner might be feeling hopeless, no confidence to act in appropriate way, having to deal with challenging feelings of shutting down/numbing, feeling inadequate, judged, and unaccepted, denying their attachment needs, doing everything to not enrage their partner, or create moments of disapproval, and using logical and reasons above emotional interactions.
Research into couples relationships give us five key messages about how to create a new dance and a more health secure relationship:
1) Acknowledgment and willingness to see the whole dance. The 'how' of the dance and what it says about your relationship, not just argument details. We need to look beyond and above the hurt and feelings of being attacked in the moment.
2) Involved the recognition that it takes two to tango, or protest polka in this case. That one partner draws the other into the dance. One attacks and the other unwittingly becomes defensive and needs to justify rather than remaining open and available. Or one partner is 'gone', aloof and distant, pulling the other person into feeling alone, isolated and pursing/pushing for connection.
3) Polka = attachment distress. As with parenting and supporting children in distress (aka tantrums) connection is the key. Removing logical and problem solving and rather implementing awareness of the dance steps will lead to safety for connection. Each partner needs to learn their own and their partners dance moves so the protest polka dance becomes a dance of connection not distress. For example, I yell, scream, threaten, anything to get a response, or I shut down, not listening because all I hear are my faults and short comings or I say the same thing over and over again as no-one listens to me or I end up not asking, withdrawing and just doing things by myself because I've asked before with no outcome, I've given up.
4) Seeing the dance, the polka, the distress which leads to the disconnection and this learning teaches us that our partner isn't the enemy, but the dance itself is.
5) Name it tames it. When both partners see the dance and their parts within it, they are able to call it out, name it out loud and the power it has diminishes. It gives space for safety and secure to grow through new moves involving discussing attachment needs and emotions.
Thinking about your present relationship, a recent experience of disconnection, can you identify each persons steps. Imagine you are a fly on the wall, what are you actually seeing each person do?, what are their attachment needs underlying this behaviour? Behaviour is communication after all, what are to communication to your partner?, is this what you want to be communicating? Being honest with ourselves can be challenging, seeing our own moves can be difficult. Can you fill in these blanks: The more I........, the more you......... and then the more I......., and round and round we go.
As said above we can have this dance with any person we have an emotional bond with. If it is initially too challenging to think about it with your lover, think about it with a sibling, parent or our child.
If you are brave enough, let us know your dance steps and how you go altering the steps. We'd also love to hear what you've name your relationships dance.