All Couples Have a Pattern

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For most of us, dating was much easier when we were teenagers. With social media and the internet granting us more opportunities and access to potential romantic partners, dating scripts from decades ago are rewritten in a variety of ways. Now, it is not uncommon for sexual intercourse to precede holding hands, or for us to determine whether we will introduce ourselves based on what we see on our phones. The ways we form partnerships look much different than they did hundreds of years ago.

Although the ways relationships develop have evolved over time, what happens within them has stayed the same. What’s even more amazing is that what happens repeats itself, over and over, throughout that relationship. Drs. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg, the family psychologists who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy1, describe such patterns as “dances” between romantic partners. All couples have a dance, and each partner has a role in it that feeds off of and informs the other partner’s moves.

A common pattern I have come across in my work with couples is the pursue-withdraw pattern. As with all patterns, each partner’s actions can be fueled and perpetuated by the other’s actions. In this pattern, Partner A, who pursues, tends to make requests that leave Partner B feeling attacked or vulnerable. In response, Partner B might try to leave the conversation, either by physically walking away or by emotionally shutting down. This shutting down may lead Partner A to feel unheard and rejected and to respond by yelling or making demands. This pattern can continue as Partner A’s and B’s actions feed off one another. Of course, this is just one example of a variety of patterns.

According to Johnson2, an important step in changing the way we interact with our partners is creating awareness of our patterns. Here are some tips for identifying the dance that you and your partner engage in during rough times, beginning with the awareness of your own role:

1. Identify your role in the pattern during an argument.

When you and your partner are arguing, do you tend to quiet down? Begin to yell? Reach for your phone and start texting a friend for comfort? Try to understand what actions you typically take when you and your partner are not getting along. When emotions are running high, it can be difficult to identify what is happening during an argument. I have suggested to couples to “fake” an argument (try to make it light!) and name what behaviors tend to take place.

2. Recognize what happens in your body.

Are there moments when you feel your heart racing, your palms sweating, or the urge to stand up and pace around the room? What does your body tell you when you and your partner aren’t getting along? Recognizing your body’s physiological cues can clue us into the emotions that might be coming up as we talk to our partners.

3. Label your emotional experiences.

What happens for you when your partner asks you to go to the movies after a long day at work? Do you feel angry that he/she is making another request? Do you feel sad that you don’t have the energy to fulfill his/her needs? Do you feel happy that he/she wants to spend time with you at the end of the day? Identifying and putting words to your emotional experiences can help you identify what happens internally during conversations.


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