Negative Interactional Patterns Seen in Couples
Have you ever noticed how quickly emotions can go from zero to ten with a roll of the eyes, a snort, or a change in facial expression? We can all think of little things that our partner does that gets our blood boiling. All it takes is one simple thing and we are fighting. The difference between couples with a secure bond and couples seeking therapy is that distressed couples seem to find it harder to bounce back after a fight. Partners with a secure bond are often able to apologize after a fight and may even be able to joke about how silly the fight was. Couples seeking counseling seem to find themselves stuck in negative interactional patterns and don’t know how to get out of them. Fights may last for days before there is resolution. In this article I will discuss three types of negative interactional patterns that we see in couples. Emotionally Focused Therapy refers to these as: pursue/withdraw, attack/attack, and withdraw/withdraw.
This is the most common pattern couples find themselves in. This occurs when one partner becomes angry and withdraws. This is seen when one partner leaves the room or goes for a drive to get away from the situation, or they may give their partner the silent treatment. This in turn gets the pursuers back up and they will do whatever they can to get the other to speak to them. This usually presents itself in yelling, as the partner believes this is the only way to get a reaction out of their silent partner and any response is better than no response.
With the attack/attack pattern there is still one partner who is the pursuer and one partner who is the withdrawer. However, the difference here is that the withdrawer begins to attack when they are feeling attacked. This partner’s dominant pattern is still withdrawer but will revert to attacking when they are feeling provoked. After the fight is over, the withdrawer will revert back to their old pattern of withdrawal until the next time they are provoked.
This can be the deadliest type of negative interactional pattern because on the surface it appears that neither partner is invested in the relationship; they have both given up hope. This type of pattern occurs when the pursuer has given up trying to get the withdrawers attention; they are burnt out emotionally. If a couple does not reach out for help at this point, they will evidently detach from one another and what little bit of emotional attachment they had left will be gone.
- The Underlying Feelings of the Withdrawer:
For the pursuer, withdrawing is the worst way their partner can respond. It can be extremely frustrating for the pursuer because no matter how upset they get or what they say, the withdrawer seems to retract into their shell even more. But how is the withdrawer experiencing the fight? What is going on inside of them? Withdrawers often describe feeling judged or criticized. When the pursuer yells they feel frightened or overwhelmed. This in turn makes them withdraw further.
- The Underlying Feelings of the Pursuer:
A pursuer pursues because they want a reaction from their partner. They believe that the more they poke, prod and persist, the more likely they are to get a response out of the withdrawer. When the pursuer does not get a response they feel hurt, alone and abandoned by their partner. The more they push, the more invisible they feel and the more desperate they become.
When we see couples in therapy, we begin to observe these underlying emotions or what we refer to as primary emotions. Oftentimes the couple will only see the secondary emotions, those surface level feelings, and not really understand what is underneath those feelings. For example, Victoria sees that Tony is mad when they fight, but she may not realize that deep down Tony is feeling abandoned by Victoria because she is not there for him when he needs her. Tony also may not recognize that when he yells Victoria freezes up inside and doesn’t know how to react to his anger, so she just sits in silence. Inside Victoria believes she can’t do anything right. The couple may go years without ever knowing how the other feels, until they decide to end their relationship or reach out for help as a last resort.
Whichever negative interactional pattern you and your partner are experiencing, it is important that you seek help. By seeking a therapist who specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy, they can help you determine what your pattern is and learn how to notice it when it appears. By reaching out for help, you can learn healthy ways of interacting and have a stronger attachment bond with your partner. Emotionally Focused Therapy has been shown to be successful in 70-75% of couples. Whether you would like to strengthen your relationship, or would like to try to salvage your relationship and bring back the love you once had, Emotionally Focused Therapy can help. So what are you waiting for? By calling today you can begin to work with a therapist who will walk beside you on your journey and help you to create a stronger, more secure bond. With your loved one.
Chantal Blackshaw M.A., M.DIV., CCC
Counsellor – Individual and Couple Counseling