Which one of these relationship patterns is yours?

Relationship patterns

Couples in trouble often question if maybe they made the wrong decision in committing to their partner.  They wonder if they were never really compatible or whether they will ever be able to have the same style of communication.

More likely than not, these couples find themselves at the mercy of destructive relationship patterns that spin out of control and pull them apart.  In reality, the problem isn’t the other, but this terrible cycle that has taken over their relationship.

One way that Emotionally Focused Therapy helps couples is by helping them identify these destructive negative cycles.  Even though these cycles can have a life of their own and be very difficult to get a grip on, the good news is that there are only a handful of such cycle “types.”  Perhaps you’ll find it reassuring that countless couples get caught in these patterns – you aren’t the only ones.

In her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which I strongly recommend, Sue Johnson titles these patterns as “find the bad guy,” “the protest polka,” and “freeze and flee.”

Perhaps you and your partner get into one of these patterns with each other?

Let’s take a look at each of them.

Find the bad guy

This is a common pattern early on in relationships.  The name says it all:  you and your partner are basically pointing fingers at each other (and going nowhere, while you’re at it).  A common response to feeling badly or upset is to lash out, and this is what you’re doing with each other.  So, if you and your partner do a lot of name-calling and yell back and forth at each other, then this is your pattern.  You’re both engaged in the argument and likely are saying hurtful things to each other.

The problem with patterns is that over time they start to define our relationships.  Of course it’s okay to yell at each other occasionally and maybe even throw in a hurtful thing or two, but when the constant yelling becomes a defining feature of your relationship, you’re starting to get in trouble.

At this point, it would be a good idea to sit down with your partner and discuss your concerns about the constant arguing.  Your partner probably hates the yelling too.  Try to identify what happens for each of you just before you lash out – perhaps you are feeling hurt or upset.  Regardless of what you’re feeling, it’s important for you both to slow down and take a time out before you yell at the other person.  If you can, try to identify the first emotion that comes up before you yell.  This is likely a “softer” feeling, perhaps sadness or hurt, and will be less likely to be so hostile to your partner if you are honest with yourself about it, although it can be really hard to know what’s really going on.

Unless you can easily repair such fights, your hurtful attacks on each other aren’t doing you any good.  Try another way before “find the bad guy” dissolves into a trickier pattern that might be harder to overcome.

The Protest Polka

The name sounds playful, but the “Protest Polka”  can be terribly destructive and difficult to stop.  Psychologist John Gottman found that married couples who get into this pattern early in their relationship are more likely to divorce within 5 years.  It’s also probably the most common pattern that couples experience.

Perhaps you can identify:  when you have a problem with your partner, he seems to numb out, shut you out, or doesn’t seem to care.  You don’t know what’s going on with him and he seems to be moving further and further away ever time you try to get closer.  It gets you all the more agitated, frustrated, and questioning whether he even cares.  The more you approach, the more he pulls away.  Or vice versa:  You feel constantly cut down, criticized and attacked by your partner, and just want to shut down, withdraw and avoid the hostility.

Around and around you go.  One of you pushes (the pursuer) and the other pulls away (the withdrawer).  There is no beginning or end, but the pattern seems to define your relationship, and it is awful.

The good news is that it might not be as bad as you think, and it’s actually pretty common.

When I meet with a “pursuer,” they tell me that their biggest fear is that their partner, the “withdrawer,”  doesn’t care.  They feel neglected and invisible.  They often become hostile, angry and critical.  Underneath they are feeling lonely and sad.

Most often, even though the “withdrawer” seems to not care, they are actually distressed as well.  A common fear of withdrawers is that their partner thinks lowly of them.  They often feel hopeless, like they can never get it right.  They are being frequently criticized, and deal with this by pulling away.

So it’s not that they don’t care…they care more than anything, they just don’t know what to do.

Withdrawers back off and try to protect themselves, and the relationship.  They fear that if they participated in the fight, it would be an all out blowout, and nothing is more distressing than that for them.

So – if you are a pursuer, know that your withdrawing partner might just be scared of you and feeling like he can never get it right.  If you are a withdrawer, it’s not that your pursuing partner loathes you and thinks you are the scum of the earth, as you may fear, but they may be feeling neglected and just want to be closer to you.

All of this is easily said, but when you’re caught in this pattern, it can be devastating.  My advice would be to talk this out with a third party like a couples therapist.  Another great resource if you can’t make it to therapy is the book Hold Me Tight, which explains these patterns more in depth.  Hold Me Tight retreats are also offered across the country when you get to work with your partner in a group with a facilitator who can help guide you through helpful exercises so that you can get a hold of this pattern and stop it for good.  (more info on Hold Me Tight retreats is offered here.)

Freeze and Flee

A “freeze and flee” pattern in your relationship is when you both run away from each other.  You probably don’t fight a lot, which may seem great, but the thing is, you don’t really connect at all.  This can be the result of a “protest polka” in which the protester has given up and has also turned away, or can be because you both tend to avoid conflict.  Chances are, if this is your pattern, there is a great deal of distance in your relationship, and it is now more important to connect with each other than ever.

Many couples wind up in therapy with a “freeze and flee” pattern because they start to get really scared that things are really ending between them.  Their relationship is icy cold and they don’t know how to connect with each other.  It’s important to be able to be emotionally vulnerable with your partner, but in those couples with “freeze and flee” patterns, there is  no such thing as vulnerability.  Both parties are protecting themselves and keeping their emotions locked away.

A “freeze and flee” relationship fails to get your needs met.  You need to be able to safely turn to someone who you know will respond to you and be there for you.  It is crucial that you learn to stop this pattern and start slowly turning toward one another in order to salvage your relationship.  The first step is really being able to identify this pattern.  Know that you deserve better, and try to talk to your partner about it.  Once you start turning toward each other more, gradually, respectfully and slowly, you will be on your way to an improved connection.

This can be easier said than done, so don’t be afraid to seek out help if you need to.

Each relationship has its own unique twist

Most relationships in trouble, however, fall into one of the 3 above patterns.

Do you see your pattern in any of the above types of cycles?

Even though it can be hard to take control of the cycle, I hope that it’s reassuring that your problems may not be about being with the wrong person as you may fear.  If one of these destructive patterns has claimed your relationship, it’s your job to team up with your partner against this cycle so that you can connect with each other again.

It’s my hope that this brief introduction to these classic, common patterns can help you both be more aware of your dynamic, so that you can work together to change it for the better.

Read more by grabbing a copy of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

Cheers to your best relationship,


  1. Zen Riley 3 years ago

    I can identify with the freeze and flee relationship type. We both know it is not the best way to be, but can both say that discussing feelings isn’t the way either. Some things work for others and not another. Him and I are now the people who are looking back at the connection we used to have.

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