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Watch Out for These Three Negative Relationship Patterns

They Can Cause Harm in Your Relationship. If you find that you and your partner are stuck in one, we're here to help!

By Karla Angel, Clinical Intern at Clear Path Counseling and Wellness, LLC

January 23, 2024

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an evidence-based approach to couples therapy.  It helps people understand their relationship dynamics through the lens of attachment theory and emotional safety.  A big part of EFT is looking at the “cycles” or patterns that a relationship may be stuck in that are causing problems.

In a nutshell, this theory says that adults crave secure attachments and when an attachment feels threatened, they exhibit defensive behaviors and attitudes in an attempt to keep themselves safe.  These defensive behaviors very likely trigger their partner’s defensiveness which can then escalate and damage the relationship.    

In her book, "Hold Me Tight", EFT pioneer Sue Johnson states, “​​The lack of emotional responsiveness, rather than the level of conflict, is the best predictor of how solid a marriage will be five years into it. The demise of marriages begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. The conflict comes later.”

By learning to recognize the unhelpful patterns in your relationships, you can start to slow them down and communicate about the real issue at hand and create the emotional safety Sue Johnson says is the key to a healthy relationship.

There are three common unhelpful patterns. First, “Find the Bad Guy” is a cycle in which the partners try to make the other person the “bad guy” in the relationship.  Not only is blaming the other person going to ramp up defensiveness, but this cycle also means the blamer isn’t taking accountability for their part. Both parties feel hurt and misunderstood and the problem isn’t really solved.

The second pattern is called the “Protest Polka” but is really a pursue-withdraw dynamic.  This is when one partner wants space and tries to get it but the other person follows them.  This can happen in arguments or even in day to day interactions as one person seeks more independence.  While less intense at first, this can escalate and cause a lot of hurt to both partners.

The third pattern is called “Freeze and Flee” which is what happens when both partners build up walls.  In this cycle, one or both people avoid their feelings and each other's feelings because it’s easier than dealing with the hard stuff.  But we all know that avoidance is not a resolution which means that, over time, they grow apart from one another.

Do any of these feel familiar to you?  If you notice them in your own relationship first know that it’s very normal for these to develop!  It’s okay!  But now that you see them, it’s time to do something about it.  You have options -  you read more about EFT on your own (I recommend Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson) or you come to see a couple’s therapist who has studied this modality.  There are absolutely ways to break these cycles and build healthier communication with your partner.  Please reach out if you would like to learn more!


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