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