Marital therapists commonly speak of “relationship dances” when exploring the repetitive patterns of interaction that couples fall into, patterns that greatly limit their capacity to problem-solve. Some of the more common “dance steps” include the following:
One partner pursues emotional connection by talking about emotions and relational problems; the less expressive or less emotive partner, overwhelmed by anxiety and uncomfortable with conflict, distances himself, withdrawing emotionally and/or physically.
One partner makes a request, and the other delays or avoids carrying it out.
One partner attacks with sharp, critical words, while the other retreats into a shell. The former partner feeds on conflict, while the latter is conflict-avoidant.
One partner (often the more compulsive, impatient one) takes on the role of the responsible one, while the other (the more disorganized and/or stubborn) takes on the role of slacker. The former dances the “Nag,” while the latter dances the “Mule.”
One partner is judgmental and intimidating, while the other resorts to passive aggressive behavior and sometimes even to subterfuge and secrecy.
The “goody goody” partner is intent on reforming the irresponsible, flaky or “wild” partner.
One partner plays the role of caretaker and nurturer, while the other plays the role of helpless dependent.
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In any of these relational patterns, the dance steps taken by one partner reinforce those taken by the other, and two partners move to extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum: The more one controls, the more the other rebels, and so forth. Unless the cycle is somehow broken, the couple remains in gridlock. Couples therapy aims, in part, to identify the couple’s relational pattern, and to teach them new steps.