Family fuser isolater

Blame defend dance

Relationships in deep trouble have been dogged for years by a negative interaction cycle that disconnects them as if they were trapped on opposite sides of a revolving door trying to point to the stop button outside. In a snapshot of this dance one appears to blame or criticize the other who then appears to either placate or defend themselves.

In the movie of the dance it is hard knowing who actually starts it because the actions and reactions are so nuanced without the benefit of trialling the alternatives like Phil the weatherman in ‘Groundhog Day’. Any reaction even no reaction only makes it worse. The trouble escalates until both withdraw exhausted only to begin again another day from a very small start up event. Both feel powerless, despairing and bewildered by the apparent inevitability of the downward spiral. Separation seems like the only answer but the pattern is the problem not the people.

Put simply, one gets more and more upset and the other retreats and shuts down.

One hammers the other like a nail and buries them in the ground. Sometimes the roles reverse or both hammer at each other competitively – to see who can get the last word, inflict the deeper wound.

One of my clients described what drove her to this extreme as, ‘I’m not going to get a real connection with him so I might as well win the argument’. This is usually a mutual ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ pattern with a lose-lose outcome for both.

Neither of the partners needs are heard or met. Both get buried.

The tendency of the interaction to escalate is an example of reciprocal influence – one can’t get there without the other, two to tango, one to load the gun the other to pull the trigger.

The pattern repeats over and over, generating high adrenalin, cortisol stimulated flight-fight-freeze reactions that eventually lead to depleted exhaustion.

A false calm follows.

Then from a small start-up event, the couple winds it up again.

Each experiences despair and an inability to stop or divert the cycle from repeating itself.

And so it goes, the relationship cycling between two fall back positions – adversarial and withdrawal (described by Wiley in this collaborative couple’s therapy chapter).

The pattern is the problem not the person

When empathy and collaboration seem a long way off, disrespect and then contempt grows.

Separation or divorce takes shape as the ultimate circuit breaker.

That will not be a farewell to the pattern. It is not a good-bye built on love and dignity.

Turning your back on that pattern just forwards it to your next location. It doesn’t end up in the lost property office. That is because the dance is rooted in your default attachment styles and physiological responses, triggered by often quite trivial events in the relationship.


An attachment perspective

One of my colleagues wrote:

It seems to me that it is easy to understand the impact of a blamer (criticizer) on a withdrawer (placater) and to see the blamer as the more disturbed one and have empathy for the withdrawer, who is getting so much criticism.

(However, it) isn’t as easy to understand the impact of the withdrawer, the non-responder, on the partner. In other words, it is normal and natural to react adversely to significant non-responsiveness from the person you love and are attached to. The longer their placating, withdrawal or non-responsiveness goes on the more extreme the other’s reaction is likely to become.

Often the withdrawer has a self-sufficiency or an ‘I can do it on my own’ modus operandi, which comes out of their own attachment history. Inside them this can feel like complete overwhelm and shut down but appears on the outside as stonewalling or immovability.

The pursuer can describe themselves as being driven crazy inside by a stonewalling partner. They blame themselves for the extremes they go to in response to their partner’s shut down and withdrawal. Inside, however, they can feel powerless and out of control but on the outside, they can appear in control even powerful. This is obvious in the still face experiment referred to above.

Truth is, it’s a pattern or a dance of reciprocal influence.

Timely repair of these breaks in relating is the most significant predictor of a long and happy relationship. Every couple behaves badly at times – even the best relationships can be screwed up. It’s the success of repair that makes the difference.

When the pattern is repaired the withdrawer can say to the pursuer:

It’s easier to hear what you want and how you feel, than to hear how I’ve failed you. I can focus on how I want you to be happy with me instead of feeling threatened and focusing on how to protect myself.

The most important actions are the repair efforts. Occurring as soon after the dance has begun as the couple can catch it.

I think two of the best books on understanding and processing the origin of the pattern and of repairing it in the couple relationship, come out of the attachment perspective.

One is Sue Johnson’s ‘Hold Me Tight’.

The other is Ruth Cohn’s ‘Coming Home To Passion’. Here are some of Ruth’s articles.

I strongly recommend both books for couples caught in this toxic dance and bewildered by its uncalled for presence in their lives.


What really matters

Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have asked thousands of our clients to describe something that consistently triggers them and then explain why.

Remarkably, we’ve found that a trigger can almost always be traced to the same root cause: the feeling of being devalued or diminished by someone else’s words or behaviour.

Rather than focusing attention on the other person when you feel triggered, try turning your attention inward.

First quiet your body and defuse the trigger by taking a deep breath. Next, ask yourself these questions: “Why am I feeling my value is at stake here, and is it really?” Finally, consider how you can hold onto your value without attacking the value of the person you feel threatened by. Blame merely keeps the trigger and the negative emotion alive.

Our challenge is always to reconnect to our own core value — even when someone else’s criticism cuts deep. What that requires, first and foremost, is compassion for ourselves. Source

Of six reciprocal patterns in marriage, this demand-withdraw pattern has the highest rate of divorce, especially when it goes beyond the dating dance. (Also referred to as the isolator & fuser or abandonment & engulfment pattern.)

Romance novels dress this pattern up in combinations of these three stories – ‘Taming the Shrew’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It may begin as courtship tango but later solidifies into a struggle for secure attachment and intimacy.

The pattern easily polarizes into good guy bad guy perceptions – e.g. ‘if you weren’t so critical’ or ‘if you didn’t withdraw’ … ‘then we wouldn’t get into this mess’. Many of my clients endure this for 20 years before getting help in the last hurrah of an intensive.

The interaction pattern is co-created and co-maintained.

Accepting that the cycle is a dance for two can be the beginning of taming it.

The pattern is the enemy not the dance partners

For three person patterns, like an extramarital affair or with an in-law, read triangles as well.

Couples can both attack/pursue or both withdraw/placate but the more usual configuration is one pursues most of the time and the other withdraws most of the time. One criticizes the other defends; one gets increasingly ’emotional’ the other reciprocally shuts down; one seeks fusion the other isolation; one feels abandoned in the relationship and the other engulfed by it.

There tends to be a gender bias and cultural overlays on the pattern.

However, universally the cycle is about connection and attachment needs. ‘Are you there for me’. ‘Do I matter’. ‘Will you catch me if I fall, hear me if I call, hold me if I hurt’.

The dancers are dragged along in ways that reinforce the negative interaction cycle at the same time as feeling powerless and out of control. Both feel out of control even though one might look more in control.

The withdrawer/stonewaller sometimes tell me they shut down to lower the conflict and protect the relationship from further harm. That’s not being in control – that’s just terrified of an irretrievable loss of connection.

Over time the quantity and quality of negative interactions far outweighs positive ones. Gottman calls this negative sentiment override.

End result: it is unsafe to show tender spots and expose the personal vulnerability essential to an authentic conversation and psychological intimacy. For more on vulnerability read this.

Creative problem solving occurs when people are able to have that fearless conversation.

Lacking that freedom, problem solving becomes basic, rule bound and instrumental. Clunky.

People get stuck in this pattern because the negativity becomes self-reinforcing and compelling. It taps into the brain chemistry of distress: in feelings of fear, hurt and shame; of sadness and loneliness or numbing of feeling; in threats to safety and survival; in fight/flight responses.

These each drive to the three core issues of attachment – accessibility, responsiveness and engagement. For more on that read this.

The effect of those stress chemicals can completely distort perceptions of one another’s intentions and actions, which then become self-reinforcing. Each loses sight of the unmet attachment needs that are protesting at being ignored and dying to be heard.

Intimate partners with knowledge, love and respect for each other can behave abominably under these influences. They come to believe the other has neither knowledge, love, care nor respect for them. Shame based perceptions may confirm it. For more on that read this.

Rotten behaviour. happens in all marriages but as Gottman has shown those who bounce back quickly have an underlying fondness and admiration for each other AND can inject humour into the events AND ownership of their part in it.

Paradoxically, the pursue/withdraw pattern at its worst is an enmeshment polarity in a symbiotic relationship.

Those caught in the spell feel unable to disentangle themselves, even when their own behaviour. has exceeded what they themselves can respect – ashamed of the person they have become. Yet they keep on engulfing and abandoning each other, criticizing and defending even when their perceptions of each other would say it’s either over or it’s time to get help.

‘Why’, I ask them both, ‘would you stay with someone who thinks so little of you, who demeans you daily and to whom you so blatantly reciprocate those sentiments?’

Intimate relationships are attachment bonds even when devoid of obvious benefit.

Each may be restrained from leaving a bad situation by a longing for their attachment needs to be met by their life partner; by fear; by trauma bonding or by an unspoken knowledge that neither have got the big picture right.

Something like ‘I know mine’s not the whole story but it feels like the whole story especially when I think your version is completely wrong.’

The attack-pursue, withdraw-placate pattern is driven by each over-functioning and under-functioning in different ways and at different times. For example at the extreme, one the compulsive breadwinner the other compulsive home maker, with the former doing no housework and the latter having no external validation.

It grows especially well in dysfunctional families and cultures.

Raised to value intimacy, women are usually eager to discuss problems and feelings. Brought up to value stoicism and control, men are more comfortable avoiding confrontation and arguments. The result: the more she pursues discussions, the more he withdraws. ‘In the long run,’ the authors write, ‘the male-female tug-of-war over communication and intimacy eats up so much goodwill that the marital bank account goes into overdraft.

A people pleaser married to an injustice collector is a particularly virulent form of this pattern.
Here is a description of the dance:

When change or stress enters the couples’ life, the pursuer will move toward the distancer, seeking some sort of connectedness and the distancer will move away, seeking a comfortable emotional distance (Step 1). Of course, as the emotional pursuer’s need for a comfortable (and comforting) connection are frustrated, he/she will pursue the partner with greater intensity, causing, in turn, the distancer to withdraw further (Step 2). At this point, the pursuer will become frustrated with the effort and stop the pursuit, moving away and often withdrawing. This usually causes the distancer to take a step toward the partner, usually saying something like, “What’s wrong?” to which the common response would be, “Nothing.” (Step 3) However, the step taken toward the pursuer will often satisfy that person (though marginally) and the response which closes off further communication (“Nothing”) satisfies the other’s need for distance. This dance is repeated over and over in pursuer/distancer relationships and at the end of Step 3, they have achieved a sort of equilibrium.

Guerin, et al. note that the couple is in real trouble if they proceed through two additional steps in which the pursuer, in response to a tremendous build-up of frustration over time, attacks the distancer in response to the “What’s wrong?” question and the distancer attacks the pursuer, defending him/herself (Step 4) and then the partners remain at a fixed, hostile distance from each other (Step 5), diverging from the ebb and flow of the repetitive cycle of Steps 1-3.

People usually just slip into these roles. One person tends to cede various tasks to the other who willingly takes them on because they confirm a sense of competence, while allowing the partner to feel cared for. As with all reciprocal personal relationships, in their lightest, most benign forms, they are quite functional and allow people to “fit” together in their intimate personal (or business) relationships. The problem arises if each allows the complementary pattern of interaction to reinforce and amplify each person’s behaviour. Many of us have heard someone (if not ourselves) complain that the person who used to be so outgoing, entertaining or at ease with others is now a blowhard. The stable, reserved person is boring or withholding. The endearingly cared for person is frustrating in their incompetence and, of course, the higher functioning partner is now over-controlling. In one classic example, we might hear: “You’re never home anymore.” “I stay away because you complain.” Well, I complain because you’re never home….” Abigail Trafford in her excellent discussion of the divorce process entitled Crazy Time terms this “marital deadlock.”

The above quoted from ‘The Dance’ at shaublaw

It is something like a cocktail party where people from different cultures are juggling personal space.

Or perhaps it is something about finding the emotional distance where I can focus on you with comfort. That may differ between us because of differences in the acuity of our senses. For example, in our hearing ability (poor hearing – I have to be close; acute hearing – you have to lower your voice or I move away a bit); or in ability to see (long sighted I have to move out to focus on you; short sighted I have to be close to focus); and our ability to feel (slow to access and articulate feelings, so I find the right distance to become aware of my feelings and to express them; quick to know one’s inner feelings in which case I can be up close and still in touch with me).

I wonder how much our preferred pattern shapes our senses of distance and closeness – a chicken and egg?

In hooking couples up to blood pressure and heart-rate monitors during arguments, Gottman found that partners tend to stonewall (distancer) as a protection against feeling emotionally “flooded” (the pursuer in your face).

As a chronic pattern in a committed relationship it is likely about being flooded with shame.

Escalating shame most frequently occurs when partners end up in the roles of pursuer and distancer. When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer wants more contact and reassurance. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances, leading to a seemingly endless conflict or impasse.

An important element of this cycle is the fact that both partners often feel shame for their respective feelings or needs.

The pursuer may feel rejected and shamed for “wanting too much,” while the distancer may feel shame for either being uncomfortable with closeness, or for wanting more space. Each person feels criticized (shamed) by the other, each not realizing that both are having the same experience of shame.


The people pleaser/injustice collector is a fuser/isolator pattern

People pleasers can also be practitioners of passive aggression, which they deny.

People Pleasers are often the unwitting contributors to family dysfunction, although they are far from being the only culprit in a dysfunctional family. People Pleasers tend to have Injustice Collector counterparts: the Injustice Collector in the family remembers every slight, real or imagined, and throws it back in the People Pleaser’s face, while the People Pleaser scurries to set things right with the angry Injustice Collector. The cycle will repeat indefinitely, because the particular dysfunctions of the People Pleaser and the Injustice Collector are a perfect fit with one another: Injustice Collectors feel entitled and People Pleasers feel that everyone ELSE is entitled.

The unfortunate outcome in the dysfunctional family is that either the People Pleaser has to become progressively more crippled and entrenched in their subservient role in the family, or else they become healthier and stronger and ultimately are accused of breaking up the family.


Notes from a workshop

Below are Kam’s notes from a Harville Hendrix workshop conducted at Gold Coast Yoga Centre.

There are some general patterns of behaviours possible from each one of us in the dance of relationship. It is also possible to change; being a fuser in one moment & an isolator the next or a fuser in one relationship & a isolator in the next.

The fuser grew up with an unsatisfied need for attachment.

The isolator grew up with an unsatisfied need for autonomy.

The fuser is relieved by commitment, as it reduces the fear of abandonment.

The isolator is triggered by commitment fearing absorption.

Everyday of their married lives, husbands and wives push against this invisible relationship boundary (fuser/isolator dynamics) in an attempt to satisfy their dual needs for attachment and autonomy. Most of the time, each individual fixates on one of those needs: one person habitually advances, in an effort to satisfy unmet needs for attachment; the other habitually retreats, in an effort to satisfy unmet needs for autonomy. For a variety of reasons, the person who typically advances begins to retreat. The partner who habitually retreats turns around in amazement: where’s my pursuer? To everyone’s surprise, the isolator suddenly discovers an unmet need for closeness. The pattern is reversed, like the flip-flop of magnetic poles, and now the isolator does the pursuing. It’s as if all couples collude to maintain a set distance between them.


An isolator’s guide to fusers and reactivity

Reactivity: The fear & automatic self-protectiveness that arise when, to the old brain, one’s psychological or physical survival has been threatened. This automatic survival instinct has been programmed into us over millions of years of evolution.

Fusers primary sense of safety & security in the world comes from maintaining close emotional contact with others. (at that time with that partner) Events which separate or threaten to separate them from important others in their life, even brief or minor ones, can trigger their worst unconscious fear, that of abandonment (& death). Fusers seek to avoid losing their relationship with others in a variety of ways, including:

1. Actively pursuing physical & emotional intimacy & closeness

2. Being willing to put aside their own needs or expression of self, in deference to their other’s needs

3. Attempts to force the other by “upping the emotional thermostat” when other methods fail

Two types of events will trigger strong reactivity in fusers;

  • Conflict because conflict equals distance & distance hints at potential abandonment
  • Withdrawal & lack of follow through because the fuser’s childhood caretakers were so good at giving & then withdrawing their love & availability

Perceived or real rejection via emotional distancing (silence, excessive exiting, etc) will thus cause reactivity in a fuser. The single greatest cause of fuser reactivity is an implied or outright threat to end the relationship. It is not necessary that the threat state a decision to leave as the fuser will quickly add that interpretation to even the most remote suggestion that the relationship might someday terminate. The fear of losing a relationship, even a poor relationship, is so intense that a fuser would rather assume the worst is happening rather than live with the possibility it might happen. Also, assuming the worst offers the fuser his/her best hope of preventing a life threatening event from occurring.

The reactive fuser, if he or she is also a Maximiser, will not be shy about expressing his/her needs & feelings. They may raise their voice, cry, slam or throw things, try to instill guilt or otherwise manipulate their partner into re-establishing harmony & contact.

While isolators need space to calm down, fusers need just the opposite: closure & contact.


A fuser’s guide to isolators and reactivity

Isolators ‘unconscious’ fear is that of psychological suffocation or engulfment by the needs or emotional demands of another person. (At that time with that partner) Not surprisingly, isolators are most at ease when given space. Isolators might enjoy closeness, but only in measured amounts. Isolators tend to be Minimisers & often not very in touch with, nor do they care to be in touch with, their feelings.

The greatest source of reactivity for isolators is the feeling of being controlled by the emotional demands of another person. As soon as isolators begin to feel pressured, they will dig in their heels & refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, even those that they themselves would describe as perfectly reasonable. This is reactivity in the isolator, & once it has been set in motion, the isolator’s attention shifts almost exclusively to the process rather than the content of a discussion. The isolator’s goal at this point is to re-establish a sense of personal control over his or her autonomy & space. To this end, he or she will typically “shut down” all systems until a feeling of safety has been regained.

In general, isolators achieve & maintain their sense of personal safety by:

  • Being in control of themselves at all times
  • Keeping a degree of psychological & physical distance (i.e., a safety zone) between themselves & others
  • Minimizing or denying their own feelings, needs or wants, both positive & negative
  • Discouraging strong or upset feelings in others by “keeping the peace” & “walking on eggshells”
  • By increasing physical or emotional withdrawal when other methods fail.


Effective couple’s therapy for the pattern

Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (this EFT-C not to be confused with the other EFT – emotional freedom technique) is my preference. Here are some other evidence based models of mending.

Here is a clear review of the EFT process on psych

Strengths of EFT quoted from November 2008:

  •  EFT is considered one of the most well-substantiated therapies (even Baucom, the heavy-duty behaviourist agrees) with well designed studies backing it up as having isolated necessary and unique factors of change in therapy.
  •  It’s been shown to be an effective treatment for couples and families facing sexual abuse histories, depression, grief, management of chronic illness, eating disorders, and PTSD. The only caution I’ll offer though is that it’s hard to tell from the studies I’ve read whether the bulk of the research has been based on married or cohabiting couples.
  • Meta-analysis of the best EFT studies (with randomised assignment and control groups) shows a Fail Safe n of 30-50, so the effect sizes obtained are pretty strong.
  •  EFT is brief work (8-12 sessions) and leads to as good or better rates of improvement (less distress after therapy) and recovery (adjustment and satisfaction scores in the non-distressed range) as other therapies.
  • In Cloutier’s study, in the EFT group 7% had divorced two years after the treatment, compared to 38% of the controls.

Clients report that five things happened in therapy that made things better for them:

  • One partner expressed underlying feelings, and the other changing their perceptions of the partner after hearing this
  • Learning to understand underlying emotions
  • Learning to productively express emotional needs
  • Taking responsibility for emotional needs
  • Receiving validation for one’s needs

Indicators for EFT are high negative emotional engagement, low sexual affection, older couples (especially for men over 35), and lower sense of emotional engagement or time together in the couple; interestingly, these are also predictors of failure in TBMT.

EFT is culturally sensitive as universal emotions are examined, but placed in a personal cultural context. For example, shame is universal, but shame takes on an additional role in the Japanese culture. Anger is universal, but often takes different forms when men and women express it. Responsibility is universal, but what’s “a man’s responsibility” and “a woman’s responsibility” is determined but the culture’s views of marriage.

EFT is humanistic based, and believes the couple can heal itself. Feminists appreciate that the therapy model:

  • Does not shows a patriarchal pathologizing of connection and attachment (women’s ways of relating), and idealization of separation and individuation (men’s ways of relating).
  • Requires that the does not assume the position of power over the couple, but empowers the partners.
  • Views both partners as lacking in some skills; men need to expand their emotional repertoire and women need to feel powerful enough to express their needs.
  • Allows for the analysis of changing gender expectations that create a new kind of stress for couples to manage. Examples include dual careers, the freedom not to marry, and expectations of both parents to raise the children.

EFT offers a theory of how to understand adult love, which has been lacking in the field of couples therapy:

  •  EFT offers a way (based on attachment theory) to integrate disparate practices like gottman’s therapy, ibmt, and narrative approaches.
  • Counter-productive behaviours can also be seen as an insecurely attached partner’s efforts to provoke some kind of response, rather than as stable pathology.

Attachment theory also explains healthy development, as securely attached partners are open to re frames and different points of view, and able to tolerate ambiguity, to meta-communicate, to handle learning unflattering things about themselves, to feel and express regret for their past failures recognizing and meeting their partner’s needs, and to see their understanding of the world and others as working models.

  • Attachment theory also explains unhealthy development, as insecurely attached mourn lost attachments (think about someone who is legally married but has been emotionally divorced for a long time), engage in inconsistent attachment behaviours (think attack and defend, or pursue and distance patterns), suffer ongoing attachment injury (ongoing negative sentiment override), may experience attachment panic (maintain physical and emotional control over their partners), or maintain multiple attachments for fear of losing or being swallowed by one (who have affairs).
  • Attachment theory also makes building love maps and rituals of connection, halting the four horsemen and flooding, and engaging in behavioural exchanges all behaviours that can improve attachment. However, as johnson says, simple skill building and behavioural scripting is not sufficient for marital improvement; rather, the ability to “unlatch” from negative emotional and behavioural cycles is required.