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"Stop Poking at Me" - 'The Protest Polka'

Updated: May 19, 2021

Being able to catch your cycle in the moment is the first step towards making space for what is pushing us and our loved ones away from one another.


Oftentimes, we’re caught in cycles with our partners that lead to protests for attention and emotional care. In particular, Dr. Sue Johnson speaks to one ‘Demon Dialogue’ as the “Protest Polka”— In the polka, a partner pokes, pries or pecks at their partner when they’re unable to show up for them when needed. In this situation, a partner demands their lover’s attention, but the more they reach out for help, the further their partner is pushed away and withdraws in front of them – “Stop Poking at Me.”

In this manner, each partner is rearing in their own directions – one partner is experiencing, “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you showing up for me?” and another resonates with, “I can’t do this again!” “I can’t face your disapproval!” and they shut down completely. Deep down in these experiences, while one person seems to be fighting for that attention and emotional care, and another feeling attacked by their partner, both individuals are faced with deep, emotional pain (hurt, fear, loneliness, rejection).

In these tough confrontations, a pursuing partner is faced with utter rejection and disregard from their partner, so they’ll push and pry until they get what they need from their partner in the moment. While they’re doing so, a partner in a withdrawing stance swells up from the criticism of their partner and guards themselves from further damage. Stonewalling occurs in many of these difficult ‘Demon Dialogues’; the partner closing off from communication has suppressed their own emotional experience, and oftentimes, it is brought to light by previous attachment injury(ies) and emotional disregard or disconnect.

When our nervous system becomes hijacked by this continued “protest,” we created further disconnect between ourselves and our partners. It is likely that emotional needs can become unmet, and in cases of great disregard, we’ve seen partner’s meet their emotional needs in other manners; this could mean that one partner turns to someone else for emotional comfort, or in some cases, they develop emotional connections that can lead to affairs with another individual.

Eventually, becoming so hijacked at this point, both partners have perpetually withdrawn and moved in their own directions, physically and/or emotionally. It is at this point, an Emotionally Focused couples therapist would help the partners identify their own cycle –

Being able to catch your cycle in the moment is the first step towards making space for what is pushing us and our loved ones away from one another.

If we’re able to identify this before it leads to a ‘Freeze and Flee,’ (we’ll address this in a later blogpost) partners can also identify the underlying messages or emotions that arise in these particular moments with each other. By catching the bullets, we’re able to slow things down and reflect and address what’s happening for each partner in the room.

The intense fear, shame or blame that comes from a consistent criticism validly leads to a partner withdrawing. We want to explore and understand the leading edge and need for connection. “What are you hearing from your partner when she/he does this?” We consistently validate and reflect what’s happening in these moments, right down to the moment this partner pulls away physically and emotionally. We can pull together earlier experiences and express just how difficult it must be to be facing the demon again, seeing that their partner may see all the flaws in them or wants them to understand just how hurtful they actually are.

In these cases though, just as a withdrawing individual is struggling to pursue their partner in the moment, the pursuing individual is also experiencing underlying messages and emotional experiences. We work together and drive home how rejected, unseen or disregarded they might feel with their partner. In some cases, they’ve also experienced a perpetual insignificance in their relationships. As therapists, when we can bring these experiences to the forefront, and partners witness a whole different level of emotion from their loved ones, we are able to nurture conversations where they can face the ‘dragon’ together.

We are committed to helping partners “face the dragon,’ as Dr. Sue Johnson has put it, and we want to help your relationship bounce back from a protest polka, or any negative cycle for that matter. We want to help partners slow it down, and catch the bullets, so that together we can cultivate a better understanding of what’s creating the disconnect in the relationship. Please reach out and schedule an appointment, we’re here to help.

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