Still stuck in a Destructive Dance with your Ex? Why?*

Independence Day. As July settles into its summer trappings, we as a nation commemorate our adoption of the Declaration of independence when the thirteen American colonies declared the end of British rule.

A similar declaration of independence is declared when a couple signs their separation agreement, which can later become their divorce decree. Their marriage is over, they end their dyad, their romantic partnership. They are “independent” of one another now in very specific ways carefully delineated in their separation agreement. That is, if they have kids, and there are child and/or spousal support involved, they can remain dependent upon one another for a specified time, as their financial connections and co-parenting roles continue. Emotionally, however, they are free as birds from one another.

But there are some couples who can not and do not make that transition to emotional independence. No matter what form of declared agreement they’ve signed. They say they are “separated”, even “divorced”, but act and look to any casual observer as if they remain locked in the mortal combat of negative and destructive bonds. They might as well be hog tired together in a Grade B Western movie.

Jack and Jill are such a couple. A year after they divorced, they landed, kicking and screaming, back in my mediation office. Their attempts to co-parent continued to trigger their Destructive Dance. They told me they remained stuck in a vicious and miserable cycle. Their repeated behavior showed that they kept choosing a negative destructive bond over emotional independence.

Destructive Dance. I recall how all communications between them had been rough going. Some bomb shell at every meeting ….. They knew exactly how to trigger one another. Clearly they never learned to soothe the other. Jack might make a snide comment. Or Jill would look over her glasses at Jack with that question mark of a raised eyebrow. “Whaaaat?!” he’d snap. And their vicious Destructive Dance of blame … threat… retribution would begin. That is, PROCESS of their Destructive Dance would interrupt the CONTENT of the issues at hand. (Sell the house? Keep the business? Who pays for summer camp etc etc.)

The Destructive Dance was bad for their physical as well as emotional health: I believed it sickened them. Literally as well as figuratively. Their toddler had frequent chest colds. Their daughter’s asthma blossomed just before that math test, or her soccer game. Their son fought often with his friends, showing little ability to tolerate small frustrations. Emotional and physical stress was exacerbated by the tension & misery each of them experienced when two parents can not put their kids’ needs first, and who allowed the Destructive Dance to dominate their relationship and household culture.

What kept them stuck in this Destructive Dance?

I framed for Jack and Jill, as I do here, where and how I believe this Destructive Dance started. I asked them to talk to their individual therapists, with both interest and genuine curiosity about the complex ingredients that kept them stuck in this negative bond.

Where attachments start. I offered them some basic developmental theory. From the moment a baby opens her eyes, she attempts to connect to her caretaker. Through a gazillion interactions, human babies’ brain learn what to expect from their adult care-takers. These interaction patterns become internal expectations remembered, or imprinted, in each baby’s brain. Thus, we all as babies learn to manage our emotional experiences through increasingly complex brain neuro-circuitry called “internal working models” [IWM’s]

IWM’s form the basis of our “attachment styles”, which reflect the predominant pattern of how we bond, or connect, to others. Different attachment styles encode (a) how comfortable we feel being close or distance from another person; (b) how we regulate our emotions, i.e. how easily our feelings get aroused, and how well we inhibit feelings as necessary; (c) how our brains assess safety or threat in our environment. IWM’s remain relatively consistent from our infancy through our adult lives. Although, because of the brain’s inherent neuroplasticity, we can rewire our neural circuitry, and improve our bonding patterns in adulthood. This is a goal in therapy. This is the basis for ‘successful’ mediations too !

Trust & safety. Some of us grew up with caretakers who consistently and reliably responded to our needs as babies, and successfully soothed us when upset. If learned when young, we know how to soothe our partners as adults. Loving adults helped us adjust our feelings appropriately to sounds, touch, or feelings, without becoming overly excited or distressed. They let us know we were lovable and loved, for ourselves, irrespective of our behaviors. We had at least one loving adult to whom we could turn as a safe harbor when distressed, and as a secure touch stone from which to explore our environment. So as adults, we would know how to turn to a partner to ask for, or to offer, a smile, a hug, a joke, any attunement that strengthened a loving connection.

Thus, we felt generally safe in the world and grew up to be flexible in their ability to experience both intimacy and distance. We can feel close without losing our sense of autonomy and experience leavings without feeling abandoned. This description frames an ideal bonding with a significant other.

No Trust. No Safety. However, many of us did not experience such ideal early attachment experiences: we did not have such consistent and clear boundaried bonds with our caretakers. Instead, we had a caretaker who was inconsistent, unreliable, negligent, maybe scary and/or downright mean. Such a caretaker was some version of unclear, had trouble soothing, or calming us down when upset, or stimulated us in age inappropriate ways that we could not manage emotionally.

Both Jack and Jill grew up with one or both parents who were inconsistent and or negligent. Trusting another, let alone being empathic, was not something either learned. Thus, as adults they re-experienced in their relationship many moments of threat, feeling scared without relief, feeling deep longings without acknowledgement. They did not experience feeling seen or heard for their authentic selves.

They did not have enough positive, soothing, empathic moments. So they never learned how to repair mismatched or hurtful feelings with an apology or soothing touch. Each felt like a victim, the passive recipient of some unjust ploy.

1) One possible psychological explanation for staying stuck in the Destructive Dance was to protect themselves from loss. They seemed to have only negative internal working models [IWM’s] that connected them. I asked what would happen if those negative bond disappeared? Would they have nothing? Was bad bonding better than no bonding at all? Better than nothingness? Better to be in pain than to experience that empty loss? The loss of no connection at all.

2) Another possible psychological explanation is related to a repair hypothesis. Like the movie “Ground Hog Day”, they kept repeating past patterns with the hope that some variation might fulfill the deep longing for positive acknowledgement and recognition. However, the repeated patterns of bad behaviors were re-traumatizing, not enlightening. Not allowing their emotional separation.

The Challenge. They ended up in my office, divorcing. And now their challenge is to understand the unfortunate histories of their early bonding relationships. Without this understanding, I fear they will stay stuck in their Destructive Dance. Without such understanding and working through, it will be more difficult to separate emotionally from one another. More difficult to separate from their futile attempts to change or to repair the other, to keep control or to be right. More difficult to help their kids feel the security they themselves did not have. More difficult to bond more securely and effectively with new partners.

Such understanding is possible. A challenge for sure, but I’ve seen people do it. They have to really want to change. Staying stuck in the Destructive Dance is one choice that is familiar. It keeps a bond, a connection, albeit a negative one. Choosing the Road Not Taken to deepen understanding is a more difficult journey. I dearly hope they choose that one! I hope they can learn to keep the right distance where they can co-parent from a neutral bond of safety. Where their bond is business-like. That is, where their business is their children’s best interests, not their own past hurts. Where they are no longer haunted and stuck in a Destructive Dance reflecting insecure childhood attachment patterns. I dearly hope they will allow themselves to declare their emotional independence from one another.

*PSYCHREG published an earlier version of this article.

Dr. Joy Dryer is a psychologist/psychoanalyst, writer and public speaker, in private practice in New York City, and Poughkeepsie, NY. As a clinician, she works with individuals, families, and couples [as a PACT Level 2 clinician]. As a Divorce Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Coach, she helps couples decide whether to separate, and what are their next steps. Contact her at: Follow her blogs at HuffPost/JoyADryerPhD and on Twitter @JoyDryerPhD.

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