Emotional, Not Irrational

Posted on January 14, 2012


True or False: People behave and react in ways that make sense.

You want to answer “false,” don’t you?  You know people (maybe even your spouse) who have done things or reacted in ways that seem to make no sense whatsoever. Yet I would submit to you that the statement is true when we understand the context of someone’s behavior.

We particularly see this when working in therapy with married couples.  Couples often become ensnared by negative patterns of interaction which work against the closeness and emotional safety they really seek in relationship.  On the surface, this would seem like an irrational response.  Why do we get trapped in this dance if it doesn’t get us what we want?   Susan Johnson (2008, p.74) observed, “Attachment relationships [in this case a spouse] are the only ties on Earth where any response is better than none.”  Spouses often are caught in a dance of negative interaction in which each partner responds to the steps of the other partner.  One of the most common cycles that couples become stuck in, Johnson labeled “the Protest Polka.”  One partner pursues, and the other partner withdraws.  In a typical case in which the wife pursues and the husband withdraws, the dance often goes like this.  The wife, seeking connection and reassurance reaches out, but it may be in a negative way which her partner hears as criticism.  The husband is now hearing a storm warning and puts up the storm windows (i.e. he withdraws).  She now feels shut out so she escalates her demand for connection (metaphorically banging on the storm windows).  He now shuts her out further (moves to the storm cellar).  And so goes the dance.  It this example the wife may be feeling “you are not available to me when I need your support.  When I need you, you run away.  I am alone; abandoned in this relationship.”  The husband may be feeling overwhelmed, “I am never going to be good enough for you.  I have lost you already.”  Each, in their way, is acting to protect the relationship.  Because this relationship is so important, she is demanding connection.  Because this relationship is so important, he is trying to avoid escalation, but in so doing feeds the negative cycle.  When we look at the steps that make up the protest polka, we see how each person behaves in a way that makes perfect sense based upon their experience of the dance.

Often couples do this dance without even recognizing the cycle.  The good news is that couples are able to learn to recognize the dances in which they have previously become stuck.  Couples who are stuck in a dance of negative cycles learn to recognize the cycle as the common enemy that they face and learn to change the steps of the dance to give them the connection and emotional safety they want in the relationship.  It is a beautiful thing to watch or experience.

Our emotions are a part of what makes us human.  Emotions affect how we react.  How we react makes sense when the context of our emotional experience is factored in.  We are emotional creatures.  This is not a bad thing.  It drives us to connect with each other, to bring children into our lives, to select our vocations, and to succeed in those vocations.  We are emotional, not irrational.


Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website www.scottwoodtherapy.com.  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats http://scottwoodtherapy.com/Page5.html.

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).