Recognizing the Demon Dialogues: The Protest Polka

Posted on April 5, 2012


Distressed couples are not “broken” so much as “stuck.”  Regardless of the content, the way in which couples argue follows a consistent pattern.  Negative cycles in a marital relationship often take the form of a dance where the steps of one individual invariably lead to steps by one’s partner.  The most common “dance” that we see in couples therapy is “The Protest Polka” (Johnson, 2008).  The most common manifestation of this dance is a pattern of interaction in which one partner pursues, attacks, or blames and the other partner withdraws, defends, or stonewalls.

I have worked with couples with excellent communication and problem resolution skills who find themselves stuck in this dance.  Clients have told me that the relationship with their partner is the only relationship in which they experience this negative cycle of interaction.  My response is, “Of course.  It is the fact that this relationship means so much to you that fuels the cycle.”  Johnson (2008) observed that attachment relationships are the only relationships in which any response is better than none.  From the cradle to the grave, human beings are wired to seek a relationship with a significant other (an attachment figure) to whom we matter, who will value us, and to whom we can turn for comfort in times of stress, difficulty, or crisis.  For children, this person is generally a parent.  For adults, this is generally a spouse.  When one feels disconnected from the person that is most important in one’s life, the expected reaction is to protest the disconnection.  Hence, Johnson’s name for the dance: The Protest Polka.

In about 2/3 of the couples stuck in this dance, the wife pursues and the husband withdraws.  Therefore, for illustrative purposes, we will assume that these are the gender roles of the partners.  Here is how the steps to dance commonly come together.  Perhaps the husband has a habit of coming home late from work.  The wife may interpret this as “I am not important to him; I am abandoned in this relationship.”  Because this relationship is so important to her and disconnection is so painful, she takes action to protest the disconnection.  She may be feeling lonely, hurt, or afraid, but what her partner sees is anger.  When the husband experiences his wife’s anger, he may perceive, “I am a disappointment; I can never make her happy.”  He may experience fear that he can not measure up, a sense of hopelessness, or shame.  Her anger may feel overwhelming and so to protect himself and the relationship, he withdraws.  Figuratively, speaking the walls go up; the draw bridge gets raised.  Or perhaps, he sees the storm brewing and he takes cover.  This seemingly confirms the wife’s perception that her partner is not emotionally available to her.  Feeling abandoned leads to more anger leading to further withdrawal.  And the dance goes on.

Each partner longs for emotional safety and close connection, but the Protest Polka gets in the way and undermines their connection.  The first step in overcoming this dance is to recognize that one’s partner is not the enemy.  The negative cycle is the common enemy for both partners to battle together.  Underlying the hard emotion of anger are generally softer emotions of fear, hurt, sadness, and loneliness.  As partners learn to express their need for connection and comfort, partners can begin to see each other as not dangerous, but longing for closeness and connection.

Next: Demon Dialogue #3: Freeze or flee.

Hold Me Tight: a 2 day couples intensive.  Strengthen your marriage with practical teaching, interactive discussions and couple’s exercises in a safe and supportive setting.  The focus is on deepening connection and closeness, repairing and healing relational injuries, and overcoming distance and disconnection.


Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church

17010 Pomerado Rd.

San Diego, CA 92128

Dates & Times:

Saturday, May 5th, 2012, 9:00am – 5:30pm

Saturday, May 12th, 2012, 9:00am – 5:30pm



Treina Nash, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, RCA Counseling

Scott Wood, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, LifeSpring Center

*Online registration is available at or contact Scott Wood at (858) 449-1835 for phone registration or questions.


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  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

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