Recognizing the Demon Dialogues: Freeze and Flee

Posted on April 13, 2012


This is the third post examining how negative cycles can hijack a couple’s relationship.  The idea is that neither is the relationship fundamentally flawed nor is either partner the “bad guy” causing the problem.  Couples are not broken, just stuck.  In the middle of a negative cycle, it is common for one to feel that one is not valued by one’s partner and that the relationship is not important to the partner.  It is actually the importance of the relationship to each partner that fuels the cycle.  Disconnection from our most important relationship is so painful that the natural response is protest.  This results in negative patterns where one partner pursues and the other withdraws, one partner attacks and the other defends, or the partners both go on the attack.  These patterns are described in the last two posts as The Protest Polka and Find the Bad Guy.  These dialogues or negative cycles become a form of dance that couples engage in where each partner responds to the steps and movement of the other partner.

Johnson (2008) identified a third “Demon Dialogue” that takes over couples relationships: Freeze and Flee.  This cycle is marked by mutual withdrawal.  In first sessions with married couples seeking counseling, commonly one or both become tearful when describing the negative patterns in their relationship and the conflict that brought them in for counseling.  When no one is crying, it is generally indicative that the dance has come to a halt.  Neither partner is risking emotional vulnerability.  Partners may even be very cordial to each other, but the sense of closeness has been lost.  Often this dialogue is the aftermath of a “Protest Polka.”  A partner who previously protested disconnection and pursued for connection has become burned out, given up and settled for peace without connection over the battle.  This partner may report feeling frozen.  This cycle is particularly dangerous.  It gives the appearance of relative peace and perhaps even a functional relationship.  But left unaddressed, it can mark the end of connection and the end of the love relationship.  The relationship no longer provides the secure connection and safe haven that makes marriage a source of comfort and security for each partner.  It is, in fact, a prelude to detachment.  With this cycle present, relationships become vulnerable to competing attachments.

As bleak as that sounds, there is the potential for reengagement.  Couples beset by a Freeze and Flee cycle can learn to reconnect.  Through counseling, couples learn to recognize the cycle as a common enemy to both partners rather than looking at each other as the problem.  Each partner can learn to express needs for attachment and connection that have long been denied and come to a place where the relationship again feels safe and secure.

Next post: Finding the Raw Spots

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).