Revisiting a Rocky Moment

Posted on April 30, 2012


One of the tricky points in de-escalating the negative cycles that take over a marriage relationship and cause disconnection is learning how to change the dance.  In “Recognizing the Demon Dialogues” (Johnson, 2008), we looked at the most common negative patterns that cause distress and disconnection in marriage.  Distressed couples are stuck; beset by negative interactional patterns.  The partners are not enemies to each other, but have a common enemy in the negative cycle.  Further, underlying the anger and frustration, and the pursuit and withdrawal, are softer needs for connection and closeness.  It is the importance of the relationship to the emotional sense of wellbeing to each partner that fuels the cycle.  The cycle becomes a kind of dance in which each person responds to the moves of his or her partner.  Recognizing these patterns was conversation #1.  In conversation #2, we looked at how partners find each others raw spots; those emotional vulnerabilities that cause one to react in hurt and anger when the sore spot is bumped.

Revisiting a Rocky Moment is the third conversation in Hold Me Tight: 7 Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (Johnson, 2008) and integrates conversations 1 & 2.  The focus here is on “repairing rifts, rising above the negative cycle, [and] reframing the cycle as the enemy” (Johnson, 2010).  As the name implies, the intent is for the couple to discuss a previous moment of conflict or disconnection, understand the moment in terms of the negative cycle, and take the steps necessary to change the dance so that the negative cycle no longer has control over the relationship.  Johnson (2008, pp. 124-128; 2010, p. 58) identified seven steps that make up this conversation.  It is not surprising that these steps are very similar to the process we utilize in couples therapy to help couples deescalate their negative patterns of interaction.  1. Stop the game.  As one begins to recognize that the cycle is the enemy and not one’s partner, it helps to be able to recognize the cycle, name it when you see it, and stop the pattern.  Many couples find it helpful to give the cycle a name (e.g. the tornado, the vortex, the washing machine).  This is the moment of realizing we have seen the enemy and he is not us.  2. Both partners need to claim their own moves.  Remember, it’s a dance.  Each dancer moves based upon the movements of his or her partner.  One needs to acknowledge how one’s movements in the dance trigger one’s partner.  What were the moves that you each made in the dance?  Name them together (without assigning blame).  3. Claim your own feelings.  This is the point when those softer emotions that get triggered when your raw spots get touched can be verbalized.  To do this one needs to feel safe enough to be vulnerable.  It feels safer to express anger than to express the underlying feelings of fear, hurt, and sadness.  It is much healthier for the relationship to express the softer emotions.  Johnson suggests using “parts” language.  “When I feel criticized, part of me feels that I can never get this right and part of me wants to escape and numb out.”  4.  Own how you shape your partner’s feelings.  This is an important step in being able to stop the negative cycle and begin to soothe the raw spots.  Each partner begins to express how their moves create distress in their partner and feed the negative cycles.  “When I shut down and numb out, you feel the fear that I am not available to you and we are disconnected.”  5. Ask about your partner’s deeper emotions.  6. Share your own deeper softer emotions.  Steps 5 & 6 are a team effort in seeking to understand the softer more vulnerable emotional experience that underlies the anger and frustration that is visible during the negative cycle.  7. Stand together.  As allies, couples learn to take control of the negative cycle, find ways to exit the negative spiral, and be a comfort to each other.

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.

Johnson, S. (2010). The hold me tight program: Conversations for connection. Facilitators guide for small groups. Ottawa: ICEEFT.   

“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).