The Demon Dialogues Revisited: Mommy and Me

Posted on February 5, 2015


About three years ago, I did a series of posts on Recognizing the Demon Dialogues.  These ideas were not original to me, but were coming from the work of Sue Johnson who is the theorist who developed Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.  Essentially, the demon dialogues are patterns of interaction that couples fall into that devastate the relationship and leave both partners feeling wounded, misunderstood, and disconnected.  In couple relationships, the partners get into a “dance” in which each partner’s steps are a response to the steps of the other partner.  Johnson identified three of these: Find the Bad Guy, The Protest Polka, and Freeze and Flee.  If you want a quick recap of those you can go back to my posts from 2012.  For a more in depth discussion, read Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.

There is another Demon Dialogue or another dance that I have seen enough in my couples work that I think it deserves a name.  My working label for it is “Mommy and Me.”[1]  I hope you will pardon the gender specific language, but my experience is that this dance is divided along gender lines in about 80%[2] of the cases where I have witnessed it.

Here is an example of how this dance goes.  Jill feels that her husband Jack does not maintain good enough boundaries with female coworkers and clients.  That is to say, the relationships are a little too chummy (or even cozy) for her tastes.  There may even be one relationship in particular that Jane is concerned about.  Consequently, Jill asks Jack to keep some specific boundary regarding the relationship (e.g. don’t text her, don’t go to lunch with her).  Jack initially protests that the relationship is only professional, but because Jane feels so strongly about it, he agrees to her demands.

Jack still feels that the boundaries Jill wants are not reasonable.  This could be for any number of reasons.  First, he may feel that the professional relationship is important to his livelihood and that the boundaries would make that relationship awkward.  Second, that relationship (even if it is only friends) may be meeting a need for Jack (whether he has acknowledged this to himself or not), and therefore, he is reluctant to give it up.  Third, it could really be an affair.  Fourth, Jack could just hate the idea of his partner dictating his boundaries to him.  It feels like Jill is being controlling, and Jack does not like being controlled.

Now the dance begins.  Jack continues to handle the other relationship as he always has, and lets Jill assume that he is keeping his agreement with her.  Jill happens to see Jack’s phone and sees that there are texts from this other person.  The texts are not overtly sexual or intimate, but they do convey a certain comfort and closeness.  Jill is upset and confronts Jack.  Jack does some combination of the following: 1) becomes angry that Jill looked at his phone; 2) makes an excuse or in some other way defends the texts (e.g. she texted me; I need to communicate with her for business); 3) apologizes and promises not to do it anymore.

As the dance progresses, Jack begins to erase the texts.  Jill, now in full detective mode, looks at the phone records and starts counting the number of texts between Jack’s phone and this other number.  When Jack goes on a business trip, he tells Jill that the other person is not going, but Jill manages to discover that she was there.  When Jill confronts Jack, he again explains that he had kept this from her because he needed to travel with this other woman for business reason and did not want to upset Jill by telling her that.

On they dance.  Jill starts checking on Jack’s email.  Jack sets up a new email account and a separate Facebook page.  Jill discovers both and demands firmer boundaries.  Jack, preferring to keep the peace, agrees.  Then he starts saying he had to work late when he wasn’t.  And the dance goes on.  Trust is destroyed, resentments build, and intimacy is lost.

There is a board game called “Scotland Yard”[3] in which one player is the criminal trying to evade capture and the other players are detectives.  The criminal tries to disguise his movements to evade capture while the detectives try to hem in the criminal and capture him.  This is similar to how this dance goes between partners.  One partner tries to hide his movements while the other investigates and tries to hem him in.

So why “Mommy and Me?”  This dance develops like a parent trying to control a strong-willed wayward child.  Mommy makes the rules.  Junior says “yes, Mommy” and then does what he wants.  Mommy discovers the misbehavior and tries to establish more control.  Mommy begins to monitor and Junior gets better at subterfuge.  In this way, the couple relationship changes from a partner relationship to a parent-child relationship.

The solution is multilayered and not “one size fits all” in nature.   For the husband in these situations, first it is important to understand what any dishonesty does to your wife.  If you tell her 99 true things and one lie, the lie will create uncertainty about the 99 true things.  “Was anything you ever told me true?”  When something you have been hiding comes to light, it will also make her assume the worst.  If you erased the text messages, she will usually think it is because you actually are having an affair with that person.  On the whole, the lying is what does the most damage.

Second, allow me a word about “manning up.”  The husband who takes on the role of Junior in the relationship usually does so because he hates conflict.  When conflict starts and your heart rate and blood pressure start going up, your motivation is to make the conflict stop as expeditiously as possible.  Why you do what you do makes sense in this context, but it creates more problems for you down the road.  If conflict feels really bad, it takes a lot of courage to stay with it.  It is important to find your voice in the relationship in healthy ways.  This is not about “putting your foot down” but about being able to make your wife feel heard while making sure your voice be heard as well.  Be her husband, not her son.  If you instead throw a tantrum, you are still being Junior.

Third, consider what is behind that request for boundaries.  When I hear “control,” my first thought is that is represents “fear?”  Why do we control?  Unless we have a personality disorder (which your partner most likely does not), we do it out of fear.  There is some catastrophe we are trying to avert with control.  What is the catastrophe she fears?  Understanding is key.

For the wife in these scenarios, when you think about it, you really don’t want to be his mother, do you?  If he is going to cheat, all of your control and detective work is not going to stop him.  You can only control you.  To some extent, the investigating is a betrayal of the relationship as well, and it really will never bring you the peace of mind you seek.  You should have boundaries.  You should expect your husband to have boundaries.  You can and should discuss your concerns, but ultimately you cannot dictate his boundaries to him.

Are the boundaries the wife requests reasonable?  I cannot speak to individual circumstances, but more often than not, they seem like appropriate boundaries from my therapist’s chair.[4]  A wife is often aware when another woman is giving her husband attention before he is.  We men can really be oblivious sometimes.  Part of that could be because we want to be.  Part of that could be because it is outside of our paradigm.[5]  Healthy boundaries really are your friend, not your jailer.

Mommy and Me is a pattern of interaction that can really damage the trust, attachment, and intimacy in a marriage.  If this is sounding familiar, it might be time to change the dance.


[1] “What you don’t know, won’t hurt me” is also a possible name.

[2] 87% of statistics are made up on the spot.  This one included.

[3] Another possible name for this demon dialogue.

[4] Consider your source.  I get to see the aftermath of poor boundaries with “friends” and “coworkers” who become something more.

[5] I once worked in a small office of a large company in which two of my coworkers, with whom I was working closely, were having an affair.   I was oblivious.  After the affair became known, a friend from another office asked me, “How could you not have known?  People in other offices even knew.”  It was outside my paradigm.  I saw the man as being like myself, a professional with a wife and two kids.  It never entered my mind that he was having an affair.