The Freeze and Flee Dance

This dance, or cycle, like the other two I’ve written about recently in my blog, is defined by entrenched behaviors from both partners. However, calling this a “dance” is a bit misleading, because in essence, neither partner is doing much of anything, aside from shutting down or checking out. Sometimes, this can be a result of trying and failing repeatedly, so there is a sense of “burnt out pursuer” but other times it can be because both partners have the natural instinct to exit and shut down when faced with a sense of insecurity, and not reach for the other person in times of “danger.” In Emotionally-Focused Therapy, this cycle is also referred to as a “withdraw-withdraw” cycle. It is seen as perhaps the most dangerous cycle to a relationship, because there isn’t much there (in the middle) that is holding the relationship together. What I’ve found in my practice is that if this is a couple that even makes it to therapy (because typically it is the pursuer initiating contact with a therapist), that I, as the therapist, am the one charged with holding that middle area, especially in the beginning. When there is a sense of danger, we enter into “fight or flight” mode, whether we have the felt sense of “navigating a minefield” (this is a metaphor I use often in sessions because it seems to match the experience of many withdrawers) or fear the end of a relationship, or somewhere in the middle. Our survival instincts kick in: we either decide to fight against the predatory danger, or run from it, both of which are instincts that are a somewhat fixed part of our behavioral patterns. So in this freeze-and-flee dance, both partners, upon sensing danger, seek to flee. And “danger” too, in the case of relationships, is any sense of insecurity that is felt. When both partners are prone to a withdrawn position, no one is left to fight for things to get back somewhere in the middle, where there might be a lot of anger, but underneath where there becomes negotiation, process, and resolution (hopefully). As I mentioned, this type of relationship struggles to make it to couples therapy. Often, it is the pursuer in the dynamic saying “we need to go speak to someone about this,” but in this dance, it is less frequent that someone is offering this as an option. Therefore, with no one to help each partner take the risk of coming towards the other, it becomes quite difficult to repair this kind of dance. It’s why many in Emotionally-Focused Therapy would say it’s a very difficult dance to exit from, and repair in the relationship. However, noticing that it is happening is not something that a withdrawer is incapable of doing. Therefore, because both individuals have similar experiences, there is a sense of “at least we are on the same page,” and perhaps that is one way to agree that therapy is the best course of action to write the ship and repair the relationship.