The Protest Polka

Somehow, the phrase “the Protest Polka” doesn’t quite capture the negative cycle like I wish it would; “polka” feels fun! But this polka is anything but fun. But, the important part of the phrase is “protest,” and not “polka,” so that is where we focus our attention. The word “protest” is an interesting one, because when I think of someone protesting, I think of them as offering an opposition. Not coincidentally to this post (I planned it that way as it is so resonant!) we can see a lot of examples of protesting these days. The protestors we might see at rallies across the country are offering opposition, but when it boils down to the primary emotions of their experiences, by and large they would likely be in alignment with someone protesting in a relationship: each person “just wants to feel seen and heard.” I want the president to know x, y, and z about my viewpoints (and fears) so he can take them into account. Or, I want my partner to know that I was so hurt by his actions and hear me now when I describe my pain. However, the more unheard we might feel, the more “describing our pain” might sound something akin to “why the f*$% don’t you listen to me! You never listen to me you incompetent fool!” So, instead of that deep longing to be heard coming through, what is broadcasted is an all-out attack. In the polka, the partner being yelled at gets defensive in some way (usually a similar way each time the dance is done); either through shutting down and exiting in a physical and literal sense, such as by walking away, or arguing back with similar attacks (which is still shutting down.) Then the protestor, once again, doesn’t feel heard. It repeats like this, in that infinity loop that in couples therapy I refer to as “the cycle.” How does the dance end?? Understanding that there is risk involved in any movement that might alter the dance, it can begin with the protestor starting to “drop into their primary feelings” of not mattering in the relationship, because they aren’t feeling heard. If the risk is not received it will feel like an added injury though, which is why it is riskier to go to the place of not mattering, rather than yelling that you are not heard. Therefore, it is actually the withdrawer’s responsibility to take the risk and understand that they have hurt their partner, and see the hurt instead of the anger, and be able to sit with that painful experience of hurting their partner. From there, the withdrawn partner can also express what they need from their partner, and engage in a more emotionally-connected way. The protestor can see that their partner is actually there, which typically will have a calming effect on the protest, and the protestor can drop into feelings and needs more readily. These are the steps of Emotionally-Focused Therapy and help partners feel more connection with one another.