Looking for Patterns Can Save Your Relationship Part 1 “Find the Bad Guy”

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I am sometimes asked how can I sit with fighting couples all day long and listen to them complaining back and forth. Well, I don’t allow too much complaining in my sessions. When it starts, I quickly try to make sense out of it for the couple, so that they are gaining some insights about what they are doing and why.

In fact, I know that identifying and looking for patterns can save your relationship.

Looking at patterns is extremely helpful, and it also helps me stay out of content (who said what details). As Sue said: CHANGE STARTS WITH SEEING THE PATTERN—FOCUSING ON THE GAME RATHER THAN THE BALL.

As an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist, I base my practice on Sue Johnson’s work. In her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” she talks about couples being stuck in 3 main, basic patterns. She called them Demon Dialogues. The 3 patterns are: Find the Bad Guy, Protest Polka, and Freeze and Flee. Let’s explore the first pattern.

Find the Bad Guy Pattern (this pattern can also be called: Demand-Withdraw OR Criticize-Defend OR It’s Not Me-It’s You Pattern OR Attack-Attack Pattern)

Couples caught up in this pattern show up in my room “loudly.” Couples in this pattern pay close attention to how “you stepped on me.” They are often ready to go down the “Content Tube” and tell me “just this one more example” that will prove their point that their partner is at fault.

They mutually attack, accuse, and blame. They do that to protect themselves from yet another attack that they often can predict, even before it actually happens. These couples are on constant watch. They cannot relax with each other and they certainly cannot confide or connect with each other. Safety in that relationship is gone.

Sue said it right: “When we are attacking and counterattacking, we try to put our feelings aside. After a while we cannot find them at all.” Without feelings, we are “effectively lost” in relationships.

What makes me so sad for these couples is that while they are busy proving to each other who is “right”, they end up feeling more and more unhappy, unsafe, and disconnected from each other.

Instead of getting meaner and meaner, let’s start noticing this dance/pattern before this common enemy takes over your relationship.

Stay tuned to read about the next 2 patterns that couples often get caught up in.


Reader Interactions


  1. Jeff says

    This happens so often, so many couples struggle with this pattern. It’s often very hard to “step down” and either admit the blame or just let it slide.
    I haven’t read that book so I’m looking forward to other 2 patterns explained as well.

    • Marta Kem says

      Hi Jeff,
      Yes, it is super hard to stop “Find the Bad Guy” pattern, and what usually helps is when a partner starts talking more about his or her softer feelings around them having conflict. For example, can you imagine if/how the conversation could go differently if one partner said in a softer voice: “I hate getting stuck in this cycle with you, and in fact, I sometimes get hopeless and scared that this conflict will tear us apart and that is the last thing I want for us.” This is doable even though it is hard. Best of luck to you,

  2. Braden Bills says

    I think it’s important to watch for patterns if you are having trouble in a relationship. That way you can be sure to stop them and possibly save it! It’s not a bad idea to consider family counseling either, since things can go pretty badly if not taken care of. Thanks for sharing!

    • Marta Kem says

      Hi Braden,
      I agree with your comment. If we don’t take care of these patterns, they can become more and more rigid and hard to break. Counseling–either individual, couples, or family–can help people see these patterns in a more flexible way, so they can start changing them.

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