The Push-Pull Trap
Disagreements and tension are common in relationships. People, especially couples, get into repetitive arguments about many things such as what are the priorities, who is doing the most around the home, whether relatives on one side or the other are taking up too much time or why there are sexual problems in the relationship? It can be very confusing when a relationship that was loving and pleasurable in the past becomes increasingly painful with more distancing and lack of meaningful communication. What happens even when one may be trying hard to deal with the problems?
The cycle can be: One person wants to talk and tries really hard to get the other to talk. Repeated trying can turn into criticizing, nagging, blaming and on and on. It seems the more one person does it… the other stops talking, distances, gets defensive, retaliates or gives up to avoid anything that might worsen the situation.
This is the push-pull trap! One person pushes and the other pulls away or one person pulls together and the other pushes apart… The result? Emotional disconnection for both over time – loss of closeness, loss of intimacy, sexual problems! The push-pull pattern happens in all relationships from time to time and can be worked out if people know how to avoid getting stuck in the trap. When the pattern becomes entrenched and problems continue to fester unresolved, the relationship becomes increasingly troubled, as the underlying lack of connection grows wider.
What to do? Three distinct steps that are helpful in addressing the Push-Pull pattern:
1. Notice the pattern. People are often unaware of the pattern if they are too focused on fixing the problem that appears to be with the other! As simple as it seems, noticing the pattern itself can start to change things for the better. It does not matter who started or finished the argument but rather noticing that the pattern is taking over; and one or both parties can take steps to alter it. The act of noticing the pattern is the first step in counteracting the control of the push-pull pattern.
2. Notice your part in the pattern. Noticing one’s own part in the pattern means identifying whether one is pushing or pulling in a relationship when difficult situations arise. Avoidance and control are common in relationships as they become increasingly dysfunctional and both need to be addressed by each individual. Acknowledging one’s own part and taking responsibility for changing that is what is meant by ‘cleaning up your own side of the street’ and not remaining busy pointing out what the other ‘should or should not do’.
3. Do something differently than you would ordinarily do. If you “push” or “pull”, then try something different and see what happens. In the end, the pattern is the “enemy” in the relationship, not your partner. People can move toward minimizing the effects of the pattern together or even individually if the other remains disinterested.
Identifying the entrenched patterns in any relationship takes the willingness to look at oneself, patience to identify the pattern and willingness to do, think, or say something differently to start a process for change without necessarily demanding a particular outcome. The process takes time and changes happen with honesty, open-mindedness and willingness for consistent effort without judgment and control. Professional help is sometimes needed to clarify the patterns, identify what needs to change, how to move forward and monitor the progress as it is very challenging to do it all by oneself.
Some of the ideas presented in this article are from Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Dr. Sue Johnson, is an easy read and highlights the patterns that hinder relationships and how to change them. Dr. Johnson, an internationally respected Psychologist who resides in Ottawa, is the developer of EFT for couples.