Protective Patterns in Couple Relationships, Part 2: That Old, Familiar Tune in Your Marriage

Last week, we saw that as when two partners begin a new couple relationship, their deepest needs for love, understanding, and recognition fulfilled come to the fore. This period of “young love” is called the honeymoon phase, and during this time the couple can’t seem to get enough of each other. Notably, there is little to no conflict during this phase. Alas, a phase is, by definition, temporary. When the arguments finally come, each partner will use the defenses they learned in childhood to protect themselves and minimize their own pain. (The full post is available here.)


When the defensive self rises from its slumber after the honeymoon phase, Shaddock (1998) rightly explains that relationships enter a time of testing, struggle, and uncertainty as each partner tests and reacts defensively one another. “If I plan a special date, will he be home in time to go out?” “She planned a special date, but I hope she sees how hard I’ve been working on this project.” Testing and each partner’s inevitable failures to see the needs that underlie them give way to resentment and anger: “I know I was late, but this project is very important to me, and you’ve never doubted my feelings about you before. Why is my being 15 minutes late such a big deal?”


Usually, as couples experience emotional pain with one another, they unconsciously negotiate which issues will be “flash points,” the concerns that surface repeatedly in the relationship. Commonly, couples fight about money, household chores and management, sex, the role of each partner in the relationship. These symbolic battles limit the conflict to certain areas of the marriage and thereby provide a great deal of protection from emotional pain in other areas.


Often, however, couples don’t learn how to fight these limited battles in a constructive way. After the honeymoon ends and the testing and uncertainty immediately following it is over, couples enter the accommodation phase in which they develop a pattern of predictable relating that, painful though it is, limits the emotional damage inflicted upon each other. This old, familiar tune is what Shaddock calls a script, and understandably so: When a symbolic battle in a relationship begins, each partner feels, acts, and reacts in reliable, predictable ways according to each one’s uniques emotional pain and defenses; no matter the issue at hand, when the old, familiar tune begins to play, each partner dances defensively in consistent and unsurprising ways.


Scripts come in all shapes and sizes, but according to Shaddock, the four most common scripts that couples enact are:


  • Anger: Both partners are in constant crisis. During conflict, which can be chronic, blame and anger escalate and arguments are never resolved.
  • Disengaged: Both partners are disengaged, avoiding both intimacy and open conflict.
  • Pseudomutual: Partners develop a false closeness that masks their differences. Conflicts here are avoided or denied, and instead, partners retreat from intimacy to a false closeness.
  • Pursuit/Distance: One partner fights for more contact while the other withdraws, which often leads to anger, blaming, and more withdrawal.


In the coming weeks, with Shaddock’s help, we’ll look at each of these patterns in depth. We’ll also consider how couples enacting these scripts can begin to experience different ways of relating that create intimacy instead of isolation, closeness instead of crisis, and understanding instead of anger. Until then, I invite you to think about your intimate relationship. What battles do you and your partner fight over and over again? How do each of you “dance” to this familiar tune? How is your relationship’s tune similar to or different from the scripts above?

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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