One of the classic ways of defining and describing the nature of relationships among couples, work colleagues and within family structures is the “dance metaphor.” To fully appreciate it, imagine the following: You and your companion are sitting around a dance floor at a wedding. The two of you observe and older couple that is talented at ballroom dancing. As they glide around the floor, you comment, “Those two move beautifully together. Their steps are identical.” At this point, your partner gently corrects you by adding, “Actually, they are not moving identically. They move together, but not with the same steps of direction. As he goes left, she moves to the right. When he goes forward, she steps backward. And so on. They move together, but not in the same manner.”

So it is with all relationships. Each of our human interactions follows some established pattern. Some dance relationships follow healthy and productive patterns. Others stride in damaging and painful pathways. But once again, for better or worse, the movements are complimentary.

The couples’ counseling icon, John Gorman, tells us that there are four toxic behavior patterns that do great damage to any relationship. Referencing the Biblical image of the “Four Horseman of evil and destruction, Gottman lists criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stone-walling as factors that erode communication, love and mutual respect.

It is my belief that any two people that are struggling within their relationship, be it at work or at home, are choosing heir behavior by saddling up on the horses of criticism and contempt or horses of defensiveness and stonewalling. And in that sad relationship, one member chooses criticism or contempt while the “dance partner” adopts an either defensive posture or simply exits (stonewalls) the fray. And so, the sad and mutually unsatisfying dance continues.

How do relationships improve? People learn to communicate, to dance, in a healthier manner through a simple two-stage process. First, look into the metaphorical mirror, that we talk about so much, and fearlessly recognize the Gottman’s toxic horses we have been riding. Do we ride the horses of criticism and contempt or the horses of defensiveness and stonewalling when we communicate in an unhealthy fashion? Second, once we recognize our bad tendencies, get off that horse.

Push yourself into a more positive, assertive direction and away from the self-acknowledged harmful ones. By changing our dance steps, we will find (to our surprise and satisfaction) that our dance partners are better able to choose more productive patterns of communication as well.

Why not try dancing to a different tune?

“Admit when you’re wrong. Shut up when you’re right.” Gottman

#making it happen
John V. Farrar Ed.D., LPC
Anita M. Farrar Ed.S., LPC