All of us who get into a long-term relationship do so because of an initial attraction and comfort with our partner. Because of this initial good fit and good feelings, the relationship continues and deepens. And who wouldn’t want the bliss to continue?

Despite these hopes, though, too often the relationship falters to various degrees.

Why is that? What goes wrong? Why does the couple all too often drift towards distance and animosity when presumably both partners would like the opposite?

I’ve been looking into this for personal and professional reasons. Monika and I have been married nearly 27 years. We’ve had our ups and downs but we’re still together and happy to have each other. Still, there is always room for improvement, for a better relationship.

I’ve finally taken the time to learn about emotionally focused therapy (EFT), originally developed by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in 1983. Since then Sue Johnson has continued to elaborate “emotionally focused couple’s therapy” while Les Greenberg has turned his attention more towards “emotion-focused individual therapy” – note the slight differences in terminology, a topic I don’t discuss here.

Sue Johnson’s approach to therapy is consistent with attachment theory. She focuses in particular on how attachment bonds are strengthened or weakened based on the couple’s patterns of communication and response. Here is an overview of concepts:

  • Secure attachment bond is an active, affectionate and reciprocal bond between adult partners. When present it leads to feelings of closeness, security, commitment, trust, satisfaction, and overall better functioning. When relationship problems occur, attachment is a useful lens through which to understand the problem and develop therapeutic solutions.
  • Secondary and primary emotions: when a couple encounters problems in their secure attachment, partners often respond with the secondary emotions, such as anger, frustration, verbal attack, or withdrawal. These responses are called secondary emotions because of the inference that they are triggered by underlying primary emotions, which are harder to accept and, thus, defended against through the secondary emotions. The primary emotions are feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and sadness related to the breach in the attachment bond.
  • Pursue / Withdraw: when attachment is not secure, a negative interaction cycle often is triggered. In it, one partner becomes “the pursuer,” trying to re-establish the attachment bond through behaviors such as seeking reassurance, nagging, confronting, demanding, and criticizing their partner. “The withdrawer” feels vulnerable, rejected, and inadequate, and withdraws further from their partner. This response triggers further pursuit from “the pursuer” and further withdrawal from “the withdrawer.”
  • EFT is a manualized therapy that moves through 3 Stages (which are further divided into a total of 9 steps). The focus of Stage 1 is to de-escalate these negative cycles that include emotional, communication, and behavioral components. De-escalation occurs through helping the couple understand their needs for secure attachment and to reframe the relationship problem in terms of their attempts at re-establishing secure attachment, and to help them identify their secondary and primary emotional responses and the negative cycle triggered when breaks in attachment occur. In Stage 2, the therapist helps the couple restructure their responses when a rupture occurs. Each person learns to recognize and accept their primary attachment needs, to help their partner do the same, and to respond in ways that grows the attachment. Stage 3 is the stage of consolidation and integration. The couple practices their new skills within the therapy session and in their natural environment.
  • Attachment Injury: When a secure attachment has been present and then broken in a way that threatens the entire relationship, additional therapeutic steps may be needed. These injuries can occur with instances of infidelity or abandonment of one partner by the other during a time of special vulnerability, as can occur during a miscarriage or during treatment of a life-threatening illness. These injuries leave one partner feeling betrayed, abandoned, vulnerable, injured, or even traumatized. Re-establishing trust is difficult and repair of the relationship is often slow. Because of this therapeutic challenge, EFT researchers and practitioners have heavily focused on developing interventions to be used in therapy related to these types of injuries.

I found the ideas and interventions of EFT of practical use in relationships, such as my own, that are not in crisis. I tend to be a withdrawer and have found it helpful to understand in what instances I react this way, and what I can do to respond in ways that build attachment rather than to undermine it. The most useful part of this for me is the realization that I have the ability to change the dynamic right now. I don’t have to wait for a change in approach from my partner or any other person important to me. I don’t perfect reciprocity or perfect acceptance of responsibility from my partner, with response such as, “You caused this, now you fix it.” I can be the one to start to change the dynamic for both of us. That is the gift I can give myself and my partner.

Until next time.

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
Charles Dickens

“Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”
Vera Nazarian

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw