Emotionally Focused Therapy & Why Relationships Get Stuck

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is an evidence-based, therapeutic approach grounded in attachment theory. EFT helps clients reach for, and respond to, each other in a way that is accessible, responsive, and engaged. Overtime, EFT can help clients structure their relationship as a secure base that can be utilized as a resource when things get difficult.


EFT does an exceptional job with mapping out or making sense of love relationships. As often described by Dr. Sue Johnson, In the background of our lives there is this emotional music that compels us to dance in certain ways. When our partner is dancing to different emotional music, then we have a hard time synchronizing and dancing together.


In more explicit terms, people tend to take one of two positions in the EFT dance. They withdraw or they pursue. People who withdraw are often dancing to the music of feeling threatened by the other person, feeling they are not enough, or feeling they cannot create change in their relationship. However, to a pursuing partner, this often feels like rejection or they get hung up noticing their partner distancing themselves.


People who pursue are often dancing to the music of feeling hurt, scared, or alone. However, to a withdrawing partner, this often feels like criticism or they get hung up noticing the anxious way their partner reaches out. The tipping point for most relationships is when the pursuing partner gives up on trying to get a response and starts to withdraw.


An EFT therapist actively helps clients to access these driving emotions and express their needs in a way that their partner can hear and respond to them. Certainly, relationships are never perfect and there will be times when you mess up or miss something. However, EFT can teach you how to repair these damaging moments in a way that builds upon the safety of your relationship.

Example: Alicia & Trey

Alicia and Trey smiling

I am giving you the made-up example of Alicia and Trey. However, this is a common dance and, although the content may not fit with your experiences, I am confident you will identify with some of these basic patterns of response. Please know that these patterns can be ordered in different ways, they are not determined by a person’s gender, and I have left out some responses that are less common.

Alicia is upset and looks away from her phone.

One day, Alicia gets a message that Trey is coming home late from work. She instantly feels hurt and alone. After all, she worked for several hours preparing a special dinner for the two of them. Alicia thinks Trey must not care about her. She remembers how he did this same thing last week and all the other times he failed to care for her the way she needed to be cared for. She becomes angry, resentful, and goes silent.

Alicia looks off into the distance with an angry face.

When Trey gets home, he notices Alicia is upset by the look on her face. He instantly feels threatened and worried that she is going to blow up on him again. He remembers that she did this same thing last week and how unhappy she often is with him. He avoids reaching out to her and attempts to find dinner for himself.

Alicia criticizes Trey and Trey throws up his hand.

Alicia interprets Trey’s withdraw as further evidence that he does not care for her. She desperately needs his love and care so, in attempt to have her needs met, she pursues him with an angry voice and protests his withdrawing behavior in the form of criticism. Trey withdraws further, by putting up his hand and looking away, in an attempt to stop the conversation and protect himself.

Trey criticizes Alicia.

Trey interprets Alicia’s pursuing behavior as further evidence that she does not appreciate or respect him. He experiences himself as being backed into a corner and, in effort to protect his need for safety and respect, he explodes. He raises his voice significantly and counter criticizes Alicia. After all, he has only been working late to support the family financially and he is doing the best he can.

Trey and Alicia move away from each other.

Alicia feels even more hurt and alone. She gives up on trying to get care from Trey and withdraws to protect herself from experiencing greater pain. She decides that he is just inconsiderate and mean. She vows to never let him hurt her again.


Trey feels guilty, threatened, and hopeless. He gives up on trying to get respect from Alicia and withdraws to protect them both. He decides that she is too emotional and there is nothing he can do to please her. They live like distant roommates until deciding to end the relationship or reaching out for help.

Alicia and Trey look at each other.

Alternatively, one of them makes a repair attempt and the other person is able to respond in a way that leads them back toward connection. However, they continue getting pulled back into the cycle/dance until they experience some significant change event(s) or they reach out for help.


As you can see, this destructive dance or cycle can easily take over relationships. However, with the help of EFT, this can be understood and you can learn to create a new dance.


I personally use EFT as a base model with most of my relational clients. Although I did not have room to discuss it here, there is a significant amount of research supporting the use of EFT with couples and families. I plan to write more and explain this science in a later post.


If you want to discuss how EFT might fit for you, then feel free to contact us or visit my therapist page.


This article was intended for informational purposes only. Please reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible if need help with a relationship.


Photos provided by Alex Green via Pexels.