How to Turn a Negative Relationship Around

Sometimes relationships can feel like a lot of work. What once was an easy and joyful engagement with a caring compassionate other can slowly turn into an exhausting exchange of complaints and a mutual sense of deprivation and dissatisfaction.

Over time our once best friend can slowly begin to seem like an adversary, and our once biggest source of good feelings and accolades can slowly become a source of negative feelings of falling short or not being good enough.

Fortunately, we now have a remedy to this steady decline of good-will that befalls so many relationships.

Want to know what it is? Then you are in luck…

In this article and the accompanying video which is included below, I will tell you exactly how to turn a negative relationship around.  

The big news item is that the fault is not in your partner, nor in yourself for that matter. Instead the real culprit of negativity in your relationship, is the negative cycle of interactions in which you have gotten stuck.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have mapped out the nature of the negative cycles that take over perfectly good relationships and turn them into battle fields of negativity. They have also found a way to get couples unstuck from these patterns so they can regain and even strengthen the positive connection they had when they first met.

In the video I am about to show you, you will see how one married couple found a way to turn their relationship around by heeding the insights of emotionally-focused therapy.

Understanding Your Negative Cycle:

35840798_thumbnail_smallA negative cycle is a self-pertuating merry-go-round where what one person says or does creates negative feelings in the other person, and what the other person says or does creates negative feelings in the first person. Couples thereby get stuck in a negative spiral or vicious cycle that keeps them separate from the love, the closeness, and the good feelings they really want.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have studied the steps involved in the negative cycles that squeeze the love and connection out of relationships. They have made it easier to get out of these patterns, by giving us the tools we need to understand them, and providing us with insights into how to place our feet differently.

The individual steps in any negative relationship cycle can be broken down in the following way:

Primary emotion: the real emotional response a person has to something their partner says or does) or doesn’t say or do. This emotion is often vulnerable and can make the person feel exposed or weak. It tends to be an emotion like sadness, pain/ rejection, shame, or fear.

Secondary emotion: the emotional response a person has to the way their partner has made them feel (the primary emotion). This emotion is often a response to the more vulnerable emotion that makes a person feel stronger or at least makes the person feel less exposed or vulnerable. Sometimes this emotion will be one of anger, contempt, or anxiety

Perception: The conclusion or interpretation a person makes about their partner based on their secondary emotion. If the person feels angry, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as deliberate and ill-intentioned. If the person feels anxiety, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as a sign of danger and bad things to come.

Behavior: How a person acts or reacts based on their secondary emotional reaction and interpretation to their partner. If a person feels anxious in response to their partner, then they are likely to placate in order to avoid further conflict, to freeze up and go into problem-solving instead of staying engaged with their partner’s feelings, or to shut down and withdraw in order order to protect themselves.

When these individual steps are connected together in a chain for both partners in a relationship, they can be depicted as an infinity cycle that loops back and forth between partners in a continuous spiral:

infinity cycle

In this case what is below the grey dotted line is also often below the threshold of a couples awareness.

Why Couples Get Stuck:

Partners who have grown accustomed to feeling criticized or shut out by each other are mostly in touch with their more reactive secondary emotions, and not with the more vulnerable primary emotions and their underlying unmet needs. They lead conversations with angry criticism, or a tendency to anxiously withdraw, appease, or problem-solve.

However, because how they respond to their partner exacerbates the very problem that occasions the criticism or withdrawing to begin with, they get stuck in a lose-lose situation where both are unhappy.

A person who appeases and placates in order to stop the unbearable criticism    from their partner, still remains hidden behind a wall of empty words and empty intentions, and this only makes the critical partner feel more alone, more disconnected, and more critical.

A person who criticizes every little thing their partner does, instead of expressing an underlying need for attention or closeness, only ends up making their partner feel aversive to spending time with them and shutting down the very emotional connection they are yearning for.

How to Get Out of Your Negative Cycle:

What I will show you in my video is how a couple can begin to understand the things they argue about in terms of the steps of the infinity cycle. You will get to understand not only why couples fight, but also what they can do to stop the negative cycle and begin to create a more positive one.

As the video shows, this married couple were able to shift out of their negative cycle by getting more in touch with their primary feelings and underlying unmet needs.

By communicating not just about these, but from these, they were able to transmit a different but also more congruent emotional message. In other words, they were showing their partner what they really felt.

The wife could now let her husband in on how much he really matters to her and how desperate she can get sometimes when she feels unsure of her importance to him.

The husband, in turn, then no longer needed to get his defenses up, but could now feel pulled into an emotion of compassion and love for his wife and a concern with not wanting her to feel so alone. This allowed the husband to reassure his wife and to hear her past complaints, not as a criticism of him, but as a longing for him.

Blamer Softening and Withdrawer Re-engagement:

The video shows how the wife could choose to approach her husband differently in order to get a different response. In emotionally focused therapy this dance move is often referred to as “blamer softening” because the wife here was able to express her dissatisfaction in a softer and less critical way.

The counterpart to “blamer softening” is “withdrawer reengagement”.

In the example of the married couple in the video, this would entail the husband making a new dance move and thereby calling for a different response in his wife.

The husband could let his wife in on how small and rejected he feels when he hears his wife criticize him or make snark comments about ways in which he is not satisfying her.

Instead of withdrawing into his cocoon, he could reengage by letting his wife in on his hurt and saying that he wants to be close but sometimes feels intimidated and unsure if she even likes him. This in turn, might make his wife see his absenteeism in a new light, and would already make her feel more connected with his inner thoughts and feelings, which is what she has really been longing for.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Can Help You Get in Sync Again:

As you can see, emotionally focused couples therapy offers us a roadmap for how to turn negative relationships around, by helping us understand the dance steps that get us in trouble, as well as the dance steps that will get us in sync.

In conclusion therefore:

The next time you find yourself in a negative merry-go-round with your partner, ask yourself: What are the steps of our own little dance, and what would be required for us to step into a different one?


emotionally-focused couples therapy

* * *

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am a psychologist and Certified Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapist in Houston, TX. I help couples get unstuck from their negative patterns and recreate the love, connection, and respect they both yearn for.


#1 Reason Couples Fight (and What to Do about It)

Even though it might seem that couples argue about a myriad of different issues, when we look a little deeper, we often find that most arguments have one thing in common: They are really about how we feel about each other, and more specifically, how loved or how significant we feel to our partner.

A wife might complain about her husband not cleaning up after himself, but when this wife takes the time to reflect on her dismay in a couples therapy session, she usually discovers that her annoyance is rooted in her sense that her husband does not really pay attention to his surroundings and does not keep her preferences in mind. In other words, the milk carton on the kitchen table becomes a symbol to the wife of feeling like she is in a relationship by herself. When further investigated, this undigested feeling of being alone in her marriage ultimately connects to a deeper fear that she does not really matter to her husband. In other words, she asks herself: “Am I loved?” and “Does my partner care about me?”

This wife is not alone. In academic circles we refer to her concern about mattering to her partner as a universal human need to feel securely attached.

What we can therefore generally say is that: most arguments deep down are about our frustrated attachment needs and our longing to feel more connected to our partner.

The Fundamental Question of all Relationships:

The fundamental question that each partner struggles with when they are in a relationship is the question: Are you there for me? 

We all have a fundamental need to be sure of each other, and to know that our partner is there to catch us if we fall, or will step up and be there for us when we need them to.

The Truth about Attachment:

What attachment researcher John Bowlby discovered is that the same bond that unites child and mother in our infancy continues to function throughout our adult lives as we meet new people and form new connections with significant others.

john bowlby

As Bowlby says, “All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”

In other words, the more connected we feel and the more secure we feel about our relationship, the more free we feel to develop our individuality and pursue our individual goals.

Needing others and being your own person are therefore not opposites. The more we are able to reach out to others and feel connected to others, the more separate and autonomous we can also be.

What You Need to Know to Understand Why You Fight:

When we enter into a relationship with someone, we have a need to feel bonded or connected, and if this bond is threatened, we become anxious, unable to think clearly, and often lash out or demand proof that we can count on the other person.

If the answer is “not so sure” or “maybe not” the distress we experience increases, and our attempt to get a more clear and affirmative response that we matter becomes more forceful. We become more angry, more demanding, more controlling, and more critical, until we eventually become depressed and give up.

insecure attachment

The Biggest Problem Couples Have…

The problem for many couples is that attachment needs are often not at the forefront of their discussions.

A husband may know that he feels lonely and unloved at times, but may also feel quite embarrassed about depending on his partner, or may find it “unmanly” to need someone. To deal with this shame or self-judgment, he therefore hides his need for comfort and reassurance both from himself and from his wife.

Yet, just because you hide something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, so the husband still has to find a way to soothe the pain of disconnection he feels. He may do so by becoming critical of his wife, given that he may feel more comfortable with his anger than with his sadness, or he may deal with his underlying fear that he does not matter, by dialing back his expectations and retreating inward where he can feel safer and not so vulnerable.

In this way, what couples actually end up fighting about is not the longing for connection, but rather their many critical remarks about each other’s character traits and acts of commission and omission. In other words, they fight about the milk carton left on the counter, and not about feeling lonely, and longing to feel more important to each other.

3 Things You Need to Know about a Strong Relationship:

The hallmark of a strong relationship or attachment can be defined by 3 perceptions of one’s partner, often referred to as A.R.E.


A stands for accessibility: Do I perceive my partner as available when I have a need to talk about something, or when I have a need to feel close?

Many arguments start because one partner begins to feel like they are bothering the other person when they have a need to talk or connect. They may feel like the other person seems closed off, is too busy with work, or does not pay attention when they enter the room. A wife once complained during a couples session that she would come home carrying several grocery bags and that her husband would not even say “hi” or offer to help her because he was too engrossed watching TV. These kinds of events can gradually lead a person to feel unimportant, neglected, or shut out.

R stands for responsiveness: When I open up to my partner, does he or she provide me with what I need, and do I feel understood, validated, or comforted by the response I get?

Even if your partner is available and ready to listen, they may not exactly provide you with what you want. Many arguments I hear about in couples therapy involve discontent from one person about opening up about their feelings, and getting frustrated that their partner tries to fix or solve the issue. Although, the problems-solving partner is well-intentioned, the unintended consequence of their attempt to help, is that the person sharing their feelings does not really feel heard. What they want is often not a solution, but a caring and validating response. They want to feel understood and cared about. They want to hear things like “I get what you are going through” or “that must be really hard”, not “why don’t you just tell your boss off?”

For a humorous illustration of this frequent stumbling block for couples, watch the short video: “It’s not about the Nail” 

E stands for engagement: Do I feel like my partner trusts me and comes to me to share experiences, concerns, and feelings, or do I feel like I hardly know my partner and hardly know what he or she is thinking and feeling?

Sometimes what triggers an anxiety about our relationship is not whether our partner is accessible or responsive, but whether or not they are really engaged with us and in the relationship. If I am the only one sharing about myself, I may begin to question how much you really trust me and want to engage with me. My relationship might begin to feel one-sided, and I might begin to wonder how much you are really into me. Many fights in relationships are about one person feeling like the other isn’t really “in it” with them. One partner I met with in therapy always felt like she had to probe for answers to get some sign that her husband cared. She lamented that her husband never seemed to just spontaneously share how his day went, and that he would not turn to her for comfort and support when he was going through a conflict at work. She felt shut out and unimportant, and soon began to feel critical of him.

The Best Way to Stop Fights in Your Relationship:

With more knowledge about the components needed to have a strong or secure connection, couples can more actively work on increasing their accessibility, responsiveness, and level of engagement.

You can work on dropping what you are doing once in a while to check in on or pay attention to your partner. When you are less engrossed in other things, or even just look up or ask a question once in a while, your partner will gradually start to perceive you as more accessible

You can also work on increasing your responsiveness, which is best done by putting your own agenda to the side when you respond to your partner. Try to engage in active listening to fully understand what your partner is feeling and why he or she is feeling distressed. As your partner perceives you as responsive and empathic to their concerns, they will in turn feel more at ease and more at peace with the quality of their connection with you.

Finally, you can increase your level of engagement by doing things that show that you are thinking of your partner, or by making a more concerted effort to open up about your thoughts and feelings about things that have happened during the day. Whether you pick up your partner’s favorite ice cream when you are at the store, or let your partner in on a recent dilemma you have faced at work, they are bound to feel that you are more engaged with them, and reward you by feeling happier and less critical of you.

So why not help build the foundation of a stronger connection with your partner. It is the surest way to decrease the gap of disconnection that is the #1 reason why couples fight.

To read more about creating a strong relationship bond, check out Sue Johnson’s book: Love Sense


What Every Couple Should Know about Emotions

Emotions are what relationships are really about.

Emotions are the glue that make people stick together and that bring us all the positive feelings that make us want to spend time together. They give us the spark of passion, the comfort of belonging, the pride of feeling special, and the enjoyment of feeling known and understood.

Unfortunately, emotions are also what make relationships difficult. They can overwhelm us, they can shut us down, and they can make us say and do things that give us a sense of being out of control.

A relationship can bring out the best and can bring out the worst in our human nature. They can lead a president to risk his reputation for a night of passion, and a football player to murder his wife out of jealousy and anger.

No wonder then that many people have an ambivalent relationship with their emotions: They both fear them and like them.

But no matter what your opinion is, it is clear that you need to learn how to understand your emotions and know what to do with them in order to be successful in your relationships with others.

In this article, I will teach you the one thing every couple should know about emotions in order to make their relationship work. 

The Fundamental Thing You Need to Know about Emotions:

One thing that was really helpful to me when I first started to study how emotions really work was the distinction made between primary emotions and secondary emotions. This distinction helped me understand my own emotional reactions much better and it has become one of the key principles of the many forms of emotion focused therapies that are currently being used to help individuals and couples.

Once you understand this distinction, you will have one of the most important tools at your disposal to turn negative interactions in your relationship around.

Primary Emotions and Secondary Emotions:

A primary emotion is the first emotion we feel in response to a particular event in our environment. If we wanted to state it simply they refer to how we really feel.

In many situations, however, our primary emotions get covered over by secondary reactions to our primary emotions.

If I feel hurt or sad about my partner saying that he prefers to spend a night on the town with his guy friends, rather than a relaxing night at home with me, I might have an emotional reaction to feeling sad or hurt.

I might for example feel guilty because I don’t think I should need anyone and have learned that I should never prioritize my own needs over those of others.

However, I could also feel embarrassed or ashamed because I believe it is pathetic and weak for me let someone else have this kind of sway over me.

Another possibility would be that I feel angry that my partner does not want to hang out with me and get resentful because I do not want to feel pushed aside and demand to be a higher priority than his friends.

All of these secondary reactions to my primary emotions transform this emotion into something else than what it initially was.

Secondary Emotions Distort How We Really Feel:

If I feel guilty about wanting more of my partner’s time and attention, I can then no longer express my sadness at not having my need met. The guilt blocks me from expressing my sadness. It may also block me from even admitting to myself that I feel sad, and so I may not even have the ability to comfort myself and deal with my sense of loss or disappointment on my own.

Because the primary feeling gets blocked by the secondary feeling, I end up distorting my own original experience. This means that the original emotion cannot be resolved and can no longer be used to guide my actions.

My primary emotion goes underground, and instead gets replaced by my secondary emotion, which may now lead to a quite different reaction.

Instead of saying “it kind of hurt my feelings when I think you would rather spend time with others than with me”, I now instead end up withdrawing emotionally (guilt: I should not express my needs, I don’t deserve to have my needs met), or reacting with anger (I don’t deserve to be treated this way)

Why Secondary Emotions are Destructive in Relationships:

Les Greenberg, an emotion focused therapist at York University in Canada, illustrates how secondary emotions lead to fights and emotional distance in relationships:

Les Greenberg: Emotion Focused Therapy

The wife (represented by the square) feels sad because she thinks her husband is not really there for her. She also feels shame deep down because she thinks his inattention means he does not find her interesting or attractive, and fear because she worries that he might eventually leave her. What she shows him, however, is her secondary reaction of anger (“why are you never there for me”) and contempt which leads to a personal attack (“You are so selfish”).

The husband (represented by the circle) does not really know about his wife’s primary emotions because she does not show those to him. They are too sensitive and vulnerable, and his wife may either not be fully aware of them, or may have shame, guilt, or fear about expressing them.

Instead, the husband hears criticism from his wife and starts to feel like he is deficient or not really who she wants. This activates his own primary feeling of shame or inadequacy. However, because he does not want to show this wound to his wife, who does not seem compassionate or understanding, he instead feels angry and goes on the attack (“you can never just go with the flow. You are so boring”). Alternatively, he may feel anxious and afraid. This will make him withdraw more from the relationship or simply adopt a strategy of “go along to get along”. If fear wins rather than anger, then he will gradually shut down his real self, and stop expressing his real viewpoints. His wife will then likely feel frustrated that he does not appear to be whole-heartedly in the relationship, and may become even more sad, afraid, and ashamed, which she may express as another round of anger and put-downs.

This couple are now stuck in a vicious cycle of secondary emotions which hide what they really feel. Because no one has ever taught them about the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, they don’t know to stop up and ask themselves: What do I really feel? Instead what they feel and how they react to how they feel become muddled and confused, and they begin to have arguments about their secondary emotions rather than their primary needs.

Here Is One Thing You Can Do Today to Begin to Turn Your Relationship Around:

So, now that you know the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are my primary feelings? Am I really expressing what I truly feel?
  2. What is it that I truly feel? Do I feel sad/ lonely?, shame/ not good enough? fear/ afraid that my partner will leave me or is losing interest in me?
  3. What gets in the way of me expressing how I really feel? Do I feel embarrassed, guilty, afraid, hopeless, sad/ not expecting to be understood
  4. What do I actually express to my partner? Do I complain about all the ways my partner lets me down? Do I shut down or become more distant? Or do I attack my partner’s personality and try to cut my partner down?

Next time try something different. With your new emotional awareness, start a conversation by using the sentence below:

When I (4) ______________, it is because I really feel (2) ___________________, but I hide that from you because (3) ____________________________________.

When we begin to understand ourselves and our own emotional reactions better, we gain the skills to make our emotions work for us rather than against us. Now we can more effectively use our emotions as a guide to what we really want, and can express these emotions in a way that maximizes our chances that our partner can hear us.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, TX. Visit my website to read more about emotionally focused couples therapy

Approaches to Couples Counseling: Is EFT for Me?

The first decision couples have to make when they are in distress and seeking the help of a professional is, of course, who to go to see.

Couples therapists vary in training and experience and they also can be quite different in the approaches they use. It is therefore important for couples to do a little bit of research on their own in order to understand their options and make a conscious choice about the approach that sounds most appealing to them.

First of all, couples need to understand that not all therapists who offer couples therapy have any formal training in working with couples. There are currently no rules or regulations in place that prevents a licensed mental health professional without special training in couples therapy from offering couples therapy or referring to themselves as a couples therapist.

Increasingly, however, it is being recognized that good results in couples therapy depend on the therapist’s level of training and experience, as well as the specific approach they use.

In a previous article, I have explained more about one such approach, which is currently quite popular:

Gottman-MethodApproaches to Couples Counseling: The Gottman Method.

The research on happy and distressed couples carried out by John Gottman has led to insights about what couples can do to make their relationships work… > Read More

In this blog post, I want to talk about another effective approach to couples therapy often referred to as EFT, or Emotion-Focused Therapy. 

What is EFT?

EFT or Emotion-Focused Therapy is an approach to couples therapy which, as the name indicates, focuses on emotions.

Emotions are like the music that controls a couple’s relationship dance.

The fights and arguments couples have are often not about the content of what is said, but about the emotional underpinnings of how things are said, or how what is said makes us feel.

To give an example: It is not that I tell you that I will fix a broken cabinet tomorrow that is the problem, but the slight indifference or annoyance that seeps through my words when I say it. It is not that my partner is really angry about the cabinets not being fixed, but that he or she hears my indifference as a sign that I don’t really care and that I am not really “there” emotionally when he or she needs me.

Although we may be fighting about cabinets, what we are really reacting to in each other are the emotional messages that are passed back and forth. Messages that often communicate something to us about how much we can count on each other, how safe it is to express our opinions, how loved we really are, or how much our partner really cares.

A fight about cabinets, which can seem unreasonable if taken at face value, is thus often a fight about much deeper emotions and relationship concerns.

EFT recognizes that couples in such situations do not need better ways to communicate about cabinets or help to implement more sharing of responsibilities. Instead they need help to truly get in touch with the emotions and feelings that are stirring within and that are generating negative feelings about themselves or their partner. Only when partners can fully get in touch with these emotions, can they have conversations about what really matters, instead of getting bogged down in arguments about petty little details that don’t really address the real issues.

Getting to the Root of The Problem:

When couples seek couples therapy it is often because they are stuck in an emotional dance of which they are not fully aware. They are reacting to something perceived as missing or overwhelming in their relationship. Oftentimes one partner feels not cared about or unsure of the other person’s interest or commitment to them or the relationship, and the other feels afraid of conflict and starts to pull away and becomes more distant out of a need to avoid criticism.

To get out of this stalemate, couples first need to understand the emotional undercurrents of the dance they are dancing. They need to understand that one partner’s constant frustrations and nitpicking is fuelled by a sense of emptiness or loneliness that they don’t know how to express or how to get rid of. They also need to understand that the other partner’s increasing disengagement and emotional distancing is fuelled by a fear of messing up, a distaste for feeling inadequate, or a concern that talking about issues will make their partner want to leave.

What happens in an EFT session?

EFT therapists are skilled at honing in on the underlying music of a couple’s relationship dance. They help couples dig beneath the outward expression of anger, or the self-protective need to withdraw. Once couples are able to get to the heart of the matter and truly feel where their anger or disengagement stems from, EFT therapists help choreograph new interactions between partners in the sessions, that are based on greater self-awareness and a fuller access to one’s own complex emotional life. These new interactions, which are often centered around fears, longings, and vulnerabilities, help draw partners closer to each other, and open up new relationship dimensions that increase the safety of being in a relationship as your true self.

EFT therapists help partners get out of the negative interactions, which deteriorate their bonds over time, and help partners reengage in new ways that strengthen these bonds.

Benefits of EFT over Other Approaches:

What I most like about EFT is that it works with resources that are already existing within each individual. The cure for a couple’s ailments is to get more in touch with themselves and to communicate what they truly think and feel at a more authentic level than they have been able to do in the past. This means that you will not simply be taught to use “I statements” or engage in exercises or new ways of doing things, which can often seem forced, unnatural, and maybe even cheesy.  Instead you are learning how to simply share more of yourself, using your own words, and expressing yourself in a way that is a true reflection of how you really feel.

Another thing I like about EFT is that is not a cognitive, but an emotional therapy. The results you derive from the therapy are not simply due to increased knowledge or skills, but due to an emotional relearning that goes beyond a simple cognitive understanding. This means that the results from the therapy are much more likely to feel ingrained in your sense of self and become part of you, rather than to feel like a set of tools or ways of thinking that you need to consciously apply. This also means that EFT is more likely have lasting effects on a couple because it truly changes how you view yourself and your partner. EFT is subsequently one of the approaches to couples therapy that has most research supporting its long-term effectiveness. And it has one of the lowest documented relapse rates.

Drawbacks to EFT:

The biggest drawback to EFT is that it requires a willingness, openness, and ability to get in touch with your inner emotional life. For some partners this can be extremely difficult, especially if you feel a great sense of shame about certain of your emotions, or if you have learned to numb yourself to your emotions and discount them to an extent that they are no longer really accessible. Although EFT couples therapists have a number of ways to help you get in touch with your emotions and bypass some of these obstacles, you have to be willing to open up about yourself and get in touch with your feelings. If you feel too uncomfortable with emotions or if you prefer an approach that focuses more on problem-solving and intellectual understanding, you will be better off looking for a therapist with a different approach.

Another drawback to EFT is that it is primary intended for couples who have a strong commitment and love for each other. If your heart really belongs to someone else, if your marriage is arranged or is a marriage of convenience, or if you simply want to stay together for your children, it is not the best approach. The assumption in EFT is that couples can get in touch with a reservoir of love and tender feelings for each other, and if that reservoir is dried up or was never really there, doing the emotional work of EFT will be pointless.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I am pursuing certification as an EFT therapist and have experience with both EFT and the Gottman-Method. I help couples find greater intimacy, closeness, and safety with each other

If you have not done so yet, remember to sign-up for my FREE relationship guide “The Secrets of Happy Couples” which will give you many ideas of how to improve your relationship:

The Secrets of Happy Couples


The Secret to Fighting Less in Your Relationship

Watch the video from the Better Therapy You Tube Channel:

The Three Games Couples Play

If you ask couples what brings them to couples therapy, they will usually bring up one or the other issue that is problematic to them: My husband does not want to have sex with me anymore, my wife looks at other men, my partner and I disagree about how we should raise our children. However, if we dig a little deeper, we will see that many of these disagreements are rooted in one of three fundamental interaction styles.

Couples researcher Sue Johnson have called these the “demon dialogues”. She believes we get caught up in these interaction patterns and can’t find our way out of them.

Being in a relationship is really to be involved in a very fine-tuned dance, where one partner reacts or responds to the moves of the other partner in an ongoing cycle that defines their dance. No matter what the content is that couples fight about, it is thus often the dance itself that is the issue. Helping couples identify their patterns of interaction shifts focus from blaming one of the partners and empowers couples to understand their relationship in a new way.

So what are the patterns couples therapists most often see?

Let’s go through them one at a time:

Pattern 1: Find the Bad Guy

The first dance couples get caught in is one of mutual attack and hostility. You criticize me. I feel hurt and criticize you back. Each time we undercut each other, we leave bruises on our relationship. Over time our guards remain up as we are constantly waiting for the next time our partner will attack. Sue Johnson refers to this dance as Find the Bad Guy because it is really about disowning one’s own responsibility and blaming one’s partner for the poor state of the relationship. Many couples who first come to therapy think that the problem is squarely in their partner. If only she would be more attentive, or he would be less needy, everything would be great, they say. And yet trying to find the moral fault or character flaw in your partner is ultimately ineffective because the only way you can win this argument is at the expense of valuing and respecting your partner.

Pattern 2: The Protest Polka

In the second dance couples do, the mutual fighting has ceased and a different power balance has taken its place. Now one partner is constantly finding fault, while the other is retreating from the relationship. In many cases we know this pattern as the nagging wife and aloof husband syndrome, although the roles can certainly be reversed. Sue Johnson refers to this dance as the Protest Polka because it develops because one partner feels alone in the relationship and is protesting the perceived abandonment. Because the protesting partner is not aware of the reason for the dance, they often focus on picking fights about small issues that belie that underlying sense of feeling lonely and longing for more affection and attention. The partner in turn, thinking that they are inadequate or always messing something up, begin to numb themselves and check out of the relationship as a protective measure. This of course only makes the protester feel more alone and triggers another barrage of complaints.

Pattern 3: Freeze and Flee

The deadliest pattern couples present with is the freeze and flee pattern. Here partners simply live parallel existences. They are roommates, not lovers. They have stopped expecting affection and attention and have both withdrawn emotionally from the relationship. This pattern often develops once the protester realizes that their basic call for companionship is not going to be met. At this point the protester starts to grieve the loss of their dream partner and accept a deadly status quo of silent dissatisfaction. If possible, couples should seek therapy before the dance changes into this pattern of mutual distancing. It can be hard to revive love between partners once this pattern of Freeze and Flee is set in motion. Far too many couples never seek couples therapy before it is too late and end up living lives where only material comfort or shared parenting keeps them together.

How to Change the Dance:

One of the first tasks of couples therapy is often to get couples to shift their mindset from a zero-sum game of you are right or I am right. Instead they need to be able to identify the ways in which they participate in the couples dance. This will involve becoming aware of the patterns of their interactions and the emotional signals that fuel each partners step. Emotion Focused Couples Therapy or EFT helps couples understand their dance and change the music. You can find an EFT therapist in your area by clicking on the link to International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT)

Sue Johnson: Hold Me TightIf you want to start by reading more about the topic, I recommend you read Sue Johnson’s Book: Hold Me Tight. This book has practical exercises to help you break free from negative patterns that are pulling you and your partner apart.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I have received training in Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) and the Gottman Method, two of the most effective couples therapy approaches.