Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and The Protest Polka!

As I mentioned in my last post, it is attunement, the capacity for emotional responsiveness, that is the key factor in trust and emotional connection.

There have been hundreds of studies on marital love over the last ten years that confirm this fact. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is an evidence method of couples therapy that highlights these qualities.

As Gottman’s research has pointed out fighting in not necessarily a sign of relational instability. There are many couples who bicker and quarrel, but they also have the essential ability to tune into each other and restore a frayed emotional connection after a petty squabble.

My wife and I have completed advanced training in another powerful model of evidence-based couples therapy; Emotionally -Focused therapy, also known by the acronym EFT. Kathy and I are privileged to have taken advanced core skills training from one of the leading EFT trainers, George Faller, MS, LMFT.

Kathy first trained with George in Emotionally Focused  Couples Therapy several years ago. George was a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department for twenty years. He participated in 9/11 rescue efforts. George changed careers and became a licensed marriage and family therapist.

He is also an American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy supervisor, and an Emotionally Focused certified therapist, supervisor, and trainer. George is also the Founder and President of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy and teaches at the famous Ackerman Institute in Manhattan.

The Benefits of a Science-Based Couples Therapy

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is incredibly effective. Research shows that 70-90% of couples who are with an EFT trained therapist can completely restore their otherwise damaged intimate bond. And some studies have registered that success level even higher.

Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy are the twin pillars of proven, evidence-based couples therapy.

What these models have in common is a keen focus on the importance of carefully unpacking the emotional disconnection between the partners, and working with them to restore safe loving connection which allows their capacity trust to return.

Why are these models of working with couples so profoundly successful? The science of attachment and human intimacy.

Emotionally focused couples therapy

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and the Hard-Wired Brain

When our intimate partner becomes unavailable to us, we struggle with powerful emotions that are hard-wired into the human condition. Anger, pain, profound sadness, and most important… fear.

This fear is hard-wired into the human brain. Humans actually need to be able to rely on an intimate other, we are pair-bonding creatures. Our survival depends on it. Research studies clearly show that when our most intimate bond is threatened, we slide into an intense primal fear.

Three Solutions to Primal Fear

The human brain has 3 situational strategies to resolve this primal fear.

If our intimate bond is strong, we speak frankly and directly to our partner in a conversational style characterized by what Gottman calls “turning toward” and positive expectancy. We know that our intimate partner loves us, and we fully expect to be heard and to have our needs met.

If for whatever reason, our trust has eroded over time, we may devolve into one of two less hopeful approaches.

We might display a pursuing strategy, openly displaying our anger and annoyance, persistently badgering or nagging our spouse to acknowledge our needs.Emotionally focused couples therapy

The other strategy is one of distancing and withdrawal. We shut down, go dark and move away from our partner.

If either of these strategies become the habitual go-to strategy, then the couple is likely to get caught in a sticky web of hurt feelings, increasing distance, and diminishing expectations.

Gottman calls this unfortunate state of affairs the “roach motel” for couples. They become trapped.

The more they struggle with each other to pull away, the more hurt and pain they both inflict on their intimate partner, and experience themselves.

Susan Johnson, the primary author of  the EFT model, calls this same dynamic the “Demon Dance.”

Demon Dances

When you are emotionally starving to death you are in a high panic. Gottman calls this first dynamic “Attack-Defend.” In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy it’s called “Let’s Find the Bad Guy.”

In this attack-defend, find the bad guy trap, blame is a sacrament.

The object of this dance is who can do a better job of dodging responsibility and assigning blame. But when attack-defend devolves into attack-attack, it’s usually an indication that it’s Protest Polka time!

Emotionally focused couples therapyEmotionally Focused Couples Therapy and The Protest Polka!

Couples therapy research has known for years that this Pursuer-Distancer Demon Dance eventually paved the way to divorce, but researchers could not tease out why it was such a serial-killer of marriages.

Attachment science has now revealed that an interplay of profound panic, and powerful unmet attachment needs, rev up our couples and shoves them into a Demon Dance Marathon.

Their intense unmet craving for attachment collides with their panic. The panic emerges from their deep fear of being abandoned.

I speak to partners every week who are fully aware that they are making their marriages infinitely worse by their contempt or icy distance. It’s a classic case of what one of my favorite couples therapists, Terry Real, calls “The More…The More.”

Even though we know exactly how much damage we are doing, our frazzled and frayed neurology will not permit groping in the darkness for the off switch.


“The More he refuses to engage with me or tells me that my feelings are crazy or unreasonable, the more pissed I get and the more I slam him” said a recent client to me about her husband.  “I don’t (freaking) care any more. I will burn the house down to just get a reaction from him.”


Emotionally focused couples therapy

Without missing a beat her stonewalling husband snarled in response:

“The More I hear that whiny, entitled, bitchy tone of voice, the more I know deep down that there is no (freaking) pleasing this woman… I just shut down and go dark. She doesn’t deserve to get a word out of me. And she never does.”

The More… The More… Becomes The Protest Polka!

The first task of highly distressed and reactive couples is to recognize that this Demon Dance is the enemy…not the spouse.

EFT normalizes the fact that it makes perfect sense that this simple fact has eluded both of them.

The partners remain stuck in this “roach motel” because the question “is my spouse really gonna be there for me?” is convincingly answered by their fear and panic.

It says.. “No, look at how they are disrespecting you.. you are totally on your own.”

Their sad failure to slow down creates a frenzied, reactive Protest Polka of panic, fear, anger, and pain.  They can’t leave the dance floor… and they can’t call for a different tune.

They feed each other’s worst fears and keeps this mad, whirling Protest Polka spinning faster and faster.

Finally, the pursuing partner is all Polka’ed out. They give up the dance, collapse into grief, and exit the dance floor.. and the marriage.

The Safety Dance…No Risk…No Reach

No risking. No reaching. Elvis has left the building. We can take cold distance from other relatives, but not from intimate partners. There is no dance here. There is just a running away to some imagined form of safety where we can lick our wounds and imagine what might have been.

When I talk to couples about their Demon Dances and Protest Polkas I usually hear the same question.

“Can you help us? Is there any hope for our marriage?”

Our EFT trainer George Faller said it best:

“Our job as therapists is to help our couples de-escalate, and hold a safe space for them to be softer, open up, and put words to the painful reactivity that is tormenting them both.”

They have to recognize their Demon Dance… and stop their Protest Polka.

And see the truth of the specific ways they habitually do  “The More… The More.”

I tell them there’s another dance they could engage in. It starts with a process of careful assessment and follows with the deep work that an Intensive Couples Retreat opportunity could provide.

Want to Learn Some New Dance Steps?

Our Couples Retreat is a perfect opportunity to learn how to end the Demon Dance with your partner.

Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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