A key component of the therapy approach I’m trained in—Emotionally Focused Therapy—is to create the safety couples need to share softer emotions, moving them out of defensiveness and into vulnerability in ways that shift entrenched negative patterns. But whatever our training or framework as couples therapists, our opinions about which partner is nicer or tries harder can sometimes bleed into the work.
To counter this, we’re taught to monitor ourselves in our sessions, asking questions like, How am I filtering this client’s behavior through my own beliefs? What experiences of mine are shaping my perceptions? Why do I want to jump to this intervention right now? And still, despite our valiant attempts to keep our subjective reactions in check, no therapist is above getting caught in the sticky stuff of transference and countertransference.
One particular pattern I often see in my office—the pursue-withdraw cycle—creates a powerful emotional vortex of blame and shame that even experienced therapists can easily get sucked into. When we’re working hard to create safety in sessions and one partner repeatedly thwarts connection, our nervous systems will invariably react. The emotional push-pull of our clients tug at us.
Despite my familiarity with the pursue-withdraw cycle and my nearly two decades of working with clients, as well as the six years I spent as a PhD student coding couples’ interactions, I found myself caught in this emotional vortex with Matt and Emily. As my work with them took an unexpected turn, I had to confront new questions: What do I do when it’s too late to get ahead of my reactivity? And how do I move through my own shame when I’m deep in a parallel process with a blaming, angry client?
Mapping Out the Steps in Their Cycle
I’ve been sitting in front of Emily and Matt for nearly an hour, and I keep finding myself arriving at the same spot I’ve been in many times before in previous sessions: Matt tries to share his internal experience from a more vulnerable place, reaching across the chasm between them, while Emily puts him down and makes her needs louder.
Emily laments that her mental load is heavy. She’s tired of doing it all, and wonders when Matt will step up. Matt’s narrative is different: he argues that he’s trying his best and it feels as if nothing he does is good enough.
Emily and Matt are stuck in the pursue-withdraw cycle, the pattern that most often shows up in my office in heterosexual couples. Research shows that 80 percent of couples in this cycle consist of the woman partner pursuing and the man partner defending or withdrawing. For Emily, the pursuit is related to her attachment need to be seen and feel like she’s important to her partner. Instead of asking “What’s for dinner,” she wants him to see her exhaustion as she cares for their daughter and holds down a full-time job, and to step in to care for her. For Matt, a request for help from Emily triggers inadequacy: he fears he’s unworthy and promptly shuts down any impulse to turn toward her.
Emily and Matt are in their early 40s, and like most new parents are struggling to stay connected postpartum with a six-month-old baby. In our early sessions, Emily would identify something that Matt hadn’t done, and Matt would get swallowed up in fears of failing. His defensiveness was quick, covering up his primary emotions of sadness and pain. I track the negative cycle, helping Emily and Matt identify what sets them off; the assumptions they each hold of themselves, the other, and their relationship; and the primary emotion underneath the harsher and more hostile secondary emotion of anger and frustration.
As they begin to recognize the cycle, I see an opportunity to take Matt deeper into his fear of inadequacy. I guide him to explore a core memory of his father shooing him away and telling him he wasn’t helpful while they were building a deck together. I ask him to turn to Emily and share this experience with her, so she can see his pain and respond to it differently. But as in many of our sessions, Emily is ready to fight. She retaliates. “No one gives me gold stars for hurting. Why do you need one?”
“Emily,” I say, “could you consider Matt’s experience? He sees how he’s been keeping himself shut down, but he’s scared that any initiative at home will backfire.”
Quickly, whenever I hold up the mirror and reflect her impact on Matt, she spirals into feeling blamed. “Is reminding a grown adult that dishes need to be put away after they’re washed what you mean by ‘backfiring’? I must be the devil incarnate then.”
“This isn’t about you, Emily,” I respond. “You’re not doing anything wrong. This is Matt’s stuff. By understanding his experience, we can start to move forward.”
Already, Emily is emotionally flooded. She keeps her arms tightly crossed over chest. I try to pivot into a grounding exercise to help her regulate her nervous system.
“I can’t do this!” she balks. “I don’t need to breathe! I need a real partner!”
Her dysregulation, my attempts to regulate her, and her resistance to my support hijack the session. I end up self-administering the intervention Emily rejected as soon as they walk out the door, taking a few minutes to get grounded before my next client.
Living Close to Shame
Emily is a specific type of blamer: her pursuit and anger is relentless because it protects her from a deep sense of shame. From age 12, she got herself to school alone, balanced check books, and kept the refrigerator stocked while her parents took exotic trips, visited friends, and went on month-long retreats. At a young age, she’d felt abandoned and lonely, but determined to do things right. People like her—quick to criticize others—have a good reason for doing so: blame lets the emotional brain discharge uncomfortable emotions, such as shame and vulnerability, in the moment of making a mistake. While blame temporarily protects Emily, it also prevents her from taking responsibility for the impact of her behavior on Matt.
I know all this, but it still trips me up each time she says, “So you’re saying it’s my fault?” when I suggest her behavior may have the end result of pushing Matt away. I know she’s mired in a sense of her own unworthiness, trying desperately to get Matt to acknowledge her reality, but it’s still a challenge to see her anger through an attachment framework. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and takes up more airtime in session. I regularly bring Emily down from her anger and reframe Matt’s words and behaviors as attempts to reach for her (which they are). I can feel my patience wearing thin as Emily railroads any attempt by Matt to join in on the conversation. Even the slightest forced breath from Matt results in her telling him he shouldn’t be so frustrated when she’s the one doing so much work at home—though we’ve spent several sessions increasing Matt’s awareness of all the invisible tasks that are part of running a home and he’s acknowledged the importance of dividing them up more equally. He’s taken ownership of tasks that were once part of Emily’s load, yet Emily continues to question the validity of his attempts to grow into a better person and partner. She denies his perspective and experience. She can’t seem to make space for the reality of his pain alongside the reality of hers.
I know the righteous indignation I hear in Emily’s voice is a thin cover for the primary emotion behind her words—sadness—but on a gut level, it’s easier for me to like Matt and hold empathy for him. He’s eager to go inward and explore previously unexamined parts of himself. He allows me to reflect and heighten his emotions, and he’s willing to do vulnerable work. I try not to get tangled up in my preference for him as a “good” client. Emily sidesteps virtually all my attempts to invite her to allow her sadness to surface, sometimes even upping the ante. How can he help her when she keeps railing against him? I wonder. How will he see her vulnerability when she won’t share it? In a flash of irritation, I raise my voice slightly. “Stop! I can’t let you continue to speak to Matt in this way.”
She narrows her eyes, giving me a look that could pierce glass.
I take a breath. “Emily, let’s consider—.”
“I’ve had enough,” she snaps, leaping off the couch and leaving my office.
Matt stares at the open door, his face blank. Then, his head falls into his hands. Equally shocked, I remind him that something historical has likely gotten triggered for Emily that’s making it hard for her to be present and express what she feels and needs.
I leave my office to try to find Emily, but the hallway is empty. She’s gone. When I return, there’s not much else I can do. Matt picks lint off his pant legs. I try to focus on my breath, reminding myself that it’s okay to just be here without speaking. All the while, I’m fighting my own internal shame. This feels like my fault.
I suspect Matt hopes Emily will return as much as I do, but she doesn’t.
Sitting with My Impostor
Matt and Emily don’t return to therapy the following week, and I spiral into the part of myself that feels like an impostor. There’s a lot of shame connected to this part, which is relentless when I make mistakes in general, but even more so when a therapeutic intervention I’ve made seems to lead to a negative outcome. I have years of training and experience under my belt——I should know better than to let my frustration with Emily get the better of me!
For days, when I’m not with a client, I ruminate about what happened in our session, vacillating between feeling angry at Emily and ashamed that I don’t seem to be good enough to help her get under her anger, feel her softer emotions, and share them with Matt.
I remind myself that somewhere behind Emily’s fierce defenses hides a scared and lonely little girl. I thought I’d kept a balance between letting her know I understood her reality and reminding her that holding impossible standards for her partner and acting out her anger was working against their connection. Assuming they ended up returning to therapy, I didn’t want to repeat the neglectful, dismissive patterns she’d endured with her father. At the same time, I couldn’t keep letting her sabotage the emotional safety of the therapy room. If I did, then Matt would shut down, and we wouldn’t make any progress.
I bring Emily and Matt up in a consultation group we hold regularly in my office. I confess my clumsy intervention and the outcome of Emily’s walking out. My colleagues point out how much I seem to want Emily and Matt’s relationship to work. They gently remind me that I don’t get to control the outcome of their work. Sensing that I need reassurance, one colleague says, “Tracy, you’re a wonderful therapist.” Another says, “Don’t forget, they’re cocreating the dynamic that’s playing out between them. Your work is to help them make sense of what they’re doing by putting it in the context of their attachment behaviors.”
At the end of the group, I feel a mixture of hope, sadness, and fear. There’s no guarantee that Emily and Matt will return, but I’m grateful to sense a softening within myself.
Tapping into my Humanness
Thankfully, two weeks after Emily abandoned our session, she and Matt are back on my calendar. When we all sit down together, Emily begins with a list of recriminations. “Matt hasn’t held his fair share of the load,” she tells me. “He’s barely—.”
We’re about to go down the same path we’ve been down many times before. She’ll slip into her old patterns, and Matt will likely slip back into his. Maybe they’ll both up the ante, with Emily attacking more fiercely and Matt hiding his true self even more strategically. I know that this is a moment when I need to do something different—something uncomfortable. I need to share my humanness.
“Can I interrupt you for a moment?” I say. Emily stops midsentence, and nods for me to continue. “I’d like to apologize for what happened the last time we met. I recognize that what I said, and the way I said it, may have hurt you.” I’m surprised by the tremulousness in my own voice, which I can tell Emily and Matt are noticing, too, from the way they steal glances at each other. “As much as I’ve been trying to help you move through your own anger and frustration, I think I got caught in my own anger and frustration. What I wish I’d said was that the dynamic between you and Matt stirs up my own feelings of sadness and helplessness at times, because I see how much you both care for each other.”
Emily slowly nods, which I interpret as permission to keep going.
“We’re in that same spot again. You start to jab and poke at Matt, and Matt withdraws and shuts down. I know you’re trying to feel seen, but the way you’re doing it is working against you and won’t bring him closer. Could we try again, but this time from a place of really letting him see and feel your vulnerability and hurt?”
Emily purses her lips together, her chest rising from what I imagine to be the effort of containing whatever conflicting emotions she’s feeling. She doesn’t say anything. Compared to when she left the session, her silence indicates that she’s considering my invitation. She’s staying with the hard feelings my words have evoked, rather than jumping out of her seat.
“I wonder if this might be one of those moments where you feel blamed?” I ask.
“I’m never allowed to make mistakes,” she replies. “Everything’s always my fault.”
I remind her of the ways this belief stems from her childhood. She wasn’t allowed to make mistakes as a child, when she prepared the meals, cared for her younger sister, or got herself to school. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” I add. “You’re still good.”
Her eyebrows relax and her shoulders settle. She’s staying present in the work with us. Gently, I guide her to turn toward Matt. “I’m afraid of being alone,” she tells him, “just like I was so often with my parents. I’m afraid if I put all my eggs in your basket, you’ll drop it.”
Matt, having done his own work, sees Emily’s vulnerability. “That’s not going to happen,” he says with conviction, gazing at her lovingly. “I’m going to hold the basket. I’m not going to be perfect, but I won’t drop it. I’m here with you.”
Emily and Matt continue showing up for therapy. Over the course of a few months, their dynamic starts to shift. Our work remains hard, but it becomes gratifying as we create more regular moments of heartfelt connection—especially when Emily reminds herself that both she and Matt will inevitably make mistakes as partners—and that’s okay.
For me, our sessions serve as an important reminder, too: the painful clinical ruptures we try so hard to avoid as therapists can present us with an opportunity to show up vulnerably ourselves, modelling the kind of patience, self-forgiveness, and humility we want our clients to show themselves and each other.
Illustration by Sally Wern Comport
by Sara Schwarzbaum
Tracy Dalgleish’s case study got me thinking about how complicated couples therapy can get, especially with so much transference and countertransference swirling around the room. Dalgleish understands that Emily’s attacks occur when her low self-worth gets activated, and that these attacks further undermine Matt’s own sense of self-worth. But by potentially identifying with Matt’s sense of inadequacy, Dalgleish may have also inadvertently intensified her own feelings of doubt in her professional abilities.
As Dalgleish rightfully concludes, having a reaction is not a sign of immaturity or inexperience. It’s a normal aspect of working with human beings. But problems arise when we act out our feelings, instead of sitting with them until we have time to figure out what fuels them. Often, we need the help of colleagues to do this, as Dalgleish did.
This case study is a beautiful example of how Dalgleish found her way back from that challenging position of being an inadvertent client adversary, and I’m so glad she shared it with us. We therapists would do well to remember that rupture and repair, connection and distance, harmony and disharmony are normal oscillations in all relationships. In response to creating a rupture, Dalgleish created a repair: apologizing, acknowledging what she did, and starting to see things from her client’s perspective. It ended up being good modeling, since part of what makes a good therapy relationship is also what makes a good couple relationship.
Further, it appears that Dalgleish conceives of Emily and Matt’s relationship issues as a two-fold problem: the problem and how they talk about it. To address their issues, they need to create safety in how they talk about it. And in order for them to do this, Dalgleish understood she needed to help Emily not undermine Matt’s self-esteem. While it’s not Emily’s job to build Matt’s self-esteem, it’s incumbent on her not to undermine it. This is where my work might differ from the author’s: I’d stop couples therapy and ask to see Emily and Matt individually for a time.
In couples therapy, one partner often changes faster than the other. When this is the case, as it was with Emily and Matt, engaging in additional individual sessions without the activating presence of the partner can go a long way. If I saw Emily individually, I might say to her, “There’s nothing wrong with your feelings, and there’s also not much you can about them, but there is a lot you can do about how you express them.” I might press her for what exactly she wishes for herself: “How do you want to react when you get so disappointed with Matt?”
I might also seek her permission to intervene between she and Matt in the midst of session. I’d prepare her for this and collaborate on coming up with ways we can address any subsequent dysregulation. “First, are you willing to allow me to help you when you get emotionally distraught during a session? And then, what would be helpful to you in those moments? A glass of water? Raising your hands above your head? A brief walk around the room?” My hope would be to get some buy-in in the therapy process, so she might be more ready to accept my influence.
All clients desperately seek tools. When I work with pursuer/withdrawer couples, I might say to the pursuer, “It looks like you’re expecting more initiative from your partner, but the way you’re going about it is not going to achieve that goal.” It’s not unusual for a pursuer like Emily to immediately ask, “Well, what should I do, then?” This question is a sign that they’re ready for something different from us, including the tools that will get them closer to their own preferred behavior.
Although he’s clearly the more engaged partner in therapy, Matt has more work to do, too. Like so many men who withdraw and get defensive, he interprets Emily’s requests as failures on his part. In an individual session, I’d want to help him become less worried about changing Emily’s perception of him, and more interested in stopping her from attacking him. I’d see if he’d be willing to tell Emily, “I can see that you feel strongly about this issue, and I’m very interested in what you have to say, but can you say it differently?’” Eventually, he’s the one who has to be able to stop her from blaming him.
After the individual work, we could resume joint sessions to collaborate on a plan for them to take timeouts when they get activated as they work on better being able to self-soothe. The goal here is to help couples solve the moment, as opposed to the problem, so they can ultimately talk about the problem differently. Dalgleish understood this, and Matt and Emily were lucky to have her as their therapist. Not every couple ends up in such good hands.
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Tracy Dalgleish, PhD, CPsych, is a clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and relationship expert. For over 15 years, she’s provided direct clinical services to couples while researching, writing, and speaking about relationships. She’s the author of I Didn’t Sign Up for This: A Couples Therapist Shares Real-Life Stories of Breaking Patterns and Finding Joy in Relationships.. Including Her Own. She’s the founder of Be Connected Digital and the owner of Integrated Wellness. Visit drtracyd.com.
Sara Schwarzbaum, EdD, LMFT, LCPC, is founder of The Academy for Couples Therapists, an online training program, and of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago, where she currently practices. Her numerous publications include “One Size Does Not Fit All in Couple Therapy: The Case for Theory Integration.” Email her here.