Emotional gridlock in couples therapy

According to the late sex therapist Dr. David Schnarch (who claims to have coined the term), Emotional Gridlock is what happens when one partner’s preferences are thwarted by what their spouse would rather do (or not do).

Schnarch argues that the couple doesn’t necessarily start out as adversaries in a battle of wills.

He sees Emotional Gridlock organically emerging after the honeymoon phase when partners went out of their way to accommodate and validate each other.

In helping couples resolve Emotional Gridlock, Dr. Schnarch is an advocate of a Differentiation-based instead of an Attachment-based couples therapy approach.

However, from the get-go, Schnarch and his critics can’t even agree on a working definition of Emotional Gridlock.

He says Emotional Gridlock is not a “Mexican standoff” or the “simple conflict of non-negotiable values or existential issues.” For Schnarch, Emotional Gridlock typically emerges the more you rely on your partner for a validating “reflected sense of self.”

What is a reflected sense of self?  It’s when you’re not sure who you are without first favorably seeing yourself in your partner’s eyes. And because your spouse is so profoundly important to you, you need their approval to feel more positive about yourself. And if they truly love you, that will embrace that task by perpetually shoring you up.

He argues that if you expect your spouse to accommodate your wishes just to help keep you manage your anxiety…you’re well on your way to Emotional Gridlock.

For Gottman and Johnson gridlock is as gridlock does…

On the other hand, Gottman Couples Therapy and EFT are Attachment-based models. They don’t see any point in excluding value conflicts, boundary violations, existential dilemmas, or entrenched opposition from a working definition of Emotional Gridlock.

And I suspect that most couples experiencing such unfortunate conflicts might agree.

Furthermore, EFT and Gottman would see accommodation and validation as potential tools to help their clients deal with Emotional Gridlock, and not as an early-phase relational cause of gridlock. Gottman famously advises “Yield to win.”

But Schnarch is no fan of compromise, negotiation, accommodation, or yielding. He says communication is no virtue if you can’t handle the truth. For him, the ability to self-validate and self-soothe is essential to resolving Emotional Gridlock and achieving Schnarch’s idea of true intimacy.

Schnarch claims his ideas of self-validated and other validated intimacy have “revolutionized the field of sexual and marital therapy.” 

Attachment not only reduces adults to infants, it also reduces marriage to a quest for safety, security, and compensation for childhood disappointments. Dr. David Scharch.

I imagine most couples therapy clients might ask “if marriage isn’t a quest for safety, security and a way to heal from a lousy childhood…then what is it?” And I believe they might prefer to hear something like this from their couples therapist instead:

“Attachment offers a secure base. Secure attachment also provides a secure base from which individuals can explore their universe and most adaptively respond to their environment. The presence of such a base encourages exploration and a cognitive openness to new information. It promotes the confidence necessary to risk, learn, and continually update models of self and the world.” Susan M. Johnson.

You can’t discuss the notion of Emotional Gridlock without diving headfirst into a shallow pool of controversy; Attachment vs. Differentiation.

Actually, it’s not really a controversy at all.

Couples therapy thought leaders are pretty much in agreement. Attachment Theory (which is science and research-based) has utterly prevailed over Differentiation (which is not).

Schnarch may think that his ideas have revolutionized the field…but the field doesn’t seem to have noticed.

Let’s briefly define these terms, and discuss what they mean in the context of Emotional Gridlock.

Attachment vs. differentiation in emotional gridlock

Attachment Theory. (some would say science) in couples therapy emphasizes the quality of the emotional bonds between adult human beings, particularly those in committed relationships.

Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space (Bowlby, 1969).

Attachment Theory has become the most dominant set of ideas in modern couples therapy.

Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson. The principle idea underlying EFT is Attachment.

The idea is that the very same attachments that babies form with their parents are reconfigured in our intimate adult relationships.

The end goal is to resolve emotional gridlock by fostering the most adaptive attachment style, Secure Attachment.

Gottman Method Couples Therapy also acknowledges the centrality of Attachment, although Gottman and Johnson occasionally quibble about how our emotional systems operate.

“Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to saving and enriching your marriage.” Dr. John Gottman.

Differentiation. The ability to be in emotional contact with others, and  yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of Differentiation.” (Kerr & Bowen. 1988)

In the context of couples therapy, Differentiation has also been described as the active, ongoing process of clarifying and revealing who you are and what you think, while creating healthy boundaries with a spouse who might think or be, otherwise.

A high degree of Differentiation means that you’re able to hold on to yourself while staying connected to your partner and tolerating the anxiety of being two separate people.

“Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.” Dr. David Schnarch.

The case for differentiation

Schnarch did not invent the idea of Differentiation. He built on the broad shoulders of one of the giants of family therapy, Dr. Murray Bowen.

Furthermore, Dr. Schnarch isn’t arguing against the existence of human Attachment. He acknowledges that Attachment is real. He just doesn’t believe that couples therapists should be hawking the notion of Attachment as the be-all and end-all of a healthy adult marriage.

Instead, he argues that the more essential struggle is balancing Secure Attachment with our more-adult aspiration for autonomy.

The unavoidable conflicts that emerge as a committed couple seek to define themselves in the presence of their partner are not a comment on the quality of their Attachment. It is something else entirely. The struggle is a noble one, “growing themselves up” while developing, deepening and defining a felt sense of who they are, independent of their partner.

Attachment and Differentiation offer two very different visions of what Emotional Gridlock is, and what it means. Through the lens of DifferentiationEmotional Gridlock occurs when both spouses are stuck because, in the early limerent phase, romantic partners were once eager to oblige one another.

But inevitably, both partners discover that they can no longer “go along” with their partner without either violating their sense of themselves, giving up something they deeply value, or feeling more anxious and threatened.

In other words, the notion of safety and security has lost its relational utility when a partner won’t change who they are to alleviate our anxiety.

The paradox of differentiation… Watching Sue Johnson model a differentiated stance

I’ve probably seen Sue Johnson do couples sessions on video for at least 100 hours or more.

She is truly one of our greatest living couples therapists and the icon of Attachment-based Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy.

evidence-based couples therapy effectiveness

One of her impressive skills is how she manages to model a state of calm in otherwise tense and anxious moments while still engaging with her couple with power and purpose.

Clearly, in those clinical moments, she is modeling a differentiated stance to her clients.

But her purpose is to re-establish an emotional connection and restore the Bonds of Attachment. Schnarch maintains that our obsessive focus on Attachment keeps spouses in an infantilized state of excessive emotional dependence—enmeshed and fused.

Schnarch argues that because couples therapy prizes Attachment over Differentiation, it has become a challenge for spouses in therapy to speak their own mind, think their own thoughts, or attain their aspirations.

Excessive focus on Attachment, he says, not only reduces adults to an infantile level of development, but it also reduces marriage to a harried quest for safety, security, and the wholesale avoidance of risk.

“We’ve eliminated from marriage those things that fuel our essential drives for autonomy and freedom…marriage  becomes a trap that actually prevents us from growing up. Instead of infantilizing us, marriage can—and must—become the cradle of adult development.” Dr. David Schnarch.

Emotional gridlock and interdependence

Differentiation is the dynamic process in which you can experience both an emotional connection with your partner while maintaining a distinctly separate sense of yourself. Schnarch calls this successful stance Interdependence.

“By differentiation, I mean not caving in to pressure to conform from a partner who has tremendous emotional significance in your life.” The best marital brew is neither dependence nor independence, but a balanced state of interdependence.” David Schnarch.

Interdependence is a skill for spouses who are both able to navigate their own emotional lives. A well-differentiated couple focuses on flexibility and resilience, not on dependence or over-functioning. Differentiation values integrity and standing up for who you are over perpetually compromising and negotiating with your partner. It is strength-based.

But what does Differentiation look like in Couples Therapy?

Differentiation vs. attachment in different models of couples therapy

Unlike the Gottman Method Couples Therapy and EFT, the Developmental Model of couples therapy is keenly focused on the idea of Differentiation.

It was Drs. Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson, couples therapists, and not David Schnarch the sex therapist, who, I feel, more comprehensively incorporated Differentiation into a working model of couples therapy, as opposed to sex therapy.

Bader and Pearson formally train couples therapists in how to apply the idea of ideas of Differentiation and Attachment in couples therapy. However, neither is a sex therapist.

I have always had a keen interest in Ellyn Bader’s Developmental Model, having spent a year as a clinical intern in a couples therapy practice in Northampton Massachusetts that trained me deeply in their syncretic approach.

To differentiate is to develop a secure way of relating to your partner. Ellyn Bader

What partners do to explore emotional gridlock in the developmental model

  1. The therapist helps both partners to internally recognize and reflect on their own emerging feelings thoughts, and aspirations. Schnarch calls this having a solid flexible self.
  2. They also support each spouse in revealing their feelings, thoughts, and aspirations congruently without blaming their partner. This is similar to what Schnarch calls grounded responding.
  3. The therapist should also ask each spouse what they are learning about their partner. As Differentiation evolves, the couple will develop an awareness of themselves as individuals who are separate and distinct from one another.
  4. The therapist will invite each partner to respond effectively to what they learned. As they develop an increased ability to listen, learn, and acknowledge, the partners will ideally stop taking these differences as a personal attack or threat. Scharch calls this having a quiet mind and a calm heart.
  5. Finally, a good Developmental Model Couples Therapist would support both spouses in their ongoing efforts to continue reaching out and supporting each other. When they stop resisting one another, the couple has the option to co-create a new relationship that incorporates what they both want for themselves. Emotional Gridlock in The Gottman Model. This is similar to what Schnarch describes as having meaningful endurance.

Schnarch calls having a solid flexible self, grounded responding, quiet mind and calm heart, and meaningful endurance The Crucible Four Points of Balance (TM), and he has trademarked the term. 

What I find most interesting is how he describes these traits as “four uniquely human abilities, evolved over millions of years, are intrinsic to the human brain and constitute the basis of differentiation.” He also takes pains to describe his Crucible Four Points of Balance (TM) model of measuring Differentiation as a model that can be employed in all human interactions, not just intimate relationships.

However, there is a difference between Bowen and Schnarch. It is one of ambition. Bowen was content to focus on anxiety reduction in the family system, Schnarch is more keenly interested in helping his clients to increase their anxiety tolerance and perhaps even measure their ability to do so.

Gottman and emotional gridlock

On the subject of the importance of Differentiation, Gottman has occasionally been dismissive.

During his lifetime, Bowen said that it would be impossible to measure a client’s level of Differentiation with any degree of accuracy. And Gottman is all about measurement.

Gottman does not seem to agree with Schnarch on the origins of Emotional Gridlock. While he does say that Perpetual problems comprise 69% of all marital conflicts, he has never mentioned other-validated intimacy as a significant factor.

But both Schnarch and Gottman see marital conflict as healthy, normal, and inevitable. Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of intimate bonds. Gottman and Schnarch also see working on Emotional Gridlock as a continuousnever-ending process.

“Keep working on your unresolvable conflicts. Couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.” John Gottman.

I guess it could be argued that these “expectations” must come from a deeply personal place…a differentiated self perhaps?

For Gottman, the first step in overcoming Emotional Gridlock is open communication with your spouse about your feelings thoughts, and aspirations.

“Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to saving and enriching your marriage.” Dr. John Gottman.

Here are some fundamental similarities between the Attachment-based Gottman and the Differentiation-based Developmental Model in dealing with Emotional Gridlock:

What partners do in couples therapy to explore emotional gridlock 

  1. Recognize that conflict is inevitable, but it is also in most cases, fundamentally unsolvable.
  2. Demonstrate curiosity about each other’s emotions. Gottman’s Dreams Within Conflict intervention is specifically designed to facilitate this process. The Eye-to-Eye exercise in the Developmental Model of couples therapy has more similarities than differences, which is why I describe these and other similar interventions as Generative Conversations.
  3. Emotionally regulate. Learn to tolerate anxiety and experience the increasing tension until conflicts are defined. Gottman says to lean into your partner. The Developmental Model instructs couples on how to self-soothe and remain fully present.
  4. The couple explores solutions that work for both partners without compromising either of their essential core values.
  5. Gottman says to repair relationship ruptures as they happen… again and again. The Developmental Model says to self-soothe…and remain curious instead of furious.

Perpetual problems declawed

Gottman and Schnarch both advise us that Some Problems Will Never Be Solved.

Accept the notion of a “perpetual problem” that will require ongoing management.

It’s important to self-soothe (Dr. Schnarch would totally agree) but Gottman would remind us to also to soothe our partner as well.

Gottman’s notion of being responsible for your partner’s nervous system is an important difference between Differentiation and Attachment-oriented couples therapists.

I can easily imagine a Differentiation-oriented therapist belaboring the need for a client to “tolerate anxiety” and “grow themselves up.” Some couples might feel challenged by this approach. On the other hand, some partners might need to be challenged in order to get out of a victim mindset.

“Your purpose is not to solve the conflict – it will probably never go away completely… instead, the goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain.” John Gottman.

Here are specific Steps from Gottman couples therapy for managing emotional gridlock for solvable problems:

  • Define the minimal core areas that you cannot concede. These are your “non-negotiable “must-have” items.
  • Define areas where you can be flexible without resentment.
  • Pursue a “good enough” temporary compromise that you can both reasonably endorse.
  • Check-in at an agreed-upon date to evaluate.

Secure attachment and differentiation… Working together to resolve emotional gridlock?

Secure Attachment and Differentiation support each other, but if you don’t start out with Secure Attachment, acquiring the skill of Differentiation becomes much more difficult

Rather than chasing a futile chicken and egg argument, I think that Attachment and Differentiation are complementary dimensions of intimacy. The more you have of one, the more you can also have of the other.

Differentiation is a product of Attachment Security. Nathan R. Hardy & Adam R. Fisher.

Perhaps Attachment or Differentiation alone doesn’t have the entire answer. I think a good couples therapist knows how to help a couple manage Emotional Gridlock by being able to assess a couple’s capacity for both Attachment and Differentiation at the same time.

But a truly gifted couples therapist will have the ability to bob and weave between the dynamics of Differentiation and Attachment with skill.

Final thoughts about emotional gridlock

I think it’s about human development and our family-of-origin.

When a child has a Secure Attachment, they have a greater capacity in adulthood for Differentiation, and a greater ability to manage Emotional Gridlock.

But what we see more often in couples therapy are spouses with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment. This compromises their ability to learn the skill of Differentiation as adults.

When they feel threatened in session, they tend to blurt out hostile, dysregulated comments.

EFT seeks to soften the landing and promote a feeling of safety by “catching the bullet” of a negative comment. Schnarch might argue that Attachment-oriented therapists coddle a couple by accommodating that anxiety. Gottman Method, Like the Developmental Model, is a bit less indulgent.

Most Gottman therapists would prefer to call out the four horsemen of criticismdefensivenessstonewalling, and contempt instead. A Gottman couples therapist isn’t content to successfully catch the bullet every time. A Gottman therapist wants to eventually empty the handgun and put it out of reach.

A Differentiation-oriented couples therapist can seem unsentimental and hard-nosed about Emotional Gridlock. They directly tell couples that they must increase their ability to tolerate their own anxiety, “grow themselves up,” soothe themselves and be curious.

Gotman would somewhat agree, but would also focus on the important skills needed for soothing their spouse and repairing with them as well.

Originally published December 28, 2019


Bader, E., & Pearson, P. T. (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. Brunner/Mazel.

Bowen, M., 1971a. Principles and Techniques of Multiple Family Therapy. In J. Bradt and C. Moynihan, (Eds), Systems Theory, [no publisher stated] Washington, DC.

Bowen, M., 1972. On the Differentiation of Self. First published anonymously in J. Framo, (Ed.), Family Interaction: A Dialogue Between Family Researchers and Family Therapists, NY, Springer: 111-173.

Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.

Bowen, M, & Kerr, M.E., 1988, ”Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory, New York: Norton & Co., 1988.

Bowlby, J. M. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. M. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London, UK: Tavistock.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999). What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative medicine. Family Process38(2), 143-158

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce?: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, S. & Greenberg, L. (1985). “Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: An Outcome Study.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 11(3), 313-317.

Johnson, S. & Greenberg, L. (1985). “The Differential Effects of Experiential and Problem Solving Interventions in Resolving Marital Conflict.” Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 53, 175-184.
(EFT, CBT, and controls tested.)

Johnson, S.M., Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgleish, T., Halchuk, R., Hasselmo, K., Greenman, P.S., Merali, Z. & Coan, J.A. (2013). “Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy.” PLOS ONE, 8(11): e79314.

Schnarch, D. M. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: An integration of sexual and marital therapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schnarch, D., (1997). Passionate Marriage, NY, Norton.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Hello – Thanks for having all this info on your website. I've spent a good 3+ hours on here tonight reading through things as my wife and I are again in the middle of another heated debilitating argument. I may reach out to do a consultation soon for some possible online counseling help, but for now I have a couple of questions about this article topic.

    First off a kind of side comment/question, as I'm on here reading this I'm reminded of myself and my personality of being a thinking based person vs. my wife being a feeling based person. Those are from the Myers Briggs personality profiles and remembering those I'm curious to see if and how those types of personality differences play into relational problems? Is that commonly addressed within couples therapy?

    But onto my deeper question related specific to this article…. Are there situations in which one method (Attachment or Differentiation) is needed for one spouse and the other method is needed for the other spouse?

    As I read through this article and hear a lot of the points made in the Differentiation model, those are things I have been saying to my wife for some time. She needs to "grow herself up", she needs to "self-soothe", she needs to work on remain fully present in our conversations, she should remain curious instead of furious, etc. But I know that she would say what she needs is the Attachment model. She definitely needs secure attachment and an emotional connection for her to function better in the relationship.

    I probably had a secure attachment childhood and so Differentiation is more logical and can help in self motivation to drive improvement. To be sure, there are parts of Differentiation model which I strongly disagree with, and there are parts of the Attachment model which I strongly agree with. But what I am concerned about, and which led to my question, is that I logically think my wife needs one method but her personality is going to drive her to strongly wanting the other method.

    Anyway, thanks again for all this good info. I appreciate any additional insight or suggestions on my questions, either as a response here or direct email if you prefer. Thank you.

    1. Hi Michael,

      If one of you is most dominantly using feelings to guide your behavior and another is more cognitive, that is one of the perpetual issues Gottman talks about. Of course it’s not possible to think without being guided to some extent by the more intuitive or feeling side of yourself or to feel things without your neocortex processing that information, but these terms are often used in popular culture. Your therapist will use the approach that is going to best suit both of you, and use techniques that you can each identify with. You’ll also learn which skills are going to help you enhance your communication based upon the feedback the therapist gets from The BIG BIG Book. This information guides the approach.

      Hope this helps!

      Dr. K

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