Dance Theory


The theory behind The Dance

‘Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have asked thousands of our clients to describe something that consistently triggers them, and then explain why.

Remarkably, we’ve found that a trigger can almost always be traced to the same root cause: the feeling of being devalued or diminished by someone else’s words or behaviour.

Rather than focusing attention on the other person when you feel triggered, try turning your attention inward.

First quiet your body and defuse the trigger by taking a deep breath. Next, ask yourself these questions: “Why am I feeling my value is at stake here, and is it really?” Finally, consider how you can hold onto your value without attacking the value of the person you feel threatened by. Blame merely keeps the trigger and the negative emotion alive.

Our challenge is always to reconnect to our own core value — even when someone else’s criticism or behaviour cut deep. What that requires, first and foremost, is compassion for us.’ Tony Schwartz at  CLICK HERE

Of six reciprocal patterns in marriage, this demand-withdraw pattern has the highest rate of divorce, especially when it goes beyond the dating dance.

Romance novels dress this pattern up in combinations of these three stories – ‘Taming the Shrew’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It may begin as courtship tango but later solidifies into a struggle for secure attachment and intimacy.

The pattern easily polarizes into good guy bad guy perceptions – e.g., ‘if you weren’t so critical’ or ‘if you didn’t withdraw’ … ‘then we wouldn’t get into this mess’. Many of my clients endure this for 20 years before getting help in the last hurrah of an intensive.

The interaction pattern is co-created and co-maintained.

Accepting that the cycle is a dance for two can be the beginning of taming it.

The pattern is the enemy not the dance partners.

Couples can both attack/pursue or both withdraw/placate but the more usual configuration is one pursues most of the time and the other withdraws most of the time. One criticizes the other defends; one gets increasingly ’emotional’ the other reciprocally shuts down; one seeks fusion the other isolation; one feels abandoned in the relationship and the other engulfed by it.

There tends to be a gender bias and cultural overlays on the pattern.

However, universally the cycle is about connection and attachment needs.

  • Are you there for me?
  • Do I matter?
  • Will you catch me if I fall, hear me if I call, hold me if I hurt?

The dancers are dragged along in ways that reinforce the negative interaction cycle at the same time as feeling powerless and out of control. Both feel out of control even though one might look more in control.

The withdrawer/stonewaller sometimes tell me they shut down to lower the conflict and protect the relationship from further harm, support the team. That’s not being in control – that’s just terrified of an irretrievable loss of connection.

Over time the quantity and quality of negative interactions may come to outweigh the positive ones.

Result: it is unsafe to show tender spots and expose the personal vulnerability essential to an authenticity and intimacy.

Creative problem solving occurs when people can have that fearless conversation.

Lacking that freedom, problem solving becomes basic, rule bound and instrumental. Clunky.

People get stuck in this pattern because the negativity becomes self-reinforcing and compelling. It taps into the brain chemistry of distress: in feelings of fear, hurt and shame; of sadness and loneliness or numbing of feeling; in threats to safety and survival; in fight/flight responses.

These each drive to the three core issues of attachment – accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement.

The influence of stress hormones

Cortisol is the stress hormone; oxytocin is its antagonist. The feeling of our partner’s accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement stroke the oxytocin cycle. We know it in the guts. It’s visceral. In the absence of that certainty, the cortisol cycle kicks in. The stress effect can completely distort perceptions of one another’s intentions and actions, which then become self-reinforcing. Each loses sight of the unmet attachment needs that are protesting at being ignored and dying to be heard.

Intimate partners with knowledge, love, and respect for each other can behave abominably under these influences. They come to believe the other has neither knowledge, love, care nor respect for them. Shame based perceptions may confirm it. Trauma history can feed it.

Rotten behaviour happens in all marriages but as Gottman has shown those who bounce back quickly have an

  • underlying fondness and admiration for each other
  • can inject humour into the events and,
  • take ownership of their part in it!

Paradoxically, the pursue/withdraw pattern at its worst is captivating, feeling as if one is a captive. It can lead to the Stockholm Syndrome CLICK HERE

Those caught in the spell feel unable to disentangle themselves, even when their own behaviour has exceeded what they themselves can respect – ashamed of the person they have become. Yet the couple keep on engulfing and abandoning each other, criticizing, and defending even when their perceptions of each other would say it’s either over or it’s time to get help.

‘Why’, I ask them both, ‘would you stay with someone who thinks so little of you, who demeans you daily and to whom you so blatantly reciprocate those sentiments?’

Intimate relationships are attachment bonds even when devoid of obvious benefit.

Each may be restrained from leaving a bad situation by a longing for their attachment needs to be met by their life partner; by fear; by trauma bonding or by an unspoken knowledge that neither have got the big picture right.

Something like ‘I know mine’s not the whole story, but it feels like the whole story especially when I think your version is completely wrong.’

The attack-pursue, withdraw-placate pattern is driven by each over-functioning and under-functioning in different ways and at different times. For example, at the extreme, one the compulsive breadwinner the other compulsive home maker, with the former doing no housework and the latter having no external validation.

It grows especially well in dysfunctional families and cultures.

Gender overlay

Raised to value intimacy, women are usually eager to discuss problems and feelings. Brought up to value stoicism and control, men are more comfortable avoiding confrontation and arguments. The result: the more she pursues ‘conversations’, the more he feels scrutinized and withdraws. The marital bank account goes into overdraft.

A people pleaser married to an injustice collector is a particularly virulent form of this pattern.


Here is a description of the dance

When change or stress enters the couples’ life, the pursuer will move toward the distancer, seeking some sort of connectedness and the distancer will move away, seeking a comfortable emotional distance (Step 1). Of course, as the emotional pursuer’s need for a comfortable (and comforting) connection are frustrated, he/she will pursue the partner with greater intensity, causing, in turn, the distancer to withdraw further (Step 2). At this point, the pursuer will become frustrated with the effort and stop the pursuit, moving away and often withdrawing. This usually causes the distancer to take a step toward the partner, usually saying something like, “What’s wrong?” to which the common response would be, “Nothing.” (Step 3) However, the step taken toward the pursuer will often satisfy that person (though marginally) and the response which closes off further communication (“Nothing”) satisfies the other’s need for distance. This dance is repeated over and over in pursuer/distancer relationships and at the end of Step 3, they have achieved a sort of equilibrium.

Guerin, et al. note that the couple is in real trouble if they proceed through two additional steps in which the pursuer, in response to a tremendous build-up of frustration over time, attacks the distancer in response to the “What’s wrong?” question and the distancer attacks the pursuer, defending him/herself (Step 4) and then the partners remain at a fixed, hostile distance from each other (Step 5), diverging from the ebb and flow of the repetitive cycle of Steps 1-3.

People usually just slip into these roles. One person tends to cede various tasks to the other who willingly takes them on because they confirm a sense of competence, while allowing the partner to feel cared for. As with all reciprocal personal relationships, in their lightest, most benign forms, they are quite functional and allow people to “fit” together in their intimate personal (or business) relationships. The problem arises if each allows the complementary pattern of interaction to reinforce and amplify each person’s behaviour. Many of us have heard someone (if not ourselves) complain that the person who used to be so outgoing, entertaining or at ease with others is now a blowhard. The stable, reserved person is boring or withholding. The endearingly cared for person is frustrating in their incompetence and, of course, the higher functioning partner is now over-controlling. In one classic example, we might hear: “You’re never home anymore.” “I stay away because you complain.” Well, I complain because you’re never home….” Abigail Trafford in her excellent discussion of the divorce process entitled Crazy Time terms this “marital deadlock.” quoted from ‘The Dance’ at shaublaw

It is something like a cocktail party where people from different cultures are juggling personal space.

Or perhaps it is something about finding the emotional distance where I can focus on you with comfort. That may differ between us because of differences in the acuity of our senses. For example, in our hearing ability (poor hearing – I have to be close; acute hearing – you have to lower your voice or I move away a bit); or in ability to see (long sighted I have to move out to focus on you; short sighted I have to be close to focus); and our ability to feel (slow to access and articulate feelings, so I find the right distance to become aware of my feelings and to express them; quick to know one’s inner feelings in which case I can be up close and still in touch with me).

I wonder how much our preferred pattern shapes our senses of distance and closeness – a chicken and egg?

In hooking couples up to blood pressure and heart-rate monitors during arguments, Gottman found that partners tend to stonewall (distancer) as a protection against feeling emotionally “flooded” (the pursuer in your face).


As a chronic pattern in a committed relationship, it is likely about being flooded with shame.

Escalating shame most frequently occurs when partners end up in the roles of pursuer and distancer. When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer wants more contact and reassurance. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances, leading to a seemingly endless conflict or impasse.

An important element of this cycle is the fact that both partners often feel shame for their respective feelings or needs. Even shame about experiencing shame.

The pursuer may feel rejected and shamed for “wanting too much,” while the distancer may feel shame for either being uncomfortable with closeness, or for wanting more space. Each person feels criticized (shamed) by the other, each not realizing that both are having the same experience of shame.

People pleasing pattern

The people pleaser/injustice collector is a fuser/isolator pattern.

People pleasers can also be practitioners of passive aggression, which they deny.

People Pleasers are often the unwitting contributors to family dysfunction, although they are far from being the only culprit in a dysfunctional family. People pleasers tend to have Injustice collector counterparts: the Injustice collector in the family remembers every slight, real or imagined, and throws it back in the People peaser’s face, while the People pleaser scurries to set things right with the angry Injustice Collector. The cycle will repeat indefinitely, because the particular dysfunctions of the People pleaser and the Injustice collector are a perfect fit with one another: Injustice collectors feel entitled, and People pleasers feel that everyone ELSE is entitled.

The unfortunate outcome in the dysfunctional family is that either the People pleaser has to become progressively more crippled and entrenched in their subservient role in the family, or else they become healthier and stronger and ultimately are accused of breaking up the family.

Below are Kam’s notes from a Harville Hendrix workshop conducted at Gold Coast Yoga Centre. CLICK HERE

There are some general patterns of behaviours possible from each one of us in the dance of relationship. It is also possible to change; being a fuser in one moment & an isolator the next or a fuser in one relationship & a isolator in the next.

The fuser grew up with an unsatisfied need for attachment.

The isolator grew up with an unsatisfied need for autonomy.

The fuser is relieved by commitment, as it reduces the fear of abandonment.

The isolator is triggered by commitment fearing absorption.

Every day of their married lives, husbands and wives push against this invisible relationship boundary (fuser/isolator dynamics) in an attempt to satisfy their dual needs for attachment and autonomy. Most of the time, each individual fixates on one of those needs: one person habitually advances, in an effort to satisfy unmet needs for attachment; the other habitually retreats, in an effort to satisfy unmet needs for autonomy. For a variety of reasons, the person who typically advances begins to retreat. The partner who habitually retreats turns around in amazement: where’s my pursuer? To everyone’s surprise, the isolator suddenly discovers an unmet need for closeness. The pattern is reversed, like the flip-flop of magnetic poles, and now the isolator does the pursuing. It’s as if all couples collude to maintain a set distance between them.

An isolator’s guide to fusers and reactivity

Reactivity: The fear & automatic self-protectiveness that arise when, to the old brain, one’s psychological or physical survival has been threatened. This automatic survival instinct has been programmed into us over millions of years of evolution.

Fusers primary sense of safety & security in the world comes from maintaining close emotional contact with others. (at that time with that partner) Events which separate or threaten to separate them from important others in their life, even brief or minor ones, can trigger their worst unconscious fear, that of abandonment (& death). Fusers seek to avoid losing their relationship with others in a variety of ways, including:

  1. Actively pursuing physical & emotional intimacy & closeness
  2. Being willing to put aside their own needs or expression of self, in deference to their other’s needs
  3. Attempts to force the other by “upping the emotional thermostat” when other methods fail

Two types of events will trigger strong reactivity in fusers.

  • Conflict because conflict equals distance & distance hints at potential abandonment
  • Withdrawal & lack of follow through because the fuser’s childhood caretakers were so good at giving & then withdrawing their love & availability

Perceived or real rejection via emotional distancing (silence, excessive exiting, etc) will thus cause reactivity in a fuser. The single greatest cause of fuser reactivity is an implied or outright threat to end the relationship. It is not necessary that the threat state a decision to leave as the fuser will quickly add that interpretation to even the most remote suggestion that the relationship might someday terminate. The fear of losing a relationship, even a poor relationship, is so intense that a fuser would rather assume the worst is happening rather than live with the possibility it might happen. Also, assuming the worst offers the fuser his/her best hope of preventing a life-threatening event from occurring.

The reactive fuser, if he or she is also a Maximiser, will not be shy about expressing his/her needs & feelings. They may raise their voice, cry, slam or throw things, try to instil guilt or otherwise manipulate their partner into re-establishing harmony & contact.

While isolators need space to calm down, fusers need just the opposite: closure & contact.

A fuser’s guide to isolators and reactivity

Isolators ‘unconscious’ fear is that of psychological suffocation or engulfment by the needs or emotional demands of another person. (At that time with that partner) Not surprisingly, isolators are most at ease when given space. Isolators might enjoy closeness, but only in measured amounts. Isolators tend to be Minimisers & often not very in touch with, nor do they care to be in touch with, their feelings.

The greatest source of reactivity for isolators is the feeling of being controlled by the emotional demands of another person. As soon as isolators begin to feel pressured, they will dig in their heels & refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, even those that they themselves would describe as perfectly reasonable. This is reactivity in the isolator, & once it has been set in motion, the isolator’s attention shifts almost exclusively to the process rather than the content of a discussion. The isolator’s goal at this point is to re-establish a sense of personal control over his or her autonomy & space. To this end, he or she will typically “shut down” all systems until a feeling of safety has been regained.

In general, isolators achieve & maintain their sense of personal safety by:

  • Being in control of themselves at all times
  • Keeping a degree of psychological & physical distance (i.e., a safety zone) between themselves & others
  • Minimizing or denying their own feelings, needs or wants, both positive & negative
  • Discouraging strong or upset feelings in others by “keeping the peace” & “walking on eggshells”
  • By increasing physical or emotional withdrawal when other methods fail.


Effective couple’s therapy for the Dance

Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (this EFT-C not to be confused with the other EFT – emotional freedom technique) is my preference. Here are some other evidence-based models of mending.

Clients report that five things happened in therapy that made things better for them:

  • One partner expressed underlying feelings, and the other changing their perceptions of the partner after hearing this
  • Learning to understand underlying emotions
  • Learning to productively express emotional needs
  • Taking responsibility for emotional needs
  • Receiving validation for one’s needs

Strengths of EFT quoted from CLICK HERE

  • EFT is considered one of the most well-substantiated therapies (even Baucom, the heavy-duty behaviourist agrees) with well-designed studies backing it up as having isolated necessary and unique factors of change in therapy.
  • It’s been shown to be an effective treatment for couples and families facing sexual abuse histories, depression, grief, management of chronic illness, eating disorders, and PTSD. The only caution I’ll offer though is that it’s hard to tell from the studies I’ve read whether the bulk of the research has been based on married or cohabiting couples.
  • Meta-analysis of the best EFT studies (with randomised assignment and control groups) shows a Fail-Safe n of 30-50, so the effect sizes obtained are pretty strong.
  • EFT is brief work (8-12 sessions) and leads to as good or better rates of improvement (less distress after therapy) and recovery (adjustment and satisfaction scores in the non-distressed range) as other therapies.
  • In Cloutier’s study, in the EFT group 7% had divorced two years after the treatment, compared to 38% of the controls.

Indicators for EFT are high negative emotional engagement, low sexual affection, older couples (especially for men over 35), and lower sense of emotional engagement or time together in the couple; interestingly, these are also predictors of failure in TBMT.

EFT is culturally sensitive as universal emotions are examined but placed in a personal cultural context. For example, shame is universal, but shame takes on an additional role in the Japanese culture. Anger is universal, but often takes different forms when men and women express it. Responsibility is universal, but what’s “a man’s responsibility” and “a woman’s responsibility” is determined but the culture’s views of marriage.

EFT is humanistic based and believes the couple can heal itself. Feminists appreciate that the therapy model:

  • Does not show a patriarchal pathologizing of connection and attachment (women’s ways of relating), and idealization of separation and individuation (men’s ways of relating).
  • Requires that the does not assume the position of power over the couple but empowers the partners.
  • Views both partners as lacking in some skills; men need to expand their emotional repertoire and women need to feel powerful enough to express their needs.
  • Allows for the analysis of changing gender expectations that create a new kind of stress for couples to manage. Examples include dual careers, the freedom not to marry, and expectations of both parents to raise the children.

EFT offers a theory of how to understand adult love, which has been lacking in the field of couples’ therapy:

  • EFT offers a way (based on attachment theory) to integrate disparate practices like Gottman’s therapy, ibmt, and narrative approaches.
  • Counter-productive behaviours can also be seen as an insecurely attached partner’s efforts to provoke response, rather than as stable pathology.

Attachment theory also explains healthy development, as securely attached partners are open to re frames and different points of view, and able to tolerate ambiguity, to meta-communicate, to handle learning unflattering things about themselves, to feel and express regret for their past failures recognizing and meeting their partner’s needs, and to see their understanding of the world and others as working models.

  • Attachment theory also explains unhealthy development, as insecurely attached mourn lost attachments (think about someone who is legally married but has been emotionally divorced for a long time), engage in inconsistent attachment behaviours (think attack and defend, or pursue and distance patterns), suffer ongoing attachment injury (ongoing negative sentiment override), may experience attachment panic (maintain physical and emotional control over their partners), or maintain multiple attachments for fear of losing or being swallowed by one (who have affairs).
  • Attachment theory also makes building love maps and rituals of connection, halting the four horsemen and flooding, and engaging in behavioural exchanges all behaviours that can improve attachment. However, as johnson says, simple skill building and behavioural scripting is not sufficient for marital improvement; rather, the ability to “unlatch” from negative emotional and behavioural cycles is required.