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De-escalation: What is it? And why does it matter?

One of the most frequent areas of confusion for EFT learners is knowing if their couple is in stage 1 or stage 2. This is a very important distinction because knowing what stage we are in will direct our interventions in session. For example, if we are in stage 1, when we uncover primary emotion, we want to help clients link this with their reactive behaviours/protective coping strategies in the cycle, whereas in stage 2, we want to deepen and expand awareness of how this emotion links with view of self and other, disowned parts of self and attachment needs. One reason that therapists can feel unsure about what stage they are in has to do with confusion about what constitutes de-escalation. We are not moving into stage 2 until couples have shown indicators that they are de-escalated.  

What are markers of de-escalation? Lorrie Brubacher, EFT trainer from the Carolina Centre for EFT outlined 12 markers of de-escalation which are condensed below into 9 markers:

1. Identify and own their habitual position in the cycle.

Partners can say things like: “When I feel disconnected from you, I get angry and lash out.”

2. Access and own softer emotions underlying their position.

Partners can say things like: “When I feel you distant from me, I tell myself that I don’t matter to you, and I get scared that one day you will leave.”

3. Link partner’s reactive behaviour to their own attachment emotions and their own reactive behaviour.

Partners can say things like: “I get that you pull away in reaction to my lashing out, which is how I cope when I get scared that I don’t matter to you.”

4. Link own reactive behaviour to partner’s attachment emotions and partner’s reactivity.

Partners can say things like: “I get that when I lash out, you hear that you are failing, and it triggers your fear that you will never be enough for me. I see now that you cope with your anxiety by shutting down.

5. Couple has a coherent story of the cycle as a common enemy.

6. Partners see one another as more fearful than dangerous and uncaring.

7. Couples can identify the presence of the cycle in the now.

8. Couples can Interrupt the cycle in a way that allows them to fight the cycle together.

9. Partners may access longings for safety/connection. They are still angry and mistrusting but not as hostile.

It is important to note HOW MUCH needs to happen for couples to be de-escalated and ready for stage 2. Some common misconceptions are that couples are de-escalated because:

  • Couples are arguing less at home.

  • Couples are less escalated in session.

  • Partners are expressing primary emotion in session.

While the latter are elements of de-escalation, none of these on their own, are sufficient indication of de-escalation. For example, couples can be arguing less at home because they are avoiding one another and not because they are feeling safer together. Regarding the expression of primary emotion, this does not lead to de-escalation until partners are aware of the link between attachment emotions (aka primary emotions) and reactivity, in both themselves and their partner. What this means is that partners can express sadness and fear in session, but if they are not aware on the INSIDE of how these painful feelings lead to the very coping behaviour that scares their partner (and elicits the behaviour from their partner that scares them) they will go home and go right back into the cycle. 

Markers of de-escalation are an excellent guide for stage 1 work. They can give therapists a sense of what stage 1 Tangos should look like, especially, affect assembly (tango move 2) and enactments (tango move 3). Often, in stage 1 work, EFT learners are trying to get to primary emotion but when they get there, they are not sure what to do with it. The de-escalation guidelines indicate that in stage 1, the goal is to link primary emotion with reactive emotions and behaviour while using an attachment frame. 

Knowing what to do with primary emotion when you get to it is very helpful, especially in stage 1 when the level of tolerance for vulnerability is still low and the bond between partners is still unsafe. With de-escalation guidelines in mind, we are less likely to overwhelm clients early in therapy. By linking the attachment emotions to reactive emotions and coping strategies, we are organizing the client’s experience, making their vulnerability more tolerable. We are helping clients discover what happens to them when they feel disconnected from their partner so that they can learn to share this directly rather than become reactive. When sufficient de-escalation markers are not present, and therapists move into stage 2, this often leads to reactivity, because it is de-escalation that provides the safety to tolerate stage 2 interventions. 

Of course, like all things EFT, assessing for, and achieving de-escalation is not without its challenges. It can be discouraging when it seems like the markers of de-escalation are present one week, and seem to have disappeared the following week. Please know that this is normal and that you are not alone! The process is not always linear, and it can require a lot of repetition before clients’ awareness and ownership of their part in the cycle is fully integrated. When de-escalation is present, the increased sense of safety can be felt in the room. 

Partners begin to see the cycle as the problem and one another as fearful rather than dangerous or uncaring. Best of all, partners come to see that the fear they both experience in the cycle is because of how much they matter to one another. This creates a safe enough container for the start of stage 2 work, in which partners are being asked to feel and share their deepest attachment fears and needs with one another. 


couple reconnecting


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