Emotional Gridlock: Is Your Relationship Stuck In Traffic?

I have to make an admission. When the initial COVID lockdown in Melbourne was announced, my first thought was that it was going to be a nightmare being stuck inside with my partner Elisa. I actually said it out loud to her – which as you can probably imagine, went down like the freakin Hindenburg!

As it has turned out, I couldn’t imagine anyone better to be stuck inside with. But I am an introvert and need a lot of space, and Elisa is about as extraverted as you are going to get, not to mention being Italian – and so needs a LOT of connection. That is why the thought of being locked down together was initially very triggering for me.

It’s actually a very common dynamic in relationships that one partner always wants more connection than the other. In the beginning, both partners can (and often do) compromise on how much time they spend together. But ultimately it leads to tension and arguing, as both sides become less and less willing to compromise on their needs (for space or connection).

Relationships expert David Schnarch calls this “emotional gridlock”. Understanding how gridlock happens – and how to get unstuck from it – is one of the foundations of having healthy, happy relationships. Which is why I wrote this blog post. So, if you too have things you always seem to be getting triggered or arguing about – with your partner, kids, family members, friends or colleagues – read on. This blog might change your life!

So…what is “emotional gridlock”?

Gridlock in traffic is where cars go all the way around the block and literally prevent one another from moving. Which means that each driver is literally blocking themselves. Think about it: for you to move, the driver in front has to move, and the driver in front of them – all the way back around to you.

In relationships, gridlock occurs when both you and your partner are no longer willing to compromise on your needs, values and integrity. In the beginning of most relationships, people can “agree to disagree” on things like who washes the dishes or takes out the garbage.

But in time, the “easy” issues run out and we get down in the weeds with the really important ones – how many kids we want to have and how we want to raise them, how we handle the family finances, etc. Things that we can’t just agree to disagree about – and can’t ignore, either.

And of course, one of the big ones is how much quality time we spend together.

When a couple enters gridlock is when you typically see a sudden spike in conflict: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt John Gottman, another leading expert in relationships, calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse” (and can predict with an astonishing 94% accuracy whether couples will get divorced, based on whether these patterns exist in the relationship or not).

Ultimately, when couples are gridlocked, intimacy starts to die. Both partners settle into lives of silent desperation…or else have affairs or leave the relationship, hoping to find happiness somewhere else.

All of these things indicate a lack of differentiation.


Differentiation is our ability to remain an individual in a relationship. It requires that we hold onto ourselves – staying true to our values, needs and integrity – even when someone important to us is pressuring us to change. It means calming ourselves and staying emotionally connected to ourselves and the other person, even if they are totally freaking out. Differentiation means avoiding the extremes of losing ourselves in the relationship or being forced to take space so we can regain a sense of composure. It represents the balancing of two life forces – the desire for individuality and the desire for togetherness.

In his dense (yet incredible) book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch says that differentiation is a developmental task that most people never manage to achieve. Those who do, he observes, generally start it in their 40s – which is when they have the emotional intelligence and overall stability in their lives to do so.

Early in my relationship with Elisa there was a lack of differentiation. Actually, to be brutally honest, there has been a lack of differentiation in all my previous relationships. Rather than clearly expressing my need for space, for example, I used to just take it. I would do my own thing without communicating properly with Elisa. I would find myself feeling strangely irritated when she was around – especially when she wanted to connect. And even when I was with her, I would often be spaced out and mentally absent.

Perhaps this remind you of yourself or someone you know? It is a fairly common dynamic, after all.

Elisa and I both co-created this dynamic. She would get needy and beg me for connection (or guilt-trip me around my need for space). And as I said, I would zone out or just do my own thing without communicating it clearly. Seeing that we were both responsible for this dance was one of the important first steps we took together to resolve it.

Although having said that, it only takes one person to break this dynamic. It’s a dance, and if one person steps out, the dance can’t really continue. That is something that we have both learned to do – and have created a brand-new online course to help you do the same!

There was one particularly poignant moment about a year ago when Elisa told me that she was no longer willing to tolerate what she perceived as insufficient connection to meet her needs. She stopped blaming me for her unhappiness and realised that she was responsible for it. She realised that it was ultimately up to her whether she stayed in a relationship where one of her core needs wasn’t being met. She decided to stop focusing so much on me and instead to focus more on her connection with herself.

When she communicated all this to me, I could feel how serious she was. In that moment, she was no longer using blame, demands, guilt trips and threats to try to get her needs met, and everything was quiet and calm – but in a really intense way. I knew deep in my being that I couldn’t just avoid this any longer (or I might find myself single pretty soon)!

Something in me shifted and I really – like, really – felt how important her need for connection was to her, and how she was no longer willing to compromise on this.

But I felt something else too. As she pulled back – not into withdrawal or shutdown, but into her own sense of power and differentiation – suddenly, I could feel myself properly. I could feel into my own needs around connection and closeness. And to my surprise, I realised how much I also wanted these things.

You see, when Elisa had been chasing me for connection, I was always too busy regulating how much I gave her (and blaming her for being “needy”) to feel into how much I actually wanted. But suddenly, I could feel clearly. Her differentiated stance allowed – well I guess you could say, pushed – me into differentiating myself.

It only takes one person becoming more differentiated to shift the whole relationship. One person steps into their power and the other person knows somewhere deep inside that the relationship is at risk and they better step up their game.

Of course, at this point the less differentiated person can (and often does) attempt to use guilt, gaslighting and tantrums to unbalance the other person and reestablish the status quo. But when the other person stays differentiated, these tricks no longer work.

Instead, one of two things happen. The other person is forced to become more differentiated…or the relationship ends.

There is always the risk of the relationship ending. In fact, that way of relating ends the moment someone becomes more differentiated.

But what is the alternative? Maintaining superficial harmony but slowly drifting apart, or unconsciously agreeing to a codependent “I will accommodate you as long as you accommodate me” dynamic.

Over time, there is always a loss of emotional connection as we run out of “safe” topics to discuss, while unable to risk discussing anything that might result in conflict. Next, the sexual connection tends to go. The fighting begins, the affairs start and the workaholism and shopping addiction kicks in. We go into a holding pattern that some people spend their entire lives in.

When we really confront this alternative, suddenly the hard, grinding work of differentiation seems somehow worth it. It is the only way we can ever have genuine intimacy and depth in our relationships, which we all yearn for on some deep level, whether we are aware of this or not.

To increase differentiation in our relationships is to do some REAL adulting. It requires the courage to acknowledge that we are 100% responsible for our choices and for our own happiness. It takes commitment to our own integrity and values. And it takes hard work – and sometimes the help of a good therapist.

My own journey with differentiation is far from complete. Elisa’s too. The tension between her need for connection and my need for space may never be resolved, but perhaps that is a good thing. It pushes both of us to go beyond our own needs and limitations, while simultaneously honouring our own integrity. This is true differentiation.

How about you?

Remember, becoming aware of the lack of differentiation in your life is one of the most important steps. So, take some time to reflect on your own life for a moment.

  • Where are you getting caught in familiar patterns of conflict or disconnection?
  • Where are you blaming others for your unhappiness?
  • What are your needs in relationship, and do you express these in clear, healthy ways…or act them out unconsciously?

These are all the places where you need to grow, and where the work of differentiation needs to happen!

Just acknowledging this is more than most people ever do – and can be a profoundly powerful thing to do.

If you want help increasing the amount of differentiation in your life, so you can have greater depth and harmony with your boss, partner, kids, family members and friends, do my Mindful Connection Online Course. Let me (and Elisa!) teach you a powerful 5-Step Emotional Clearing Process to help you be more differentiated in all of your relationships! It would be an honour to support you!