Many climate change adaptation scholars recognise the complexities in the governance of adaptation. Most have used the concept of ‘barriers to adaptation’ in an attempt to describe why governance of adaptation is challenging. However, these studies have recently been critiqued for over simplifying complex governance processes by referring to the static concept of barriers, thereby ignoring dynamic complexity as a root explanatory cause. This paper builds the argument that how barriers are currently used in the literature is insufficient to explain why the governance of adaptation often proves difficult. We adopt a so-called mechanism-based approach to investigate how and why the governance of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) reaches impasses in five cases in Thailand and the Netherlands. Our findings show six causal mechanisms that explain impasses in the five case studies: (1) frame polarisation, (2) timing synchronisation, (3) risk innovation, (4) rules of the game, (5) veto players and (6) lost in translation. Several of these causal mechanisms are recurring and emerge under specific contextual conditions or are activated by other mechanisms. Our findings provide valuable insights into the impasses in the governance of EbA and allow for critical reflections on the analytical value of the mechanism-based approach in explaining why the governance of adaptation proves difficult and how this can be overcome.