A while back I spent a week at a training workshop for therapists on Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. While I have been working with couples for years, there is always more to learn; I believe that this is the best couples methodology available today. Currently there are new frontiers opening in brain research, child development, and the need for safe secure connections in our primary relationships. These new areas of knowledge impact the practice of psychotherapy, especially around the areas of intimate relationships as well as how we have the power to alter our feelings, perceptions and responses.
What makes a relationship work? It is one of the questions I have been asking and answering in my own life. Because of my own history, developing the ability to have healthy nourishing relationships, to be present, direct and also be vulnerable has been a long and ongoing process. I remember once watching a romantic movie over and over again, gripped with the impending connection, the hope for absolute and complete harmony, for the feeling of truly loving and being loved.
Think about your relationship or what you imagine your relationship will be like. What do you long for? What do you dream about? What are the feelings you are looking for? Connection? Love? Safety?
As babies, we are held, fed, and attended to, and we grow in this context of connection. We continue to need connection throughout our adult lives. We long to be understood, to be cared for and to be loved. We long to know that we are important; that how we feel matters. We long to flow effortlessly between connection and autonomy. But our relationships are not so easy. Distressed couples are so because they do not feel safe connecting. As situations occur that frustrate that need for safe connection, disharmonies arise between us, as do both FEELINGS and behaviors. We develop strategies to not feel our grief, anger, shame and fear. We may cut off our own longing and not feel our need for connection. We may get angry and bitter to keep from feeling the grief that is underneath. These strategies that protect us, also limit our relationships.
As a therapist, I watch how couples interact. I notice how they talk to each other, who moves forward and how, who holds back. How we respond to each other creates a pattern. Noticing the pattern is important, because the pattern itself must be addressed.
This dance we do with each other stirs deep feelings that we act out causing painful cycles of interaction that repeat and repeat.
The other important piece is the feelings themselves. In therapy, we unpack feelings that are below the surface, below the mirage of the laundry that is never put away, or the frustration of a partner who wants to stay home instead of go out. Because we get stuck in the “above ground” issues, we don’t understand what is underneath; that we don’t feel cared for, loved, respected or understood. Most of us don’t fully understand our historical relational wounds and how they impact us. We often don’t face our partners and tell them about our hurts and what we need. When we do, they sometimes cannot hear us.
While straightening this out, both the therapist and the partners sometimes get caught in compromise. “If you do this, I will do that,” etc. Compromise doesn’t deal with the deeper longings for safe connection. It is like rearranging the furniture in a room that is falling down. Changing our relationships involves learning new ways of being, reorganizing our emotions and experience, and understanding ourselves differently EXPERIENTIALLY. As we interact with ourselves and partner differently, we are actually architecting a different brain. It also means that both parties will be emotionally uncomfortable for a while. And that is a big deal. I don’t know anybody who says, “Great, I want to be emotionally uncomfortable. I want to feel vulnerable, scared, or in pain.” It is inherently uncomfortable to connect with our primary feelings and communicate our vulnerabilities, yet it is an essential part of change. While the old pattern keeps us stuck, emotional responsiveness allows our love to grow. Are you willing to be uncomfortable?
Very briefly, here’s what has to happen:
We identify the relationship pattern.
We take responsibility for our part.
We get in touch with our deeper feelings including old wounds affecting our perceptions and needs.
We take responsibility for how our part of the pattern affects our partner’s feelings.
We listen to our partner talk about his or her feelings.
We share our own feelings.
We support each other in this process.
Lets suppose we have a couple where one of the partners is closed down and the other is more volatile (this is very common). The closed down person (let’s say he) often doesn’t really know his feelings. He got away from them a long time ago, as they weren’t fun. Maybe as a child, he was criticized or his feelings weren’t supported. He suppressed those feeling; packed them away. He tends to be cerebral and logical. He doesn’t know how to open up and be vulnerable, and the idea of it is frankly, scary. The volatile partner is more connected to her emotions, but often it is anger that is expressed, not her longing for connection, or her feelings of not wanting to be abandoned, or wanting to be considered more. That partner has learned how to try to assertively get what she wants rather than be open and vulnerable as well as feel and then communicate her pain. What happens when these two get together? When they run into a conflict, he will withdraw, and she will attempt to get what she needs by moving forward, often with some anger. He hides more and she pushes more. They get caught in a cycle. Neither realizes that the cycle is caused by both of them. Both feel like it is the other person’s fault. Neither knows how to change the cycle. Neither person feels safe.
The mission of the EFT therapist is to enable both partners to experience their primary feelings and longings, explore, organize, and ultimately communicate them to their partner. This requires the partner who doesn’t have good access to his feelings to DEVELOP access to his feelings. It requires the angry partner to stop blaming and see the vulnerability of the more withdrawn partner, and later to also show her own vulnerability and need. When a couple begins to do this, they are responding to, and caring for each other rather than reacting, closing down, blaming or pushing the other away. As each develops in their ability to feel, understand feelings that they were not aware of, and open to the other, they become a stronger couple. They feel safer and more secure. They both change into people who are capable of a nourishing relationship.