(The material in this article comes from understanding gained by training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples)
Working with couples effectively means you understand the three dimensions of our relationships: Attachment, emotions and cycles. Learn about what needs to be focused on to do effective couples work, or to work on your own relationship.
1) The dimension of attachment: attachment is a framework that underlies all intimate connection even if we are not aware of it. Most of us aren’t. It is a term more used by psychologists, therapists and people working with infants than the general public and many people don’t know anything about it. Attachment means that we look at important connections through a lens that asks questions like, “Am I important to you?” or “Do you really care about me?” or “Am I enough for you?” etc. It is hard wired into us. As babies, connection means life. Disconnection is death. Attachment is about relationship and it brings with it questions about safety, belonging and meaning. It asks, “What do I mean to you?” “Am I safe with you?” “Do I belong?” It is through an attachment lens that we interpret the actions of our partner. Events that are upsetting to us bring up attachment related questions. We are often not aware of these attachment related questions, and when they get activated by a lack of connection or another attachment threat, they get translated into negative thoughts like, “You don’t care about me” or “You never put me first” and actions like yelling or withdrawing. We react because we are afraid that we are losing our connection or being overwhelmed by it. Our fears that we are not enough, or not important or valued enough emerge. What we aren’t aware of is that our partner is responding to his or her own attachment fears and isn’t yet conscious or, or doesn’t know how to sort through this. The screaming partner is screaming for closeness. The withdrawing partner is withdrawing because the distance is how he or she maintains the relationship when he or she feels criticized, not understood, or not good enough. When we learn this lens and practice seeing through it, we will be able to re-interpret what is going on and understand it in a new and much more constructive way. Without this lens, it is very difficult to develop empathy for our partners when they are behaving in hurtful ways. But once we see that they are struggling with their own attachment issues, it is possible to feel less threatened and have more empathy. This is important because we want to change our stance so we can reconnect more easily.
2) The dimension of emotions: when we feel emotion, we feel it in our bodies. It is visceral – we shake, cry, ‘see red’, hunch over, look away etc. The dimension of our emotions is about feeling. Exploring our feelings helps us understand more about ourselves, about our reactions, about old feelings that we are still trying to avoid. Many people are uncomfortable with their feelings. Some people don’t have a very good vocabulary developed to describe their feelings, or their feelings have been compressed, pushed down and aren’t an active part of their reality. This can change. We can and need to get to know our feelings better if we want to expand our ability to relate. The dimension of emotions can be experienced more deeply, navigated more easily and articulated more clearly. When our attachment questions get activated our feelings also get activated. And when our feelings get triggered, so do our attachment questions. But as we understand our feelings more and experience them more fully, we can learn to witness them and talk about them rather than react from them. This helps calm down the dimension of cycles.
3) The dimension of cycles: cycles occur in all relationships. If we are struggling in our relationship, our cycle will be contributing to our difficulties. Our cycle is what occurs between us over and over again. I feel disappointed and cry, you get frustrated and yell or withdraw. I cry harder. You withdraw more. The dimension of feelings and the dimension of attachment both interrelate with the dimension of cycles. If I experience my relationship as unsafe because of a disconnect, I might feel sad and cry, while thinking, “nobody loves me” and as I do this, you withdraw because you think that you can never make me happy and this feels bad, shameful, scary to you. I feel abandoned and sad. You feel alone and inadequate. We both want to be close. We cope by crying or withdrawing. Gaining control over our cycle is important. First, we must develop a conceptual picture of what our cycle looks like, of what actually occurs. As we understand our cycle, and see how it relates to attachment issues and feelings, we aren’t so threatened by it and our reactivity goes down. We understand how it gets fueled, and that it doesn’t need to go on forever. As we gain control of our cycle and understand that we can influence it, we start to feel even safer.
Copyright 2010 Jennifer Lehr