Our Relationship and Emotions
When couples get lost in their threat narratives, what we commonly call fights or arguments, we are being driven by emotions we do not fully understand. One of the powerful and effective results of EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) is that we become more aware of our emotional experience and how our emotions, our feelings, affect our interactions, our communication, with our partner. Couples, or marriage therapy, is most effective when it helps couples experience what is really going on inside of us and between us in those challenging and difficult moments. The key to that is being able to fully process (talk through) our emotional experience with each other. We then feel “safe” with our partner; we are not reacting to perceived threats or attacks, but are more open and responsive to each other, able to really listen and understand what is going on with each other. This draws us closer and strengthens our connection, making our relationship more secure. Couples who are not able to do this gradually drift farther apart, and if not repaired, will likely end in separation or divorce.
Being able to talk about, describe or process your emotional experience is a developed skill. Many of my clients who struggle with getting the results they want from therapy have great difficulty sitting with their emotions, having enough space between experiencing what they are feeling and understanding what they are feeling. EFT really focuses on helping our clients in couples therapy develop this skill and then do it together. We learn to hit the pause button and reflect on what we are feeling and why:
“I am feeling scared because I am afraid you might leave me.” or “No matter what I do it never seems to be enough and that makes me sad.” Naming these emotions and the thoughts that accompanying them calms us because we better understand what we need and what to ask from our partner. Our partner is empowered because what was confusing and chaotic is becoming clear and simple. Sincerely expressing things like reassurance is powerful when coming from a loved one who we are turning to for comfort and care: “I’m not leaving, I just get overwhelmed too”, or “You are enough for me, I too get scared.” All of a sudden our relationship struggles become clearer and we know what to do, how to respond to each other. It almost sounds too simple but these are powerful, bonding experiences that draw us closer to each other. We understand each other, are able to be there for each other, and that really feels good.
Couple’s Threat Narrative or What Happens in a Fight
A reason I write these blogs is to stay in touch with former clients and provide some kind of ongoing support. I need to be more faithful about that so here is a reminder for every couple I have seen about what arguments, conflicts, or fights are: Your partner is not “the enemy” or the problem, the threat cycle is, and the narrative in your head that goes along with it.
One of the more powerful insights from EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) for couples to understand is the threat narrative, that voice in our head telling us what is happening is not good. When we are threatened, either emotionally or physically, our brain and body go into reactive, self protective mode. Our perspective narrows as our fight/flight center in the brain ( the amygdala) takes over in a split second and our thinking, reasoning part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline. We are geared up and ready for action and the threat is our loved one. This is the genesis of our fights. And this little voice in our head is creating a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about our spouse or loved one, and maybe even about ourselves, that is based on a narrowed, limited threat perspective. In other words it does not represent the whole picture of who your spouse/lover is and you cannot trust it as the truth. If we are to stop our fights with one another we must learn to recognize this commentary in our head and stop listening to it. This is what couples therapy helps us do. This is the first issue we address in couples therapy and it changes relationships.
No doubt it is challenging to slow down this adrenaline driven threat response, it is probably the most challenging hurdle to overcome in repairing your relationship. Everything in your body and brain is screaming “danger, danger” and it’s difficult to listen to the new voice of attachment saying “your partner is not the real enemy”. Well, your partner is not the real enemy, so listen to the voice of attachment and work with each other to get out of the threat, attack-defend cycle that may spiral out of control into a very ugly place. Then we couples can create a new, more safely connected narrative together.
Blessings and may peace reign in your hearts.
I have not written a blog since April of this year. Something about the nature of things, the pandemic, the election, social unrest, family matters, has made me mute. I really have not had much to say, which means I have not been reflective of my life experiences and what they may signify. Maybe my lack of reflection is from being overwhelmed by life. What I have experienced has been too much to process as this pandemic drags on and family changes and challenges mount up. The onslaught of visceral violence we all have witnessed through the media, eroding the life I am used to so that the routines, the rituals, the way of life being so altered that one loses their footing. Not that the loss of footing necessarily means falling, crashing to the ground, but rather a kind of disorientation living in a strange, new world of uncertainty.
Maybe the most impactful uncertainty has been because of the fear of letting others know what I think about ‘the nature of things”. I have become more cautious, even afraid to say what I think or believe, for fear of being attacked or rejected or misunderstood. So I say nothing, and I am subtly impacted with a degree of separation between myself and others that it takes a toll on my well being that is difficult to name and describe. I can think of many instances where I have chosen not to say something for fear of offending or being misunderstood. That is not my nature, to be so cautious. I usually don’t worry about what others think of me, but the continued state of uncertainty that we all are living in seems to have caused an emotional instability in more people, including myself, a sensitivity to differences that risks an eruption of disconnection.
And of course we literally are living more apart and isolated, intentionally distancing ourselves, even from our own family members who may be at risk. We are also living with a fear, either denied, repressed or expressed, of getting infected. Wether we admit it or not, we are more vulnerable, especially those of us who are baby boomers (the beginning of the end of baby boomer dominance). We can’t hug, touch, and be comforted, many are dying alone in a room. It is psychically destabilizing and disorienting, which worsening mental health statistics of depression and suicide substantiate.
And yet, at least for me, it is Christmas, the season of hope and peace, good will to all, a light shining in the darkness. (But even here, I wonder if I am offending those of you who do not celebrate the birth of Christ, risking putting a wall between us, especially those of you who are clients of mine. I hope you know I have no wall between us and that I am treating you with honor and respect, no matter what you profess. Please let me know if you feel otherwise.) And what is this light shining, this hope? It is love, a love that sees no divisions, no enemies, no separation. A love that connects everything and everyone, a love that perhaps brings two planets together again to shine a light that has not been seen in 800 years and it just happens to be 2020, a year of chaos, uncertainty and darkness. Boy, did we need to be reminded of such a light.
We want to let all our clients know that Don Sizemore & Associates is offering telehealth services in a very convenient format. We can do all our counseling and many of our OT therapeutics through this format (my wife, Carolyn is an Occupational Therapist and partner). We will be contacting those of you who are active clients to arrange this service. Both Carolyn and I will continue to see clients face to face on a limited case by case basis either in their homes (Carolyn) or at the office (Don). We follow the social distancing and infectious protocols for disinfecting physical surfaces. Please let us know if you have any questions and our prayers are with everyone.
Please do the things that promote immune system functioning: meditation, exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and loving one another. Our spirit, mind, and body need to be made ready to battle whatever comes.
Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular practices for managing and overcoming anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental health struggles, including addictions. As counselors we a have better understanding of the brain, the way it works and how to change it. Neuroscientists and therapists like Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz https://jeffreymschwartz.com/ have shown us that we are not our brain; in other words, we do not have to live under the tyranny of our thoughts and sensations. Counselors who teach the practice of meditation and mindfulness help their clients understand that they are not their anxious or depressed thoughts, that their best self identity is something other than what thoughts or sensations are saying they are. There is physical evidence from brain scans that this is so and that we literally can create new neural pathways that rewire the brain to work more effectively and change behavior. This is amazing stuff and I see the fruit of it in my counseling practice all the time.
It is obviously challenging to create new neural pathways and rewire our brain. It is not as if we can do away with thoughts we have had for years; I am still going to have the thought at times to eat more, a sensation of hunger even though my body really does not need more food. My body and brain are deceiving me into believing I am really hungry, or maybe for you it’s needing a drink, or a smoke, or to watch porn. But I, and you, do not have to respond to this deception because there is a part of us that is aware of these thoughts and sensations. Mindfulness helps me stop living on automatic pilot, to start paying attention. Meditation helps me grow the muscle to observe so I am more aware that I have choice in how I respond to my thoughts and sensations. I have a better self, a better me that realizes these thoughts are not “me” and I can choose another course, not only to not eat more, but as Dr Schwarz says, to refocus my attention on another behavior, doing something else like talking to a friend, reading a book, going for a walk, entering into prayer, any number of behaviors that rewire my brain and make it easier to stop eating more than I need.
These practices of mindfulness and meditation are nothing new. They have been practiced for thousands of years, mostly in spiritual traditions which were the only “self improvement programs” available until sciences like psychology developed. We are not at the mercy of our thoughts and sensations; it just takes disciplined practice and a lot of grace to overcome them. Listen to your better self, that voice or whisper you hear in moments of reflection that says, “things don’t have to be this way, I am created for more.”
Self Protection, Not Better Communication, Is the Problem
The primary struggles that most couples have who come for marriage counseling are caused by fear and self protection. Most couples think they are having a communication problem and if they could only learn how to better express themselves to each other their relationship would get better. On the surface this is hard to argue with except that research demonstrates that teaching better communication skills to married couples who are struggling rarely helps. What helps is marriage counseling that focuses on creating a better, closer emotional connection. The struggle that couples have is because they do not feel emotionally safe with one another, there is a fear factor that causes them to self protect. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it.
Most couples I see for marriage counseling do not think of being “afraid” of their partner yet during therapy they become aware of how often they self protect and how they self protect. When men lose safe emotional connection with their spouse they typically self protect by withdrawing, creating emotional distance. Women are most often pursuers when this connection is lost, pushing for a different and more engaged emotional response from their husband. When a couple is dancing out of emotional sync with one another, it triggers this self protective response and a couple loses safe emotional connection. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it. Once a couple is dancing in emotional sync with one another they are no longer missing the emotional cues their partner is sending for understanding, comfort and acceptance and there is no “fear”, no need to self protect, then a couple has to opportunity to draw closer to one another.
Considering Marriage Counseling or Divorce?
When you are considering who to see as a therapist, counselor, or marriage counselor it is one of the most important decisions you can make. There have been many instances where clients have experienced frustration and disappointment with previous counseling experiences. I am often amazed that they are willing to try counseling again. This is especially true with marriage counseling. Please make sure the counselor you choose has the experience, training, and track record that reassures you of a good counseling outcome.
If you are considering divorce and you decide to try marriage counseling before making a final decision there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all some statistics show that only about 10% of divorcing couples seek marriage counseling before ending their marriage. Couples are making one of the most life changing decisions that affects their children and entire families without consulting a professionally trained marital therapist or counselor. We don't hesitate to consult our car mechanic and even pay them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to keep our car running. I recently had to replace a clutch in my Subaru for $1800 just before Christmas! Merry Christmas to me!
Please consult an experienced and trained marriage counselor or couples therapist before deciding on divorce. One caveat, beware if your counselor recommends divorce, it probably means they do not know what they are doing. Competent therapists and counselors know how to allow their clients to make their own decisions.
Irretrievably Broken Marriage?
Go to my website, donsizemore.org, and check out new video interviews with couples who were on brink of divorce and reconciled!
These are two video interviews with couples who wanted to tell their story of their decision to pursue marriage counseling and reconciliation. They were part of a two year project in the Fayette County Family Court of Judge Tim Philpot in Lexington, KY. Judge Philpot, Dr. Wm. Doherty of the University of Minnesota, and myself, introduced measures to help couples pause on the legal superhighway to divorce. The couples' experience is a powerful testimony for that project and Emotionally Focused Therapy, a marriage counseling approach with proven results.
Gratitude, Christmas, and Happy New Year
I am so grateful for all of you who have allowed me to be a part of your lives. I cannot express what a privilege it is to be allowed in someone's place of struggle and to participate in seeing growth and change take place. And I thank you for helping support and nourish my counseling practice. It was and is such a blessing to be a small, but hopefully meaningful part of your lives. I hope you have a blessed Christmas (I know some of you may not celebrate Christmas, so Happy Holidays) and New Year.
Weekly Tuesday Nights @ 6:30-7:30 pm
Beginning June 19th, 2018
Office of Don Sizemore & Associates
698 Perimeter Dr. STE 101
Lexington, KY 40517
Meditation in its various forms is a practice that has demonstrated beneficial effects for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life. It has been practiced for centuries in every major religion and is a subject of neuroscience research and application. It is especially helpful for changing bad habits, ending unhealthy thinking, and enhancing our spiritual life. I encourage many of my clients to meditate as a religious practice or for well being. A group experience is supportive of our individual practice of meditation.
The session will include a twenty minute group meditation exercise and teaching on the practices and effects of meditation as well as a discussion of our experience with meditation. This group is open to anyone wishing to participate. It is offered as a free service.