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.
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.
Judge Tim Philpot, Dr. Bill Doherty, and myself (Don Sizemore, LCSW), have worked together for over two years to implement a process whereby couples are given an opportunity to be sure that divorce is their best decision. Three marriages which came to me for the two hour court ordered Discernment Consultations have been reconciled, three families reunited. Families number one and two continue in treatment, going through the therapeutic protocol established by Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The third one that chose not to continue therapy is at greater risk for a return to divorce court, although as of this date they are still married and living together and report their relationship has improved. Three families were ready to divorce, standing before Judge Philpot waiting for his signature on the order. They have moved back in together, giving up their separate residences, and their children have one home.
A fourth couple postponed their divorce and attended 13 sessions, including 5 discernment counseling sessions and 8 marriage therapy sessions of EFT with an unsuccessful outcome. This couple has stopped therapy, lives separated but have not proceeded with divorce. One spouse continues to hold out hope but the other is in a position of stonewalling, unable or unwilling to stop self protecting. I do not think this relationship will survive.
The fifth couple, who is chronologically the first couple referred from the legal system by an attorney, not the court, was seen for 32 sessions of EFT. This is not an unsurprising number of sessions when there is a past history of childhood trauma that complicates developing secure attachment. Their therapy concluded over a year ago; they are still married and report their marital relationship is stable.
Do couples really want to divorce? Or more positive, do couples want to stay married? In my experience as a marriage therapist no one that I have seen is happy about their marriage failing from which I conclude no one really wants to divorce, especially those with children. This has not been more evidenced than with the 20 couples I have seen for the court ordered session. None of them were celebrating a failed marriage and the one common denominator was pain either expressed or repressed but still obvious on their faces.
Some might say that the pain on their faces is due to being forced to endure the Discernment Consultation session that has no chance of making a difference in their resolve to divorce and having to pay money to do it. There were two instances that come to mind where one spouse stonewalled their way through the session, not allowing one emotion to seep through, just a cold wall of protection. What impressed me about the other cases was that their certainty of being done with the relationship was based on their experience of emotional deprivation or rejection over an extended period of time. They were emotionally spent, had given up hope that their partner might change, and would not allow themselves to risk the pain of being disappointed again. It was never because they could not tolerate their partner and just wanted out; those kind of cases would likely not find their way to me and any abuse based relationships are ruled out for referral.
The judge, Tim Philpot, who was ordering discernment sessions was applying scientific advancements in the field of marriage and family therapy developed by Dr. Bill Doherty and colleagues from the University of Minnesota, to make a better assessment of the state of a marriage. Is this marriage irretrievably broken? Is reconciliation possible? Is there ambivalence about proceeding with final separation and divorce? Professional therapists who are properly trained now understand how couples gain and maintain a stable emotional connection, how they lose it, and how to repair it. The legal system has not kept up with scientific and therapeutic advancements and divorce is treated as an inevitable outcome when it gets to a lawyer and then to a judge. If this project has demonstrated anything it is that there is another way forward and simply processing a divorce decree because there are no other options is simply not true.
In most cases the couples I interviewed had not received couples counseling and if they had, it was ineffective. There are only a few research documented marital therapies that have efficacy and one of them is EFT with a 73% success rate. The others that I am aware of are Imago Therapy and the approach developed out of the John Gottman Institute. None of the couples had received counseling based on these approaches and the results were predictable. Many marriages that are in distress can be helped but too easily find their way onto the divorce track where the legal system offers no side track to slow the train down. This is tragic. It is as if we have accepted the inevitability of divorce. And worse, somehow divorce has become a right rather than an option of last resort. But what I have noticed in my sessions with desperate relationships (not just court ordered couples) is that more often than not if they can be shown a way, the couple will follow it to save their relationship.
Another benefit of connecting couples with the therapeutic community of counselors, is that in two other of my cases one of the spouses has continued to seek treatment. They wanted help making the transition through divorce for themselves and their children, how to best interact with their ex-spouse, and hopefully glean how not make the same mistakes again in their next relationship. It is well documented, and common sense, that patterns of behavior continue to repeat unless challenged by a thorough self examination such as that available with a trained therapist or wise mentor.
This experience has been an eye opening one. It is obvious we can affect in a positive direction seemingly hopeless and terminal relationships. Asking the question “Are you sure this divorce is best for you?” is not oppressive, it is compassionate and the just thing to do. To become numb and accept the inevitability of fractured marriages and families is to lose hope for ourselves.
Created for Connection
The “Hold Me Tight” Guide for Christian Couples
Leader: Don Sizemore, LCSW
Join us for an 8 week journey to learn the skills and experience the joy of a connected love relationship. We are created in the image of God to love and to be one with God and one another. This is especially true for our marriages and when you feel distant or separate from your spouse, or just desire greater intimacy, you need to know how to form a secure, safe, loving connection.
Crossroads Andover, Lexington, Ky.
Wednesday Evenings 6:30-8:30 pm
September 6th-October 25th, 2017
Call Crossroads Andover at 859-263-4633 or Don Sizemore at 859-224-0265 for more information.http://www.drsuejohnson.com/books/created-for-connection-the-hold-me-tight-guide-for-christian-couples/
I often see men in my practice who are struggling with porn addiction, that is they compulsively view pornography. This has serious impact on their marital relationship and sexual performance. As with any repeated behavior our brain develops specific neural pathways that become ingrained and are thus compulsive. We experience this as thoughts and feelings that compel us to repeat the behavior. We are “driven” by our brain to do the deed, viewing porn, drinking, smoking pot, gambling, eating, worrying, and other compulsive behaviors that control aspects of our existence.
Recently I saw a young professional, married man who struggles with compulsive porn viewing. He is an educated person who is a dedicated follower of Jesus, who we can call Matt. Anyone would recognized him as a committed believer. He has a good and supportive relationship with his wife who is engaged with him in battling his compulsion to view porn. She, who we can refer to as Sue, also is a committed believer in Jesus. Sue is emotionally mature, meaning she can manage negative emotions so that her thinking brain (the prefrontal context) does not go offline when strong emotions occur. She is able to hold an objective awareness of her experience. This is a critical skill that we all need and can develop.
One of the most helpful therapeutic interventions with compulsive thoughts and feelings is meditation. There are several forms of meditation but they all have one thing in common, they help develop objective awareness of our internal experience. I prefer Centering Prayer meditation because it has a basis in Christian Scripture and Tradition as contemplative prayer. I introduced this practice to Matt who quickly grasped its significance. The significant and powerful benefit of contemplative prayer is that it develops the skill of our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt was able to experience his compulsive, obsessive thoughts and feelings to view porn as something “other” than himself. Simply put, our essence is not our thoughts and feelings, we are not our thoughts and feelings, we could say we are spirit. That is, there is a part of us that can observe our inner, subjective experience. When Paul says in Romans 8:16 that God’s spirit testifies (agrees with) our spirit that we are His children, this personal spirit is, I believe, our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt, almost immediately experienced a new found freedom from his compulsive behavior. He quickly realized that he did not have to respond to the thought and feeling to view porn. He had freedom of choice to do something different once he knew that his identity is not determined by what he thinks and feels. This new found freedom is not like a vending machine, put in a dollar and get a candy bar, it takes consistent, persistent, practice but for Matt he has found a way forward, he does not feel trapped or enslaved to compulsive porn viewing.
Not everyone grasps as quickly the potential of meditation as Matt did, nor does everyone have a Sue in their life, or a strong faith. All of these things matter in overcoming such difficult challenges, but developing our inner witness, our spirit, recognizing and understanding that we are not defined and bound by what we think, or what we do, or what we feel, is powerful and freeing.
I have had two major surgeries in thirteen months, a hip and knee replacement. Both were more involved and challenging than I expected, but in different ways. Sixteen months into this structural makeover has made me aware of a few things but primarily a reminder that we never really know what is going to happen next. And yet the paradox is that we live mostly as if everything will remain the same or at least consistently similar. And most of the time it probably does, until it doesn’t.
This reminds me of a quote by John Muir (naturalist, responsible for the existence of national parks like Yellowstone) who said something like: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe you find it is attached to everything else.” You change the alignment of a body with a new knee and hip and it affects everything else and the consequences are not predictable. You literally are not the same person because you are faced with different challenges, some good, some not so good. The point is you are affected by tugging at a single thing.
I think this is why events like divorce are not good. In my spiritual framework, in Malachi 2:16 a book in the Old Testament, it is said that God hates divorce because it does violence. We often moralize about divorce or same sex marriage which only serves to alienate and separate us into tribal camps, but if we begin to understand that everything is connected, all of us, and that we never really do anything that affects only ourselves, we begin to have wisdom that how we live our lives are not isolated events and these events might do violence to one another. Love one another because everything is connected.