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.

It's Never Too Late

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.

The Path of Transformation

There is an oft used phrase in EFT, an attachment based approach to healing marital distress, “catching bullets”. I use this phrase in my counseling sessions with couples to help them (and ourselves) work on not being reactive to their partners negative comments. This helps couples learn to stay out of, stop or slow down getting into a fight cycle. This takes an amazing amount of restraint and self control and one most distressed couples find very difficult to do. It is very challenging to manage our impulse to self protect when we are being criticized, attacked or generally on the receptive end of someone’s fear and hate. The reason it is especially difficult in marital or love relationships is because this is the person we expect to love us, to be there for us, to understand us, cherish us, and certainly not criticize or attack us. We feel betrayed by the one we have trusted the most.

A powerful example of “catching bullets” is seeing the work of Jesus on the Cross. Richard Rohr says this:

“The significance of Jesus’ wounded body is his deliberate and conscious holding of the pain of the world and refusing to send it elsewhere. The wounds were not necessary to convince God that we were lovable; the wounds are to convince us of the path and the price of transformation. They are what will happen to you if you face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred. Jesus’ wounded body is an icon for what we are all doing to one another and to the world.”

This is a powerful image (what an icon is) of love, one that will change marriages, and the world. I hope you will ponder and reflect on this, that Jesus shows us a way to follow, a way to be, by “holding one another’s pain” and “face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred”. This changes everything in human relationships. I see it everyday in couples who are learning to see that their partner’s angry or rejecting comments are more than bullets being fired to hurt and wound and by refusing to send it back, the door is opened to reconciliation.

Why We Shout In Anger

A spiritual director who was visiting a local beach found a group of family members who were shouting in anger at each other. He turned to his disciples, smiled and asked,

'Why do people shout in anger at each other?'

The disciples thought for a while, one of them said, 'Because we lose our calm, we shout.'

'But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner,’ said the director.

His disciples gave some other answers but none satisfied the other disciples.

Finally the spiritual director explained,

'When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance.

What happens when two people fall in love? They don't shout at each other but talk softly, because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is either nonexistent or very small...'

The director continued, 'When they love each other even more, what happens? They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that's all. That is how close two people are when they love each other.'

He looked at his disciples and said:

'So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant, do not say words that distance each other more, or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.’

What is it that distances you from the ones you love?  Do you not feel understood, accepted, respected or valued?  Or are you not understanding, accepting, respecting or valuing those you love?  These attributes determine the distance between hearts and the volume of the voice. 

Date Night

There are several questions any couple can consider to reflect on the state of their marriage.  One of the things couples do is get caught up in our every day responsibilities and activities and miss what is going on with our partner.  Even if we schedule a “date night”  for togetherness and connection we often don’t really talk to each other.  To get the conversation going consider answering these questions together.

What are the things you like most about your relationship?
What do you like most about your partner?
What are the things you would like to be different about your relationship?
Can you remember together a time or season when you both felt close? 
What is one of the most important things you do that helps your partner feel loved?

These are five simple questions that can initiate a more in depth conversation.  Try and expand each question with follow up questions or comments.  Avoid one word or one sentence answers.  Be willing to be present in the conversation by putting your smartphone and other distractions to the side.  Give your partner your full attention and you will likely discover something new about your partner, an appreciation of who they are that you had not seen before.  This is a good feeling experience that automatically draws you closer to one another.  Now that is a successful and rewarding date night!

What Makes Emotionally Focused Therapy(EFT) for Marriage Counseling Different

For one, it is effective, very effective. It actually helps bring about changes so that couples are able to connect with each other. It does not focus specifically on better communication skills but helps make real communication possible, the kind of communication that says: "You get me, you understand me." It does not focus on changing behavior like going out on date nights, or saying the right things, or doing desired favors. It does make right behavior possible because for maybe the first time your spouse is able to ask you for what they need in a way that makes you desire to meet their need. There is little in life more satisfying than knowing you know what someone needs and can provide it. Many, if not most, of the conflicts couples experience is because one or both partners feel inadequate to satisfy or meet their partner's needs and desires. It does not teach problem solving skills like negotiating or compromising but it does make those possible because you no longer fear your partner's intentions. You know they love you and desire to be there for you and do not desire to take advantage of you. In other words, EFT marriage counseling is different because it helps remove fear from your relationship.

Restore Struggling Marriages

What if you could save 73% of the troubled marriages that come through your door?

Marriage is precious. It is the building block of society. If you save a marriage, you save a family and if you save a family maybe you save a culture. This is not hyperbole, it is documented research findings. Every social science study on the affect of marriage for adults and children demonstrates its dramatic impact on health, wealth, and well being. It is virtually indisputable that a good and lasting marriage is the best investment anyone can make, irrespective that we are hard wired to connect and multiply. Married people live longer, are more likely to avoid significant health issues and they build more wealth, and their children are more likely to make life work for them.1

We have the means to restore struggling marriages, and not only restore but form lasting emotional bonds that make us safe, secure, and happy. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a primary tool of restoration as the most researched and documented effective couples therapy. A meta-analysis of several studies found that 73% of couples treated with EFT recovered from their distress and 86% made significant improvement in their relationship.2 These are outstanding results for any type of counseling, much less with distressed couples who wonder if they are sleeping in the same bed with their enemy.

About five years ago, I became interested in EFT. In the past two years I have entered into a training program developed by the founder of EFT (Dr. Sue Johnson). I have been a licensed therapist for over thirty years and this certification process is the most comprehensive, demanding and effective post graduate study training I have ever experienced. This is not attend a seminar, fill out a survey and get your certificate. Dr. Johnson and her organization (ICEEFT) have “protected their brand”. You have confidence in your competency to practice EFT when you complete the certification process.

That is why I am writing you. Seven out of every ten couples you refer will find their way back to each other. Almost nine out of ten will see significant improvement. I invested the time and money to be trained in EFT because marriage is too important, especially today, not to provide the best chance possible for saving a marriage, a family, and maybe a culture.

Introduce your organization to EFT through a “Hold Me Tight” seminar.

Schedule an Office Visit

Is there a couple you know in crisis? A Three Day Intensive may be what is needed.

My wife Carolyn and I try to get away to be with each other every three months or so. These “getaways” often coincide with a birthday or anniversary but not always. We usually arrive around noon and leave the next afternoon. We always hope to arrive sooner but necessities and demands prevent that. This does not sound like much time away and we would prefer longer but we always seem to leave feeling refreshed, renewed, and reconnected; not a bad outcome. The place we visit is a retreat house called “Quiet Place” in rural Garrard County near Lancaster, Ky. We have been doing this for several years now and we are so thankful for this place of retreat that Rick and Teresa Jenkins provide for ministers, pastors, and other Christian care givers. Rick and Teresa serve the servers. I don't know where they retreat but Quiet Place has become an invaluable tool for reconnection with the Lord and one another.

While visiting there this time I read from Conversations (, a Christian journal about spiritual transformation. They provide a forum of “spiritual accompaniment and honest dialogue for authentic transformation.” Living in a culture that offers mostly sound bites of phantom promises that disguise other agendas something solid like real change is appealing;we all hunger for the real. Consider the woman in the Gospels who met Jesus at the well; with several relationships she obviously struggled with figuring out who she was and what she wanted and when she encountered the real she immediately changed her life, now that is transformation.

An article by Michael Glerup, who writes on “ancient christian wisdom for a postmodern age”, discussed change as defined by Gregory of Nyssa, an Orthodox Bishop from the fourth century who lived in what is now Turkey. Gregory said that change happens in one of two directions, for good or for ill. Change for ill is that which is cyclic and repetitive so that nothing really lasts or satisfies. We reach a state of temporary satisfaction that depletes, like eating food, and we have to do it all over again and again and again. Change for good is that which helps us progress in capacity, in our ability to grow and receive more. It is something that satisfies, that brings a fullness that lasts. Change for ill leaves us always hungering for more, change for good leaves us satisfied knowing that there is more, and so we are content.

While there is much more to Gregory's view on transformation (Conversations, Vol.8.1) his understanding of the cyclic, repetitive, empty change is what we see in struggling couple's arguments (not to mention the stock market and economic cycles). Their argument cycle is a repetitive one and it is the same over and over again. They keep coming back to it because a deeper hunger is never satisfied, it is like playing a roulette wheel, the ball gets thrown and you watch it spin hoping it lands in the right place. It rarely does and with repetitive cycles it never does. The insanity is that we believe we are going to win next time.

Becoming aware of our deeper hunger(s) is critical to orienting our selves toward what is Good. The difficult thing for most us is to begin to trust, to believe that their really is something solid and real and good that can meet our deepest longing. Receiving an experience of that, whether during a counseling session or a meeting at the well gives hope that real satisfaction is possible. Couples that become aware of their own and their mates true longing and move to meet that is what breaks the repetitive argument cycle and brings peace to the relationship.

While the time at Quiet Place is never quite long enough for Carolyn and I and we leave yearning to stay in a place of rest and quiet and connection, we know this peace is real and we can experience it again. I think that is something like the hope of heaven.