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.
I am a believer in Jesus Christ so everything that touches my life is passed through the prism of Jesus. This is often a troubling or bothersome process. It would be so much simpler just to accept things like theories on human behavior, social trends, and of course lifestyle choices on their own merits without having to filter them through the prism of Jesus. It's not so much that the bother involves “what would Jesus say” like a child wondering if Mom of Dad would approve, though there might be an element of that for certain things. It is more a question of what is real and true. This can become rather complicated, and at least for me a convoluted process, especially if the subject matter involves the sciences and empirical data.
Most people might not even know what “empirical data” is much less care but it dominates much of what our society considers “real and true”. Of course this data is only able to approximate a percentage of what is real and true because everything is measured in a statistical expression so we only get what is likely or unlikely to be true. We have polling for who will be elected, how soon we might die, or when the polar cap will melt, or how effective this or that method is, all expressed as statistically significant or not. I guess it is comforting to know with a such and such certainty that this or that will happen or not, although I usually think about the fact that the unlikely can still happen. There is no guarantee with statistics so it comes down to playing the percentages. The interesting thing is how certain these things seem to become when the likelihood is greater than or less than....
We seem to have become a culture that relies on statistics to guide our lives. It is almost as if we can never really know or trust anything unless we can measure it. This is what empiricism or materialism is, only that which can be observed and measured is real and true. We can only trust our senses and our instruments and our calculations to guide our way. These are things we can be certain of because we can touch, taste and see and measure them.
My profession of counseling is of the social sciences like psychology. There are many, many theories in this field so research and statistical analysis are important to help determine which are the most practically effective. This is very helpful for practitioners like me to help decide the best practices for helping clients. The problem is that sometimes the theory that stands up to statistical analysis because it is very effective becomes something greater than a statistical advantage for helping someone, it begins to make claims that it has discovered the truth of who we are.
Take for example an approach to marriage therapy that I have been trained in, Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The research results are amazing, 75-80% or couples experience a successful outcome. This is a very powerful method for helping couples stay married, and happily so. I am thankful for EFT because it has enabled me to help hurting couples bond to one another, even ones who have been unfaithful. Where I struggle with EFT and Sue Johnson, its founder, is her claim that EFT, and the theory it is based on, attachment theory, is the science of love. In other words, she is claiming to know the truth of what love is, and how it works. This is where my prism of Jesus begins to kick in.
God is love and I know the love of God and it cannot be reduced to attachment. We humans love to explain things and believe we have the power to understand everything, if not now at some point in our progression. Attachment, while integral to human development, is primarily about how humans need and care for one another so attachment as love is a safe haven, a place of soothing comfort where someone is there for us. This is vitally important and certainly love includes a haven where we are cared for, accepted, and understood. But this is not all love is and it is not all that we need, which is what Sue Johnson seems to believe. This is humanistic reductionism that does not account for a Creator God. In her perspective, we are all there is; no wonder fear is considered the primary emotion of attachment.
So what else is love if it is more than attachment? It is transformational power that says “Behold I make all things new”(Rev. 21:5). In the words of C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles: “ In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.” Love is the power of God moving in and through us to lift us up out of muck and mire of fear based living: “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear for fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18). This love is more than the love which humans have for one another, our human love is but a shadow of the power in the love of God that not only makes us feel safe, accepted, and secure but transforms us into different beings, something real and true.