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.

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.

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.

Created for Connection

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/

Everything is Connected

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.

Common Misconceptions of Couple Therapy

Maintaining a positive, supportive relationship with one’s partner in the face of expected and unusual life stress is one of the biggest challenges many couples face. Not uncommonly, instead of pulling together to face life’s difficulties, partners become disengaged or even hostile. The person you expect to always have your back begins to feel like the enemy. And sometimes it feels like the harder you try to fix the problem, the worse things get. The good news is that a well-trained couples therapist can help most relationships that have hit a rough patch. According to recent studies, 90% of couples who see a well-trained Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist experience improvement and 70% report full repair of their relationship. But here’s the bad news: many couples that could benefit from this therapy are reluctant to get help. Unfounded beliefs and misconceptions get in the way. Here is the truth about six common misconceptions: 1. The therapist will take sides. With some therapists, this in fact may happen. But an Emotionally Focused Couples (EFT) Therapist is trained to recognize how both partners contribute to their dance of anger or disconnection. Successful therapy invariably requires each partner to understand his or her role in the couple’s distress. 2. The therapist will tell us we should break up. Again, there are probably some therapists who would make this judgment, but the role of an EFT Therapist is to help couples understand how their relationship has gone wrong and to guide them – for as long as they are willing to try – in how to repair it. The decision of whether to stay in a relationship always belongs to the couple. 3. We are too far gone; the situation is hopeless. Many couples worry that their problems have gone on so long, there is no hope of improving their relationship. But even long-standing problems can be resolved with EFT therapy. The intensity of anger also does not necessarily indicate that a relationship can’t be improved. The only clear sign that EFT therapy won’t help is if one or both partners have become so disengaged they are no longer willing to try. 4. Talking about our problems will make things worse. Many couples have experienced that their own attempts to talk about their problems have made things worse, so this concern is understandable. They may even have had previous experiences in therapy where talking did make things worse. However, an EFT Therapist is trained to create a safe space where problems can be discussed productively. In many cases, the therapist will be able to help partners see each other’s struggles in new ways that open the door to healing and reconciliation. 5. Couples therapy is a waste of time and does not work. Many therapists who see couples aren’t trained in an effective model of couples therapy, and there is probably a significant risk that these therapists will not be helpful. However, EFT has years of research demonstrating its effectiveness in helping couples improve their relationships, and follow-up studies show these improvements are long lasting. EFT is one of a handful of couples therapies designated as empirically supported by the American Psychological Association. A therapist trained in EFT is guided by a roadmap that has one of the strongest track records in helping distressed couples. 6. We (or he or she) need individual therapy first. A growing body of evidence suggests that successful couples therapy can actually reduce an individual’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and other psychological disorders. At the very least, a stronger, more supportive relationship will reduce the suffering both partners experience when one partner is struggling with a psychological disorder. Couples therapy may not be the only treatment needed when a partner has significant psychological symptoms, but when the relationship has suffered, it is often the best place to start. By Ruth Jampol Ph.D.|July 6th, 2015

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.

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.

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Greater Love

Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the originators of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a very effective marital therapy approach, considers the approach to be a “practical theory of love”. EFT is based upon Attachment theory which describes how we care for and emotionally connect to one another, and how that affects our development as human beings. Attachment or bonding to one another in families is basic to our survival. Human life cannot survive and thrive without it. Humans take a long time to grow and become self-sufficient and a bonded caretaker(s) is required.

But what does it mean to attach to someone? Is it the same as loving someone? Are love and attachment the same? I think they are similar and related, interconnected but not the same. For sure love seems to assume attachment; you are likely attached to those you love. But I believe love is greater than attachment. Dr Johnson says: “The multitude of studies on adult attachment that have emerged over the last decade tell us that the essence of love is not a negotiated exchange of resources (so why teach negotiation skills?), a friendship, Nature's trick to get you to mate and pass on your genes, or a time-limited episode of delusional addiction. Love is a very special kind of emotional bond, the need for which is wired into our brain by millions of years of evolution. It is a survival imperative.” Without even considering the question of how we came to be hard wired for connection, it seems to me her view of love is reductionist, that love is nothing more than “a very special kind of emotional bond” whose primary purpose is survival. This is “the essence of love”? Okay, I don't know about you, but that doesn't really turn me on to go find a lover!

I know you might be thinking “who cares?” I would agree this might be esoteric musings of an obsessed attachment focused marriage therapist who also cares about theology, specifically Christian theology. Love is a, if not the, central tenet of Christian faith, “God is love.” In the Christian tradition, marriage and theology are intrinsically linked. Marriage is one of the primary metaphors used to describe our relationship with God and God's relationship with us. In fact, as Pope Benedict says in his Cyclical on Love (I am not Catholic but Popes are usually brilliant and say very interesting things) love of neighbor is love of God so that loving one another is the same as loving God. How well we love our spouse (or neighbor), and the expression of that love is our measure of how well we love God. As Pope Benedict says “God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love”.

In our society today God is often dismissed as grounds for anything. If you begin with “what God says” you may be quickly considered intellectually inferior and out of touch with post modern thinking. You are likely to not be considered as part of a serious debate if you reference God as a source. Well, okay, but since I have been following Jesus I have learned and become a better lover of others than I ever was before, so it is hard for me to ignore or dismiss his influence. I know this is antedoctal, that my experience doesn't prove anything in an objective or scientific way, but you can ask my wife or kids or family if what I say is true. This is evidence that is difficult to dismiss; they know how well, or not, I love them on a particular day or for a particular week, just ask them.

There is a concept in the Christian spiritual life called “first love” that considers “Do I really believe that I am loved first, independent of what I do, or what I accomplish?”(Henri Nouwen) That is, is love freely given or do I have to earn it? Am I loved, totally, simply because I exist and therefore I don't have to worry whether I get something right. I have nothing to fear because it is not about what I do, Love simply loves me. The more we know, experience this Love, the better we are able to love others.(1 John 4:19) This is the measure God presents.

There is no doubt understanding how we attach to one another gives a language to discuss how well we care for and love one another. I practice EFT with my clients and find it very helpful and effective. Understanding how we emotionally connect to one another is very powerful and EFT helps couples do this. It breaks down the dance of connection so we can understand it and learn how to change the dance so to not lose connection with one another. But I think this connection, this bond of unity to one another serves a greater purpose, points to a greater reality, than simply survival; it points to God.