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.
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.
I am repeatedly amazed by the power of adult human attachment. There is something spiritual and divine about it, the way that two human beings have this drive to be intimate, vulnerable, and dependent upon each other. We can lose sight of this in the grind of everyday life taking each other for granted. But when I sit with couples who are struggling and feel distant from each other and have maybe given up hope that there is anything left to their relationship, I see how much they both want their relationship to work. This is almost always the case. When I scratch beneath the surface, the hurt and sadness over loss of their intimate connection comes rolling out; and when their partner sees this and is moved by it, you know there is hope for this relationship. This is true for men as it is for women.
This hope stays alive like a dormant seed waiting to sprout even in the most arid and hostile conditions of betrayal and abandonment. This deep longing and need for relational connection is able to look past obvious failings when there is visceral evidence of facial expressions and body language that says, “You affect me, I am moved by your pain, or your joy,” or any other genuine emotional expression of “I need you and I love you”.
Our capacity to forgive and reconcile and reunite is astonishing and miraculous. What a glorious creation we are!
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.
Bones, Spock, and Captain Kirk
Any one of us knows the joy and pain of relationships. Of course this statement fits only if we are emotionally engaged with them. It is the "stuff" that makes relationships dynamic and vibrant. It is also the stuff that makes them painful and difficult.
What does it mean to be emotionally engaged and how do you tell if you are? Why is it so important that we be emotionally engaged or attached to our children or our spouse or our friends? What is the big deal about emotions anyway? Well, it turns out that emotion is central to how our brain works, especially with memory. In fact, everything we experience in life is being assessed by our amygdala, the so called center of the emotional brain, and it processes information before we even know it. Do you remember the last time you became emotional? Think about a recent emotional experience like becoming angry or sad. You were "into" the emotion before you had time to think. The emotion is just there, it is not something you make happen like when you figure something out with your "thinking brain" and put the plan into action.
Some individuals find it very difficult or even "alien" to experience intense emotions or they are very restricted in their emotional expression. It might be that the only emotion they experience is anger or fear. It is like their emotional brain is not as active or sensitive to emotional experience. If you have ever seen Star Trek episodes then you know of Spock and how "human emotions" are alien to him and his decisions are made solely by logic. Or, if you know someone who has experienced a stroke their emotional expression is different. For some stroke victims there is no emotion associated with anything. They are extremely flat and unresponsive and very difficult to connect with. We need emotional expression to connect with one another.
Another character in Star Trek is the contrast to Spock; it is Bones, the passionate and emotional physician who is constantly frustrated with Spock's cold logic. Bones is emotional about practically everything especially when it involves relationships. He is always accusing Spock of not "caring" because he believes Spock's decisions and actions are unaffected by what happens to others. And of course Bones' actions are almost always effected by how it affects others and he places a premium in his decision making on what it will mean to someone else. Sometimes this clouds his judgment.
And then there is Captain Kirk. He is the balance point to both Spock and Bones. Where they are metaphorical extremes, he is the metaphorical center point, making decisions considerate of both emotion and logic. Captain Kirk is the model of how our brain is supposed to work. He is passionate and emotionally engaged with his crew and friends but able to make the "tough" decisions when necessary. He is able to engage both his "emotional brain" and his "thinking brain". One does not dominate the other and his decisions are better, more likely to be the right one because he is using his whole brain to make the call.
Which character do you identify with? Consider your important, significant relationships and assess if you are more of a Spock or a Bones. Maybe Captain Kirk describes you. More likely, we find that we can be all three depending on the circumstance. Try and observe in what situations you are more likely to be emotionally engaged and calmly considering options like Captain Kirk. What circumstance brings out the "Bones" in you where emotional expression dominates? When are you primarily considering the facts regardless of its affect on others?
Work on becoming more aware of what circumstances and contexts bring out which Star Trek character. It is in those circumstances where a Bones or Spock dominates that we have growing to do. When Captain Kirk shows up, we have learned that we can both emotionally connect and thoughtfully consider options to make sound judgments.