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.
When thou prayest, shut thy door; that is, the door of the senses. Keep them barred and bolted against all phantasms and images. Nothing pleases God more than a mind free from all occupations and distractions. Such a mind is in a manner transformed into God, for it can think of and understand nothing, and love nothing except God. He who penetrates into himself and so transcends himself, ascends truly to God. – Albert Magnus (the “father of Christian mysticism”)
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.
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.
One of the fundamental themes running through Scripture is that we are not fully at home in this life on earth. We are “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). In the creation account of Genesis, we are told that we were created to live in The Garden of Eden with God. It also tells us that we lost it because of sin. We lost our home. This is our condition, we are strangers in a strange land; we do not have a secure sense of being home. Home is a place of knowing we belong, that we are safe and secure. Home is a place that we know we are loved, accepted and understood. Not having a home is to be in a state of fear; we are alone and on our own. Because we do not have a home we are driven by fear, everything we do are attempts to escape fear. This causes us to strive to have control over our life in hopes that we can manage our fear. It is ironic that our loss of home and our state of fear originated in Adam and Eve's desire to be their own master. They were tempted by the lie that they could “be like god”, to be in control and as a result of their sin they, and we, lost our home; and so we live a life driven by fear and attempts to gain control in order to escape fear based living.
But we are not without hope, we are not fully abandoned. We see this in Genesis when God expelled Adam and Eve from his Presence, he did not send them out naked, a state that represents vulnerability without protection. The biblical account tells us that “he clothed them” in animal skins. He provided them with a measure of protection, a symbol that he limited his rejection of them. They were not fully alone and on their own; he was and is still available to us.
Tom Keller in his brilliant book The Prodigal God, sees two paths of fear based living, a path of self discovery and individual fulfillment and one of moral conformity and self control. A path focused on pleasing ourselves and one of pleasing someone else; both paths put us in control. They are represented, respectively, by the younger son and the elder son of the parable found in Luke 15:11-32. Keller interprets this parable as a homecoming not only for the younger son, but for the elder son as well. It is a homecoming humanity,. This story is usually presented as one about a son, who “was lost and has now been found”. But Keller believes it is really about the “Prodigal God” who is a reckless and extravagant giver of all he has, which is what prodigal means, “to spend recklessly.” He is a God, Father, who recklessly gives all he has in sacrificial love in order for his lost children to return home.
If the Genesis account of creation is true representation of our condition, and I believe it is, then we are all on a journey to find our way to the home we have lost, a home where we are loved, accepted, and understood. A home where we can find our true identity and purpose, a home where we are free from fear. But what is this “home” and what is it like? Keller, with brilliant insight, sees that it is the father in the parable who shows us. It is the love of the father, his love for his sons and his desire for them to be with him that motivates everything he does. Nothing more, nothing less, he simply loves his sons and wants them to be with him.
When we think about what matters most to us what comes to mind? I mean when we get right down to it what is most important? We all know on some level, some more aware than others, that what really matters to us is to know that we are not alone. We need and want someone to love us and for us to love someone; for someone to be there for us, no matter what, someone we can depend upon to always love us and whom we can love in return. This is home; home is love. The only thing it costs us is giving upon our attempts to be in control.
There is another aspect about the two sons in the story and what they have to say about our return home to love. The younger was willing, even desperate to give up control, he came to realize his need for home, for love, so he humbled himself and came home. The elder son was no where near this realization and he angrily denounced his father's welcoming of the younger son. He is totally unaware of his need and is desperate to be in control. So there are these two dynamics at work, an acute, even desperate desire to give up control or to be in control. Which one is it for you?