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.
Couple’s Threat Narrative or What Happens in a Fight
A reason I write these blogs is to stay in touch with former clients and provide some kind of ongoing support. I need to be more faithful about that so here is a reminder for every couple I have seen about what arguments, conflicts, or fights are: Your partner is not “the enemy” or the problem, the threat cycle is, and the narrative in your head that goes along with it.
One of the more powerful insights from EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) for couples to understand is the threat narrative, that voice in our head telling us what is happening is not good. When we are threatened, either emotionally or physically, our brain and body go into reactive, self protective mode. Our perspective narrows as our fight/flight center in the brain ( the amygdala) takes over in a split second and our thinking, reasoning part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline. We are geared up and ready for action and the threat is our loved one. This is the genesis of our fights. And this little voice in our head is creating a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about our spouse or loved one, and maybe even about ourselves, that is based on a narrowed, limited threat perspective. In other words it does not represent the whole picture of who your spouse/lover is and you cannot trust it as the truth. If we are to stop our fights with one another we must learn to recognize this commentary in our head and stop listening to it. This is what couples therapy helps us do. This is the first issue we address in couples therapy and it changes relationships.
No doubt it is challenging to slow down this adrenaline driven threat response, it is probably the most challenging hurdle to overcome in repairing your relationship. Everything in your body and brain is screaming “danger, danger” and it’s difficult to listen to the new voice of attachment saying “your partner is not the real enemy”. Well, your partner is not the real enemy, so listen to the voice of attachment and work with each other to get out of the threat, attack-defend cycle that may spiral out of control into a very ugly place. Then we couples can create a new, more safely connected narrative together.
Blessings and may peace reign in your hearts.
We want to let all our clients know that Don Sizemore & Associates is offering telehealth services in a very convenient format. We can do all our counseling and many of our OT therapeutics through this format (my wife, Carolyn is an Occupational Therapist and partner). We will be contacting those of you who are active clients to arrange this service. Both Carolyn and I will continue to see clients face to face on a limited case by case basis either in their homes (Carolyn) or at the office (Don). We follow the social distancing and infectious protocols for disinfecting physical surfaces. Please let us know if you have any questions and our prayers are with everyone.
Please do the things that promote immune system functioning: meditation, exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and loving one another. Our spirit, mind, and body need to be made ready to battle whatever comes.
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.
Considering Marriage Counseling or Divorce?
When you are considering who to see as a therapist, counselor, or marriage counselor it is one of the most important decisions you can make. There have been many instances where clients have experienced frustration and disappointment with previous counseling experiences. I am often amazed that they are willing to try counseling again. This is especially true with marriage counseling. Please make sure the counselor you choose has the experience, training, and track record that reassures you of a good counseling outcome.
If you are considering divorce and you decide to try marriage counseling before making a final decision there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all some statistics show that only about 10% of divorcing couples seek marriage counseling before ending their marriage. Couples are making one of the most life changing decisions that affects their children and entire families without consulting a professionally trained marital therapist or counselor. We don't hesitate to consult our car mechanic and even pay them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to keep our car running. I recently had to replace a clutch in my Subaru for $1800 just before Christmas! Merry Christmas to me!
Please consult an experienced and trained marriage counselor or couples therapist before deciding on divorce. One caveat, beware if your counselor recommends divorce, it probably means they do not know what they are doing. Competent therapists and counselors know how to allow their clients to make their own decisions.
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.
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
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.
Get Married and Stay Married
Marriage is one of the best economic decisions you can make. “Less marriage means less income and more poverty,” says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, who has linked as much as half of the income inequality in America to changes in family composition: single-parent families (mostly those with a high-school degree or less) are getting poorer while married couples (with educations and dual incomes) are increasingly well-off. (The Economist, June 2011).
It also pays to stay married. There are numerous reports, studies, and statistics that show the devastating affect divorce has on families and children. The devastation is across every facet of life; physical health, financial wealth, emotional and psychological well being. No part of life is unaffected. Here are some examples:
Studies show that women experiencing divorce face roughly a 30 percent decline in the standard of living they enjoyed while married and men show a 10 percent decline. The consistency of this finding caused one researcher to conclude: “However ‘prepared’ for marital disruption women increasingly may be, they are not prepared in ways sufficient to cushion the economic cost.” 1
Life expectancies for divorced men and women are significantly lower than for married people (who have the longest life expectancies). 3
A recent study found those who were unhappy but stay married were more likely to be happy five years later than those who divorced.4
The health consequences of divorce are so severe that a Yale researcher concluded that “being divorced and a nonsmoker is [only] slightly less dangerous than smoking a pack a day and staying married.” 5
After a diagnosis of cancer, married people are most likely to recover, while the divorced are least likely to recover,6 indicating that the emotional trauma of divorce has a long-term impact on the physical health of the body.
Men and women both suffer a decline in mental health following divorce, but researchers have found that women are more greatly affected.7 Some of the mental health indicators affected by divorce include depression, hostility, self-acceptance, personal growth and positive relations with others.
Need I say more? Get married and stay married!