Written by Alison Lee, Ph.D, CPsych & Sue Johnson, Ed.D, CPsych, and first appeared in the ICEEFT Newsletter.
EFT therapists are known to be gentle, validating and understanding. “How do you feel when you say this?” we might ask. “I understand you get cross – anyone would get upset if they felt so unimportant and so lonely.” But EFT therapists can be tough too, and one of our tools is confrontation.
Confrontation can be daunting – it can take a lot of nerve on the part of the therapist. What do EFT therapists confront, how do we do it and what are we hoping to achieve?
Basically, we confront people with the dilemmas that evolve from their difficulty in facing their own vulnerabilities.
So we intervene, for example, when we see a partner who cannot trust that his wife is really there for him and berates her session after session for various infractions, demanding her apology. Or when a client repeatedly disavows the impact of her own actions on her spouse and insists he is defective, we will reflect this process.
It is when our couples get stuck in this kind of interaction again and again that we need to use confrontation.
The EFT therapist reflects the present process, holding up the mirror to show clients exactly how they co-create the pain in their relationships, and indeed, in their own lives.
Nicole reaches for Sam and tells him how sad she is that they are not closer, “I long to hold you and feel like we used to feel.” Sam tells her, “I am tired of listening to your sadness and your depression.”
Ouch! Notice that the therapist will confront this with empathy and in a non-blaming way, but will nonetheless hold up the process of what just happened for the couple to see.
Therapist: “This is so familiar for me, guys – she reaches for you Sam and you push her away once again. A quintessential Sam-Nicole moment. It feels too hard for you to let her words in, to let her close, so you send her away. It just feels too risky for you to hear her and let her in? And time and time again, I see her turn away with tears in her eyes. We get stuck in this place every time!”
We reflect the process, holding up the impact of the interaction. But it is done with empathy, in this case, offering our understanding of Sam’s position. We are hoping that Sam will be able to own what he does here, to be able to say, “Yes, I do keep her away. I can’t let myself hear her sadness.” If we can help Sam to recognize his difficulty in hearing his wife’s plea, then we can help him to explore the fear that drives his action tendency. Sam says, “If I let myself hear her longing, I will have to forgive her and let her back into my life and that is a huge risk for me – it’s terrifying.” As the therapist holds up the mirror for Sam to recognize his typical response to his wife and the underlying fear, it makes space for him to reprocess, and hopefully, move past the fear that primes his action tendency.
Similarly, we will reflect and unfold this process when we encounter a client who dismisses or denies her own actions and does not or cannot see the impact she has on her partner.
Jennifer insists time and again, “I don’t really shut him out or dismiss him – it is his anger problem, it comes from his upbringing. This part is his to own – it isn’t related to the cycle, he is just an angry man.” As EFT therapists become aware that this kind of inter- action keeps happening, we focus here. We might say, “Can we just stay here for a moment?” Then we replay what just happened, holding up the mirror for Jennifer to see her position. The therapist might then say, “So I wonder if you didn’t just dismiss him there when you said, ‘There is nothing I do here, he does this all by himself.’ Jennifer, it is so hard for you to get that you have a huge impact on Sam.”
If we see Monica turn down the possibility for connection again and again, we also might comment on the existential consequences of this position.
“Oh. You just turned him down, didn’t you? As he reached for you… you turned Brian down again. You went back to the mistake he made last year and you said to yourself, ‘Nothing can ever make up for that.’ You say to yourself that this is the ‘strong’ thing to do… but I feel so sad when I see you do that… Basically, there is nothing he can do then, is there? Then you guys are alone and have lost each other.”
By empathically reflecting the present process, EFT therapists, in effect, confront clients and inch them along the path to seeing their role in the cycle and their impact on their partners.
We heighten by painting the picture before us with poignancy and vividness. We turn up the heat by holding up a mirror. Our goal is to help clients notice how much they impact their partners, which is, in fact, good news. The only thing one really needs to be caught in a cycle, is to truly matter to the other person.