We all at some point in our EFT training can become nervous or worried about focusing on contentious issues, or extreme anger – the kind of dangerous territory that might evoke strong negative feelings between partners.
A common fear is, “Will I make things worse for the couple in therapy if I encourage them to talk about how they truly feel? Would it push them into divorce if I walk into the struggle with them?”
While this is an understandable concern, the EFT model gives us a very good road map as a guide.
As we know, couples typically become caught in negative interactive cycles, rather like getting into a river of trouble with its own ebbs and flows. They then come for couple therapy to learn better ways to cope. But what they really want is help in re-connecting with their partners.
As EFT therapists we see their struggles through the attachment lens, which helps us to make sense of, validate and normalize the clients’ reactivity in the context of their experience. We track the cycles focusing on the elements of emotion as they unfold (cue, emotional meaning, action tendency, secondary emotion and primary emotion). This naturally takes us into the heart of how the clients truly feel, into the depth of the river.
As Sue Johnson writes in Creating Connection: “Emotion guides and gives meaning to perception, motivates to action, and communicates to others. It is both a crucial target and agent of change in couples therapy.”
Thus we walk into the river with them and help them cross to the other side. That means we do have to find out how they truly feel. We help them to make sense of angry reactions and freezing or shutting down, and we help them to share in the here and now of the session. It is only by staying close to the attachment-related affect that we can help our couples cross to the other side. We help clients to share their vulnerable feelings with their partners in the here and now of the session.
Sally feels desperate to connect with Bill, but she can become quite angry, complaining and critical with him as she protests what she experiences as disconnection. And Bill can’t bear hearing her dissatisfaction.
Working with the emotions in the here and now of the session is key for the EFT therapist. We focus on the emotions as they unfold, we understand, clarify, validate them, and encourage them to share with their partner.
I slow Sally down and as I come beside her and hear and understand her anger, and validate it in the context of her loneliness and her longing to connect with Bill.
Therapist: So Sally I hear how alone you feel and how you long to have that closeness back, and I get why you become so mad at him.
I support Sally as she tearfully talks about her sadness, her loneliness and longing to be close to Bill again, and validate her anger at feeling unimportant to him… With support, she turns to Bill and tells him, with many tears, how much she misses him and how alone she has been feeling.
This is new for Bill, who has been feeling hopeless and inadequate, as the cycle has taught him that he is a disappointment to his wife. Sally’s emotion gives him a new message, that she loves him and misses him.
As the couple becomes more familiar with their cycle, step-by-step, frame-by-frame, I view their struggle through the attachment lens. For example:
Bill had been feeling heartbroken every time Sally showed him how disappointed she was with him. He has worried that if he said the wrong things he would make her even more angry. “I learned through experience to say nothing. Anything I say is wrong and she jumps down my throat. It is safer to keep quiet”. Once again I tune into how Bill really feels. We learn that his ultimate fear is that he will trigger her anger and she will stop loving him, and he will lose her.
Therapist: Aha. So it sounds like you stay silent BECAUSE she is so precious?”