One of the primary tasks of a couples therapist when meeting with a couple for the first time is the creation of safety.
The creation of safety is such an important priority, particularly when we realize that:
- One of the main reasons most couples come to therapy is that they don’t feel safe to share their true thoughts and feelings with each other.
- One or both partners typically harbor fears or nervous apprehensions about discussing their relationship openly with a third party, who might side with their partner instead of them, or might judge them as deficient, unreasonable, or abnormal for having their particular opinions, feelings, or needs.
If these anxieties, along with others, are therefore not addressed early on by the therapist, they can quickly undermine the whole endeavor of the couples therapy before it even gets started.
One of the most essential questions for the couples therapist is how to establish a working alliance with the couple that reduces their initial anxiety and gives hope and willingness to risk the upper hand.
Luckily many of the techniques of an emotionally-focused couples therapist are uniquely suited for promoting this kind of safety.
In this article I want to highlight one EFT skill in particular, which is key to promoting greater comfort in the therapy room. This therapist skill is validation.
Using Validation to Decrease Anxiety and Shame
An EFT therapist generally takes a validating stance toward a couple’s struggles. The attitude of the EFT therapist is that the emotional responses of each partner make perfect sense when their emotional perceptions and underlying fears are taken into account.
An EFT couples therapist will make statements such as “I get it” or “of course you feel frustrated”, or will say things like “it make sense that you withdraw when you are afraid if you think you might get in trouble if you speak your mind”.
These kinds of statements normalize each partners experience, and interrupt the person’s complaints midstream by meeting them with a new response of empathy and understanding, where they previously were met with deaf ears, rolling eyes, or angry counter-punches.
How to Validate Negative Emotions and Reactions
The validation offered by an EFT therapist is not just offered for the softer emotions such as sadness, shame, or fear, but is also offered for the more critical attacks or the more hurtful withdrawal of affection. Rather than quickly correcting these responses and replacing them with other behaviors, an EFT therapist validates the underlying emotion that leads each partner to take out their “big guns.” Oftentimes this means validating the fears and underlying loving feelings, which often lie hidden in the complaints and in the motivation to pull away.
An excellent way to do this is to validate the person’s critical response within an attachment reframe. An EFT couples therapist, might for example make a statement like, “It makes so much sense that you get angry and yell at your husband because he matters so much to you, and you so badly want to know that he cares about you”. This kind of statement places the critical and attacking behavior within a context of caring about the other person and an ultimate need to feel secure in the relationship. Reframing each partner’s defensive reactions in terms of their ultimate concern for the relationship and their ultimate need to feel accepted and loved, helps partners sidestep a simple tit for tat where one person brings up a complaint and the other immediately defends or retaliates.
How to Soften Defenses Using EFT
An EFT therapist understands that the best way to decrease negative or counterproductive behaviors is not to challenge these behaviors directly, or to ask the person to put them to the side. Instead, the EFT therapist joins with the person and makes the person feel heard and understood. In general, this tends to soothe the nervous system and soften the defenses.
This approach reminds me of a metaphor sometimes used in the teaching of defense analysis in psychodynamic therapy. In trying to get a person to take their protective jacket off, the therapist can either become like the wind and try to blow off the jacket, which only makes the person pull it closer and tighten their grip, or the therapist can become like the warming sun, and get the person to want to take their jacket off on their own because they have no need for it anymore.
In EFT the therapist tries to provide the warm, healing, and understanding environment, where both partners feels safe and validated to the point where they want to take new risks with each other and, metaphorically speaking, “take off their protective jackets.”
Luckily because every person is wired for growth and has an innate desire for connection, the odds are in the therapists favor.
A New Safe Connection
Although the therapist will take the lead in EFT to create a safe and validating environment, it is ultimately by transferring these abilities to the couple itself that the therapy ends up working its magic. As one person begins to take more risks and approach their partner without defenses, the other soon finds less need for their defenses too. As this process gets repeated time and again in the sessions, a secure bond begins to take shape, and it is this bond that will eventually make the therapist’s presence obsolete. The couple is now ready to leave the safe nest of the therapy room and begin a new chapter in their life together.