Tips for handling an attack/attack sequence

Written by Alison Lee, Ph.D, CPsych & Kim Hayes, MA, MFT, and  first appeared in the ICEEFT Newsletter.


I feel certain that there is NOT a therapist reading this article who has not sat in a session with a couple caught in an attack/attack sequence.

How does an EFT therapist handle this stressful situation?

Even when we really understand the couple’s cycle (and occasionally even following de-escalation), we can be caught off guard when confronted with apparent strangers – hissing or yelling at each other, leaving the therapist thinking – OMG – what has happened?

I say to myself – relax – this is only their cycle – my goal is to understand, to figure this out and to help each partner see the cycle including the trigger, the meaning of the trigger and to quickly identify the primary emotion of each partner.

Quickly’ here may actually mean by the end of the session!

So how to manage the actual attack/attack bit?

If the couple are not shouting so loud that they are disturbing therapy sessions in another office, I deliberately push my chair away to gain some space to observe and understand for a few minutes. I then ask them – can I say something here? If this fails, I will speak louder – “Guys – this is your cycle – this is a good opportunity to understand it – let me speak too”.

If necessary, I will stand up and repeat the request.

The goal is to track and delineate the cycle, understanding the trigger and how it was processed, moving to primary emotion as soon as possible.

What if they are shouting too loudly?

I tell my couples that at this point their words are being heard by other people.

If the couple have a name for their cycle, for example the Vortex, or the Black Hole, use it now to emphasize how, at present, the cycle is taking them over.  Tell them that they are both being burned by the cycle and then emphasize how you are in the present moment trying to stop the vortex or cycle to help them change. Let them know how powerful it is for you (the therapist), especially if you have to stand up – therefore, how incredibly consuming it must be for them and hence their need to let you help them and hear you. In other words, you validate how compelling the cycle is and how they become caught in it.

Tell the couple they can, and indeed do, do this at home but that here we need to stop it and understand itto be able to step out of it.

The cycle is a common enemy that they can defeat together.

The metaphor helps people stand back more easily from the cycle – the externalization of the cycle as the enemy is also highlighted with this emphasis.

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