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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Experiential Psychotherapy: Overcoming the Secondary Emotion of Shame to Get to Core Issues

Shame is a secondary emotion when it masks deeper, underlying primary emotions (see my article: Healing Shame in Psychotherapy).  In this article, I'm focusing on how experiential therapy helps to get beyond secondary emotions, like shame, to work on primary emotions and core issues (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate About Your More Vulnerable Emotions).

Experiential Psychotherapy: Overcoming the Secondary Emotion of Shame to Get to Core Issues
Since making personal changes involves accessing vulnerable emotions (primary emotions) and communicating from this innermost place, avoiding these emotions is a significant obstacle to change (in this article, I will be using the terms: primary emotions, innermost emotions, vulnerable emotions and similar terms, interchangeably.  All of these terms refer to the same phenomenon).

Whether someone is in individual psychotherapy or in couple therapy, a skilled experiential psychotherapist can help the client to access and communicate from his or her primary emotions.

Experiential therapy is more effective than talk therapy for accessing underlying emotions.  Whether the experiential therapy is EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy), AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) or EFT  (Emotionally Focused Therapy) for couples, each of these therapies emphasizes the importance of the mind-body connection, which allows access to primary emotions (see my article: Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Experiential Psychotherapy - Overcoming the Secondary Emotion of Shame to Get to Core Issues
The following fictional clinical vignette, which is similar to many psychotherapy cases, illustrates how experiential therapy helps to get beyond secondary emotions, like shame, to access primary emotions, like sadness and hurt:

After several years of attending regular talk therapy, Tom decided to work with an experiential psychotherapist who used a mind-body oriented approach to therapy.  Although he felt he understood his problems better based on the talk therapy that he did, he continued to have the same problems in his relationship and he was no closer to resolving these issues--even though he understood them better (see my article: Healing From the Inside Out: Why Understanding Your Problems Isn't Enough).

Tom explained to his new experiential therapist that his wife often complained that he shut down emotionally whenever she wanted to talk to him about their relationship.  She told him that she was feeling increasingly frustrated that she couldn't talk to him and, as a result, she was feeling lonely in their relationship.  Rather than start with couple therapy, Tom's wife asked him to get help first in individual therapy to address this problem.

Tom acknowledged that this was not the first time that he had been told that he tends to shut down when relationship issues arise.  In fact, he said, two prior girlfriends told him the same thing, and his inability to remain emotionally present during these type of discussions led to the demise of those prior relationships.  Tom said he didn't want this problem to ruin his marriage, so he agreed to seek help in individual therapy.

When his new therapist asked Tom to recall a recent incident where his wife wanted to talk about their relationship and Tom avoided the conversation, Tom said that this occurred a few days ago.

His therapist asked him to go back into that memory and recall what he was experiencing physically and emotionally at the time.  After a few tries, Tom said, "I just can't do it.  It's too uncomfortable."

His therapist explained that, in order to address his problem, it would be necessary to revisit the experience in a visceral way.  She suggested that they could titrate the work into manageable pieces so that Tom wouldn't get overwhelmed.  

Specifically, she suggested that when Tom recalled the memory that he begin to sense into what he felt in his body and if he began to feel overwhelmed, he could take a break.  At first, Tom hesitated, but then he realized that he would rather experience some discomfort in therapy than continue having this problem and risk his marriage.  

So, Tom began again by recalling that he was sitting on the couch in the living room when his wife entered the room.  He remembered seeing a worried look on her face and when he saw this, his stomach muscles began to clinch.  He also remembered feeling queasy and thinking, "Uh-ho, this isn't going to be good."

At that point, Tom told the therapist that he needed to take a break from this memory because he was feeling queasy in the therapy session.  She agreed, so he opened his eyes and he felt better when he saw the look of compassion on his therapist's face.  He realized that his therapist was attuned to what he was experiencing and he wasn't alone in his experience.

When his queasiness subsided, Tom re-entered memory to recall what happened next.  He remembered that his wife came to sit next to him and she placed her hand on his arm saying, "We need to talk about our relationship."

Tom remembered, at that point, he felt physically numb all over his body.  At the same time, his heart was pounding in his chest, and he felt like he wanted to run out of the room.  He remembered thinking to himself, "She's onto me!  She realizes that I'm a failure as a husband and as a man and she wants to leave me!  What will I do if she leaves me?"

He remembered trying to stay calm--even though he wanted to bolt from the room.  At the same time, he told his wife that he was "tired" and he wasn't up to having this discussion.  But when he saw the look of disappointment on his wife's face, he knew he couldn't stay in the room anymore, and he got up abruptly and went for a walk.

As he was leaving the apartment, he remembered hearing his wife saying in a hurt tone, "We need to talk.  You never want to talk about our relationship."

When he returned a few hours later, Tom recalled that his wife was already asleep in their bedroom.  He didn't want to wake her, so he took his pillow and a blanket into the living room and laid down for a few sleepless hours, tossing and turning, before he finally fell asleep as the sun was coming up.

At the end of the session, his therapist asked Tom what it was like to re-experience these emotions in her presence.  Tom thought about it for a few seconds and he said that it wasn't as bad as he anticipated.  He said he appreciated being able to titrate the work and take a break when he felt overwhelmed. He said it gave him a sense of control and that working this way felt more manageable to him.  He told her that he also appreciated her empathy, which made the work bearable.

When Tom came for his next therapy session, his therapist recommended that they go back to the same memory they had been working on the last time.  She told Tom that, in order to get to the core issues, they would slow everything down as if they were watching a movie frame by frame.

Having already had a session where he was asked to re-experience his memory, Tom didn't feel nearly as hesitant as he did the first time.  So, he re-entered the memory and, as his therapist recommended, he slowed everything down.

By slowing down the process, Tom had greater access to physical sensations and emotions that he didn't notice when he recalled the memory during the prior therapy session.  Specifically, he recalled that when his wife said that they needed to talk about their relationship, aside from the queasiness, numbing, and the "uh-ho" feeling, his hands became sweaty and he experienced a lightheadedness.

His therapist recommended that they use a clinical hypnosis technique called the Affect Bridge to go back to the earliest time when Tom recalled feeling this way.  She said this would help them to understand what was getting triggered in him.  She helped Tom to do the Affect Bridge by telling him to sense into the physical sensations, where he felt them in his body and go back to the earliest time in his life when he felt this way.

At first, Tom said nothing was coming up for him, but his therapist encouraged him to take all the time he needed to go back to the earliest time.  So, Tom went back into the physical sensations associated with the memory, and he was surprised with what he came up with.

"This doesn't make any sense," Tom told his therapist when he opened his eyes again, "I don't see the connection between the experience with my wife and what came up with me just now.  There must be some mistake."

His therapist explained that sometimes earlier memories come up that appear to be unrelated to the current situation, but there are usually emotions that connect the experience from the past with the experience from the present.  Then, she encouraged Tom to talk about what came up for him during the Affect Bridge.

Tom thought about it for a few seconds, shrugged his shoulders and then proceeded to talk about the memory that came up, "What came up for me was a memory of being in the third grade and standing up on the auditorium stage during a class play.  I had the lead role in the play and, prior to the performance, I had my lines down pat and I felt good about it.  But when I was on stage that day, I looked down and saw my father's stern face and everything went out of my head.  I couldn't remember a single word.  My teacher had to prompt me throughout the whole play.  I was so ashamed, but when I looked down into the audience after the play was over, I realized that my father had disappeared.  When I got home, my father was sitting in his favorite chair reading the newspaper.  I hoped to creep up to my room without my father seeing me.  But, from behind his newspaper, he said to me, 'You were terrible today.  You really made me feel ashamed and disappointed to be your father.  You're never going to amount to anything.'"

Then, Tom broke down and cried in his therapy session, "All I ever wanted to do was please my father, but he kept telling me how ashamed and disappointed in me he was--no matter what I did.  I felt like such a loser."

When Tom felt calmer, he told his therapist that he could feel the connection between the incident with his wife and the memory he had about his father.  In both experiences, he saw their disappointment and he felt tremendous shame (see my article: Understanding Why You're Affected By Trauma From a Long Time Ago).

In subsequent therapy sessions, Tom's therapist helped him to sense beyond his shame into his innermost, primary emotions.

Initially, it was difficult for Tom to go to his more vulnerable emotions, which turned out to be sadness and hurt.  His therapist explained to him that his difficulty was understandable since he spent most of his life trying to avoid these emotions.  She also explained that if they were going to work through his issues of emotional distancing with his wife, they needed to be able to go there.  However, she worked at a pace in therapy that felt safe for Tom.

Tom continued in individual therapy and he and his wife also began Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples.  As he got more comfortable with his vulnerable emotions, he was able to communicate, based on these emotions, in a deeper, more genuine way with his wife.  This allowed his wife to open up too in couple therapy, and they began to strengthen their emotional connection.

Secondary emotions, like anger and shame, defensively mask primary emotions, like sadness and hurt.  This is usually an unconscious process and part of an emotional survival strategy that developed early in life.

Although emotional survival strategies usually help to keep a person from feeling overwhelmed, especially as a child, these same strategies get in the way for an adult.

Talk therapy can help you to develop insight into your problem, but when it comes to issues related to trauma, it often doesn't resolve the issue because it's a "top down" therapy (see my article: What's the Difference Between "Top Down" and "Bottom Up" Approaches to Therapy?).

Experiential therapy is a "bottom up" therapy which, among other things, allows clients to use the mind-body connection to get to deeper issues that are being masked by secondary emotions.  

Getting Help in Experiential Therapy
As I mentioned previously, there are numerous types of experiential therapy for individuals and couples, including EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, AEDP, clinical hypnosis and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples.

All of these experiential therapies use a bottom-up approach that usually gets to the root of the problem faster than regular talk therapy, which can remain an intellectualized experience.

If you're struggling with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to work with an experiential therapist who can help you to get to the core issues that are creating obstacles for you (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Friday, September 14, 2018

EFT Couple Therapy: Learning to Ask Your Spouse For What You Need Emotionally

In my last article, Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate About Your More Vulnerable Emotions, I discussed how experiential psychotherapy provides an opportunity for you to understand your most vulnerable (primary) emotions so you can get to know yourself better and develop a more genuine connection to your partner (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy and What's the Difference Between "Top Down" and "Bottom Up" Therapy?).

One of the challenges, as I mentioned in the article, is sensing these vulnerable emotions, allowing yourself to feel them, and express them to your partner (see my articles: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?What Happens During Stage One of EFT? and What Happens During Stage Two of EFT?).

EFT Couple Therapy: Learning to Ask Your Spouse For What You Need Emotionally

In this article, I'm focusing on how you can use these emotions to understand what you need emotionally and how to ask you partner to meet your needs.

For people who grew up as children where their emotional needs weren't taken into account or their needs were dismissed, it's especially challenging as an adult to ask a partner for what they need.

As children, these people internalized the message that they aren't important or that they're unlovable so they're not entitled to have their emotional needs met (see my articles: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later On In Adult Relationships?).

They often feel ashamed of their emotional needs--as if they shouldn't have these needs.  Shame is also another obstacle in terms of asking to have their emotional needs met--assuming they haven't suppressed their emotional needs so thoroughly that they no longer know what they need (see my article: Healing Shame in Therapy).

Many adults, who were emotionally neglected as children, hope that their partner will somehow intuit what they need without being asked.  This is complicated by the fact that these same adults often hide their emotional needs from themselves as well as their partner, so the partner is left in the dark.  This dynamic often creates problems in the relationship.

As I've mentioned in prior articles, a major focus of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is the attachment needs of each person in the relationship, how to discover their emotional needs, and how to express them.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: EFT Couple Therapy: Learning to Ask Your Spouse For What You Need Emotionally
The following fictional vignette illustrates how Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples can help a couple reconnect emotionally based on being able to ask for what they need emotionally:

Ann and Bill
After three years of marriage, Ann and Bill realized that they were feeling emotionally disconnected from each other, and they decided to begin Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples to salvage their relationship.

Bill explained to their EFT couple therapist that he often felt confused and annoyed by their frequent arguments.  He said that they had gotten into a negative pattern where Ann would blame him for not anticipating what she needed from him emotionally, but when he asked her what she needed, she refused to tell him.  She would tell him that he "should know," which made him angry and frustrated.  He couldn't understand why she wouldn't tell him.  He would often tell her, "I'm not a mind reader" (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy: Overcoming the Negative Dynamic in Your Relationship That Keeps You Stuck).

As an example, Bill recalled a recent argument where Ann complained that she would have liked Bill to express more compassion when she came home from a rough day at work.  She told him, in an angry tone, that she would have liked him to give her a hug and tell her that it was all going to be alright.

"But," Bill told the couple therapist, "The time before when I tried to hug Ann when she complained about work, she got tense and said she had to cook dinner.  Then, she pulled away from me.  It was obvious that she didn't want me to hug her, and I felt rejected.  So, how was I to know that she wanted to be hugged and comforted the next time?"

Ann acknowledged that she often felt like she wanted to be comforted by Bill when she was upset, but when she actually experienced Bill comforting her, she felt uncomfortable, "I love Bill, and I want the emotional comfort from him, but when he actually comforts me, I feel worse.  I know I sometimes give mixed messages and I don't know why" (see my article: The Connection Between Ambivalence and Mixed Messages).

Bill seemed relieved to hear Ann acknowledge that she gave mixed messages and looked at Ann with concern.

The EFT couple therapist asked Bill and Ann about their family histories as one way to determine their attachment styles.  Bill talked about growing up with loving parents.  His childhood was complicated by his father's extended period of being unemployed.

Bill was aware from a young age that his parents were concerned about money, but he always got the sense from them that they would eventually be alright and he didn't need to worry.  And, in fact, his father did find another job and their financial situation improved.  There were no significant traumatic events in Bill's childhood.

When it was Ann's turn to talk about her childhood, she talked about her history in a somewhat disjointed way.  As opposed to how articulate and organized she had been up until that point, when she talked about her childhood, Ann discussed her childhood in a somewhat tangential and disorganized manner, "Well, I think my parents did the best that they could under the circumstances.  My mother...was okay, but, you know...My father was around sometimes...I was mostly on my own because my was hard for them..."

From Ann's disjointed, disorganized manner of speaking, the EFT couple therapist realized that Ann probably had significant attachment issues because people with attachment problems, especially disorganized attachment, often present in this way when they're talking about their childhood history (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

It turned out that Ann's parents struggled in their relationship and they also had financial problems.  The mother worked three jobs and the father was in and out of the household.  As an only child, Ann often had to fend for herself at a young age.  She grew up feeling that she couldn't ask for anything for herself, and when she was upset or needed comfort, she felt ashamed of her needs.

Ann's mother often told Ann that she had to be "a big girl" (even though Ann was a young child) and "not to complain" because the mother and father were already overwhelmed.  Ann usually felt like she was "walking on eggshells" when she was at home, and she was often lonely.  Since her parents didn't have any contact with their families, there was no one else around to comfort Ann, so she usually cried herself to sleep.

Ann remembered a few times when her father would come home and be affectionate with her, but she never knew when he would be around and what mood he would be in when he was around.  Due to his erratic nature, Ann learned how to avoid getting too happy or excited when he paid attention to her because she never knew how long it would last or when she would see him again.

After hearing Ann's childhood history, the EFT couple therapist had a better understanding of Ann's dynamic with Bill.  She understood that Ann wanted and needed comfort when she felt unhappy but, based on her childhood experiences, she also felt a lot of shame about needing comfort, which is why she distanced herself from Bill.  It was also very difficult for her to ask Bill for comfort because, on some level, she felt she didn't deserve it.

On another level, Ann hoped that Bill would just intuit what she needed emotionally, but when he did and he expressed affection, she felt ashamed and uncomfortable.  This left Ann caught in an emotional dilemma of both wanting affection but feeling ashamed when she got it (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

As Ann worked in couple therapy to access her more vulnerable, primary emotions, she was able to sense beyond her shame to her fear and sadness for all the times, especially as a child, when she needed affection and nurturing and she didn't get it.

Gradually, over time, Ann began to accept that she was "normal" for wanting comfort when she was upset.  Initially, her understanding occurred solely on a cognitive level, as she thought about other people's emotional needs and that everyone is hardwired for love and nurturing from birth.

Over time in couple therapy, Ann was able to get beyond a cognitive understanding to have a deeper emotional understanding and acceptance of her emotional needs, and she no longer felt ashamed.  She also felt a deep compassion for her younger self, who was so emotionally deprived (see my article: Having Compassion For the Child That You Were).

Bill told the EFT couple therapist that their dynamic and Ann's distancing herself now made sense to him, and he wanted to do whatever he could to try to help Ann feel comfortable.

With regard to their relationship, the emotional breakthrough came one day when Ann came home one day feeling upset about an incident at work.  She told the EFT couple therapist in their next session that, as she was telling Bill about it, she felt something shift for her emotionally.

She said she looked at Bill, hesitated for a second, and then told him that she needed him to hold her. Bill immediately took her into his arms and held her tight.  Then, Ann said, she felt a tremendous wave of sadness come over her from deep inside her.

At first, she said, she felt like she would fall into an abyss of sadness and she cried for what seemed to her a long time.  All the while, Bill continued to hold and comfort her, and she was able to take in his love without distancing herself.  Even though, initially, she felt like she would drown in her own sadness, after a while, she felt the wave of sadness subside, and she had a sense of relief.

EFT Couple Therapy: Learning to Ask Your Spouse For What You Need Emotionally
Ann explained to the couple therapist that, since that day, she was feeling increasingly more relaxed with allowing Bill to be affectionate to her when she felt "down."  With the help of the couple therapist, she was able to separate her past emotional neglect and feelings of not deserving love from her current relationship, so she no longer felt ashamed of her emotional needs (see my article: Coping With Trauma: Separating the Past From the Present).

Bill and Ann knew that they needed to continue to attend EFT couple therapy to consolidate the gains that they had made so far, but they both acknowledged that Ann's breakthrough led to a significant improvement in their relationship.

For adults who were traumatized by abuse or emotional neglect, asking to have their emotional needs met is fraught with problems.  In childhood, based on their experiences with their parents, they come to feel that their emotional needs aren't important.  This causes them to feel ashamed.  Over time, they often learn to emotionally dissociate themselves from these needs so that they're no longer in touch with them.

Distancing themselves from their emotional needs as children is an emotional survival strategy that worked at the time to keep them from feeling overwhelmed by their needs (see my article: Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work).

As adults, this same emotional survival strategy causes problems for them as well as their relationships.  The emotional needs, although suppressed, are still there deep down so that these emotions come to the surface from time to time.  But when these emotions come to the surface, it creates a conflict and dilemma of wanting love and, at the same time, feeling ashamed for having this need.

This conflict and dilemma often results in the adult giving mixed messages to his or her partner and unconsciously wishing that the partner could intuit his or her emotional needs.  At the same time, before working on these issues in therapy, the adult often becomes avoidant when s/he gets what she deeply wants because of the shame it elicits.

In EFT couple therapy, the therapist assesses the negative pattern that the couple keeps getting into and the go-to roles that they play (usually as either the distancer or the pursuer).  She also gets each person's family history to understand the attachment styles of each person and how these styles come together in the relationship.

Learning to access and communicate about their most vulnerable needs can be challenging for a couple because it's an emotional risk--especially for people who have a childhood history of emotional neglect or abuse.

Being able to ask for what they is a big step for a couple.  It strengthens the relationship and helps to create a genuine emotional connection between them.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
EFT has been well researched and is a state of the art form of couple therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.

If you and your partner are stuck in a negative dynamic or fixed roles that are creating conflict and emotional disconnection, you owe it to yourselves to get help in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples.

Working with an EFT couple therapist can help you to develop healthier, more loving ways of relating in your relationship, which will strengthen your bond to each other.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate About Your More Vulnerable Emotions

Allowing yourself to experience your primary emotions, which are your most immediate, innermost vulnerable emotions, helps you to understand yourself on a much deeper level.  Experiencing these emotions and communicating with your spouse or partner about it also helps you to have a more genuine connection in your relationship.

Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate Your Most Vulnerable Emotions

In this article, I'll be using the terms "primary emotions," "innermost emotions" and "more vulnerable emotions" interchangeably because these terms all refer to the same emotions.

The challenge for most people is that they're often afraid to feel their innermost emotions because they feel too vulnerable.  Often, people who are fearful of experiencing their more vulnerable emotions mask these emotions with secondary emotions to avoid feeling vulnerable.

So, for instance, if the primary emotion is hurt or sadness, they might unconsciously mask these emotions with secondary emotions of anger or frustration because these secondary emotions help them defend against feeling so vulnerable. 

Learning to Experience Your More Vulnerable Emotions
As I've discussed in prior articles, couples who communicate with each other based on secondary emotions often remain stuck in a negative pattern.  In order to make changes to improve their relationship, they need to have access to their primary emotions so they can communicate to their partner from an authentic place within themselves.

Even for people who see the value in experiencing their primary emotions, accessing these emotions can be a challenge, especially if they have been masking them for a long time with secondary emotions.  So they need to learn how to access primary emotions.

Most of the experiential therapies, like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, Somatic Experiencing, AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) For Couples, place a strong emphasis on primary emotions because accessing these emotions is what allows for positive change.

The experiential therapies also emphasize the connection between the mind and the body (the mind-body connection) and that primary emotions can be accessed through the body because the body is the container for these emotions (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience the More Vulnerable Emotions 
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how a client can access her more vulnerable emotions by using her body:

Meg and Tom began Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples because they were growing apart.

Even though they both wanted to be closer to one another, they didn't know how to overcome the emotional distance that was taking over their relationship after five years of being together.  

Tom explained to their EFT couple therapist that he realized that when he and Meg argued, he would become frightened that Meg was going to leave him.  In EFT language, Tom was the ""pursuer"" in the relationship.  When there was tension between Tom and Meg, he felt desperate to try to repair things between them as quickly as possible.

He wanted, in his words "to leave no stone unturned" to "get to the bottom" of their problems.  By his own admission, he could be relentless in terms of wanting to discuss their relationship in order to improve things between them.  

Since he had been in a lot of individual experiential therapy before, Tom understood that when they argued, his fears of abandonment, which were rooted in his childhood, would sometimes overtake him.  At those times, he would be even more insistent that he and Meg talk about what was going on between them.

But Meg, who, in EFT language, was a ""distancer"," tended to shut down emotionally and cognitively whenever Tom insisted that they talk.  She felt emotionally overwhelmed at those times and, if she couldn't deflect the conversation, she would physically leave by walking out of their apartment or going for a drive.  She didn't know why she felt so frightened about having a discussion about the relationship and especially about her emotions.  She only knew that it was too difficult for her.  She also didn't understand what might be getting triggered in her during those times.

Their EFT couple therapist began working with Meg and Tom by asking Meg to recall a recent argument where she felt the need to distance herself from Tom.

At first, Meg couldn't think of anything, but then she remembered that she and Tom had an argument a few days before where she was ready to leave the apartment if he continued to insist on talking about their relationship and her emotions, "I don't know what comes over me.  I just feel like I need to escape as quickly as possible.  Fortunately, Tom let the matter drop, but I knew that it would be just a matter of time before this subject came up again."

The EFT couple therapist encouraged Meg to go back into her experience of the argument and to remember what she was feeling at the time.  She encouraged Meg to take a moment to get back into the same feeling state that she had been in when the argument occurred.

After a few seconds of trying, Meg turned to the therapist and said, "I really don't see how this will be  helpful.  I felt overwhelmed at the time and now you're asking me to go back into that feeling state.  I'm afraid I will feel overwhelmed again."

The EFT couple therapist told Meg that, as opposed to when the argument occurred and when uncomfortable emotions overtook her, Meg was only remembering what happened, which is usually less intense.  She also assured Meg that if it was too uncomfortable for her, Meg could stop because she was in control of the process.

The therapist also explained the rationale for revisiting this memory, which was to try to help Meg to access her emotions, including her primary emotions, because this is part of what would help Meg and Tom to make positive changes in their relationship.

With these assurances, Meg tried again.  She remembered that the argument was about how she tended to distance herself from Tom after they made love.  She recalled that Tom complained that Meg tended to move away from him.  Instead of cuddling with him, she would turn over to go to sleep shortly after they made love.

She also remembered that this was an ongoing issue between them, and whenever Tom brought it up, she felt very uncomfortable and wanted him to stop talking about it (see my article: Are You Too Uncomfortable Talking to Your Spouse About Sex?).

Allowing herself to remember what she felt at the time, Meg remembered feeling angry and frustrated that Tom was, once again, bringing this up when he knew that she was too uncomfortable to talk about it.  

The therapist remained empathically attuned to Meg and encouraged her to continue to delve beneath her secondary emotions of anger and frustration to see what was underneath these emotions.  She explained to Meg that secondary emotions, like anger and frustration, mask the more vulnerable primary emotions, and accessing and communicating about her primary emotions was key to working on her relationship with Tom.

Meg agreed that she wanted more than anything for her relationship with Tom to work out so, even though it was somewhat frightening for her to delve beyond her more surface emotions, she was willing to try it.

The couple therapist helped Meg by suggesting that she become conscious of where she felt her emotions in her body.  She explained that the body is a container for conscious and unconscious emotions and it allows access more easily than trying to access emotions by thinking about them.

Meg placed herself back in the memory of that argument.  She remembered having her back to Tom and how the anger and frustration were building up inside her.  As she recalled how she felt, she realized that she felt these emotions in her chest and in her gut.  The therapist encouraged Meg to stay with it and see what would come up next.  

Meg remained with the experience for another minute or so and then told the therapist that she was beginning to feel a little queasy and a tightening in her chest.  She could feel the anger and frustration, but she sensed that there was something more going on for her underneath these emotions.

Focusing on the queasiness in her stomach and the tightening in her chest, Meg felt a wave of sadness come over her.  At that point, she told the therapist that she would like to stop because it felt too overwhelming for her.

During the next EFT couple therapy session, Meg went back into the same argument to see if she could get beyond her secondary emotions.  Even though she was still somewhat uncomfortable doing this, she wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as she had been the first time she tried it the week before.

Once again, Meg felt the wave of sadness underneath the anger and frustration.  She mostly felt it in her chest.  But this time, she was able to stay with it to see what else might come up because the feeling was manageable for her, especially since the therapist remained empathically attuned to Meg and Meg sensed her presence and emotional support.

Meg told the therapist that she still wanted to run from the sadness, but it felt bearable this time.  Then, she sensed into the tightness in her chest and sensed fear as another underlying emotion. 

Her therapist asked Meg to see if any words, images or other memories came to her from the sensations and emotions in her chest and gut.  As Meg stayed with those sensations and emotions, the words that came to her were, "You're unlovable and Tom will probably leave you" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Afterwards, Meg told the therapist and Tom that, after she accessed her primary emotions, she had no idea that she had been feeling this way.  Now she understood why she felt so vulnerable, especially after she and Tom were sexually intimate.  She realized that she was protecting herself against what she felt was inevitable--that Tom would discover that she was unlovable and leave her (see my article: Overcoming the Fear That People Wouldn't Like You If They Knew the "Real You").

The other thing that really surprised Meg was that, once she verbalized her primary emotions, they weren't nearly as scary as she would have thought.  She experienced the emotions like a wave that had a build up, a peak and then a release, and she was somewhat relieved.  

The EFT couple therapist asked Tom if he had any idea, before Meg verbalized her fear and sadness that she felt unlovable and feared that he would leave her, that Meg was feeling this way.

In response, Tom said he was shocked, "I never would have guessed this.  The only thing that I ever see after we make love is that Meg shuts down emotionally and turns away from me.  I had no idea that she feels unlovable or that she thinks I would leave her."

Then, Tom turned to Meg, hugged her and reassured her that he was in it for the long haul--come what may--and he wanted to work on their relationship no matter what it took.  

Meg was visibly relieved and told Tom and the therapist that this is the reassurance that she needed, but she never realized it before and never would have known how to ask for it.

In subsequent sessions, the EFT couple therapist continued to work with Meg and Tom to help them understand the negative pattern in their relationship and the roles (pursuer/distancer) that they played.

Since Tom already had access to his primary emotions and could communicate based on those emotions, they continued to work on helping Meg to access her emotions by sensing into her body to get beyond her surface emotions.  With practice, she was getting better at doing this on her own so that when she and Tom argued, she developed an increased capacity to remain present.

Meg also began to understand how these primary emotions were related to feeling rejected by her parents when she was a child (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

She was beginning to understand that at the moment when she and Tom were most intimate sexually and emotionally, she was getting triggered and shutting down emotionally and physically by masking her primary emotions to protect herself.

In addition, over time, Meg began to learn how to separate her earlier experiences with her parents from her current experiences with Tom (see my article: Working Through Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate the Past From the Present).

As a result of these experiences in therapy, Meg was able to expand her window of tolerance for these uncomfortable emotions, and she was also able to spend more time being present emotionally with Tom after they made love.

Meg didn't always succeed, especially in the beginning, but she and Tom both understood that progress in therapy isn't linear and setbacks are part of the process (see my articles: Progress in Therapy Isn't Linear and Setbacks in Therapy Are Normal on the Road to Healing).

The fictional vignette above is a relatively simple example, for the sake of brevity, of how an experiential therapy can help a client to access primary emotions.  

In the particular example above, the experiential therapy was Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.

Similar techniques are used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis and AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy).

All of these experiential therapies use the mind-body connection to get to primary emotions, the emotions that provide the route to making positive changes.   

In the example above, Tom had access to primary emotions due to his work in his individual experiential therapy while Meg didn't.  However, it's often the case that neither person has access to primary emotions and they will both need to work in therapy on accessing and expressing those emotions to each other.

Getting Help in Experiential Therapy
Whether you're an individual with an unresolved problem or a couple who are trying to salvage their relationship, experiential therapy is much more effective in terms of making positive changes (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy).

When you remain on the surface with secondary emotions, you remain stuck in your problems.  Being able to access your innermost emotions and talk about them to your partner offers the best chance for making positive changes.

Rather than remaining stuck, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experiential therapist who can assist you to overcome your problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

EFT Couple Therapy: Working Together to Overcome the Negative Pattern in Your Relationship

Before getting help in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, most couples say that they had little to no awareness of their negative pattern or the roles they took on during conflicts in their relationship.  Other couples say they recognize some of these problems, but they didn't know what to do about it.  To address these issues, an EFT trained couple therapist will work with a couple to help them recognize these dynamics and to work together to overcome these obstacles (see my articles: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?What Happens During Stage One of EFT Couple Therapy? and What Happens During Stage Two of EFT Couple Therapy?).

EFT Couple Therapy: Working Together to Overcome the Negative Pattern in Your Relationship
In my prior article, I discussed the importance of empathy in changing a negative dynamic (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy: Empathy Helps to Change a Negative Pattern in a Relationship).

Empathy allows you to step back from a confrontation to see the attachment-related issues that keep you and your partner stuck in a negative dynamic.

It also tends to soften both people's feelings towards each other so they can de-escalate their confrontation and consider how they can come together to overcome a negative pattern.  Rather than seeing each other as "the enemy," both people can refocus on the dynamic that they want to change.

Empathy also helps each person to recognize that, in most cases, each person is doing the best that they can with the emotional survival strategies that they learned at a young age.  And, with the help of their EFT couple therapist, they can get beyond their emotional reactivity (secondary emotions) to get to their more vulnerable emotions (primary emotions) once they both feel safe enough to do this.

Empathy allows each person to see his or her own intention as well as the intention of his or her partner.

Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Ray and Anna
Anna and Ray began attending EFT couple therapy because they were arguing a lot, their arguments weren't getting resolved, and resentment was building up between them.

Over time, their EFT couple therapist helped each of them to understand their pursuing/distancing roles and the negative dynamic between them.

When Ray understood that, as a pursuer, Anna's outbursts were the outer manifestation of her need to be closer to him and that underneath her anger she was feeling sad, emotionally abandoned, and fearful about the fate of their relationship, he was able to look beyond her emotional reactivity to her innermost emotions and needs.

When Anna understood that, when Ray got silent when she yelled, he was feeling overwhelmed and was trying to think of a way to calm her down, she realized that he wasn't ignoring her--as a distancer, he was became fearful and emotionally paralyzed in that moment.

Over time, both Ray and Anna came to understand that both of their emotional survival strategies--whether it was Anna's yelling, complaining and criticizing (pursuer traits) or Ray's emotional, cognitive and sometimes physical distancing (distancer traits), were strategies they learned during early childhood.  This alone helped them to feel compassion for each other.

Once they were emotionally de-escalated and feeling more empathy for one another in their EFT sessions, Ray and Anna were able to stop blaming each other and come together in EFT couple therapy to work on their negative dynamic.  This was the first time that they had this "working together" perspective, and they both felt motivated as well as challenged to do the work.

As they discussed their pursuing/distancing roles and their negative pattern of blaming/accusing and distancing, they worked with their couple therapist to come up with a plan to overcome these issues.

Anna suggested that she would be more aware of her desperation to reconnect with Ray when they had an argument.  She said that, instead of verbally attacking him, she would take a few moments to calm down so she could get beyond her anger to her more vulnerable feelings.  Then, she could communicate from her innermost emotions rather than from emotional reactivity.

Anna told Ray and the couple therapist that she was now aware that if she could do this, Ray would be much more receptive and open with her--rather than distancing himself from her.

Ray said he would let Anna know as soon as he began feeling emotionally overwhelmed in one of their arguments, like saying, "It's happening again.  I'm starting to feel overwhelmed" and this could be the signal for both of them to slow down, take time out or do whatever they needed to do to de-escalate emotionally before coming together again.

Ray said he was aware that if he let Anna know that he was feeling too vulnerable emotionally during an argument, she would probably respond in a compassionate way and he wouldn't feel the need to completely shut down emotionally.

Each of them agreed to these strategies for working together to overcome their negative dynamic, and they agreed to try it the next time that they had an argument.

When they returned for their next couple therapy session, Anna explained to their couple therapist that they had an argument a few days ago where they were able to use the strategies that they agreed upon.  She told the couple therapist that, when Ray forgot to take the cat to the vet, as he promised, it was challenging for her to stop herself from yelling and berating him.

She admitted that she started yelling and criticizing him because she felt so angry, but then she looked at Ray's face to see that he looked frightened and heard him say, "It's happening again," and she stopped.  Rather than continue to shout at him and criticize him, she told him that she needed a few minutes to calm herself so she could consider what was happening for her underneath her anger.

Once she was calm, she realized that she felt hurt (a primary emotion) that Ray didn't keep his word, and she was able to tell him, "When I feel this way, I feel like I don't matter to you."

Ray told the couple therapist that he was grateful that Anna was able to stop herself after he gave the signal because it allowed him to remain emotionally present rather than doing what he usually did, which was distancing himself.

He also said that when he heard Anna express her more vulnerable feelings, he felt so much love and tenderness for Anna that he reached out to her, hugged her and assured her that she meant the world to him.

This was the beginning of Ray and Anna working together to overcome their negative pattern.  As they continued to practice coming together at those times, they didn't always succeed.  There were times when one or both of them reverted back to their old pattern.  But, even then, they caught themselves and their arguments were much shorter than they were in the past, and they continued to work in EFT couple counseling.

Understanding the negative patterns and go-to roles, developing empathy for each other, learning to de-escalate conflicts, and coming together to overcome a negative dynamic is all part of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples.

Changing an ingrained dynamic and reliance on particular roles (like pursuer and distancer) can be challenging.  But most couples, who are motivated, would rather combat the negative dynamic than see each other as the enemy.

Like any new skill, it usually takes time to overcome ingrained habits.  This is why EFT couple therapists emphasize that making these changes are part of a process.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, you owe it to yourself to get help in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, a well-researched couple therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.

Learning to empathize, look beyond surface emotions, and coming together to overcome the negative dynamic are skills that an EFT couple therapist can help you and your partner to develop.

When you're able to come together, you no longer feel alone and you're both empowering each other to make positive changes in your relationship (see my article: EFT Couple Counseling: New Bonds of Love Can Replace a Negative Cycle in a Relationship).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, September 10, 2018

EFT Couple Therapy: Empathy Helps to Change a Negative Pattern in a Relationship

Continuing with my series of articles about Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT), I'm focusing on the importance of empathy to change negative patterns in relationships (see my articles:  What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?What Happens During Stage One of EFT Couple Therapy? and What Happens During Stage Two of EFT Couple Counseling?).

EFT Couple Therapy: Empathy Helps to Change a Negative Pattern in a Relationship

As I've mentioned in prior articles, most couples who are stuck in a negative pattern of relating are expressing themselves from secondary emotions, like anger, for instance, rather than their primary emotions of sadness and longing for connection with their partner (see my article: Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples: The Importance of Primary Emotions in Improving Relationships).

Secondary emotions mask the more vulnerable primary emotions.  Couples are often unaware that they're communicating from secondary emotions because these secondary emotions can overtake them, especially in the heat of an argument.

Not only do secondary emotions mask the underlying, more vulnerable emotions, but they usually elicit a defensive or hostile reaction from the other partner.  All of this emotional reactivity serves to escalate an argument--so much so that the couple often begins to move away from the original conflict that they were arguing about to what has been said subsequently in anger or frustration.

When the pattern in the couple is to go negative immediately when there's a conflict, each person usually has his or her role that they play as either a pursuer or a distancer (see my articles:  How EFT Couple Therapy Helps Pursuers to Become Aware of Primary Emotions and How EFT Couple Therapy Helps Distancers to Become Aware of Primary Emotions).

Similar negative patterns, these roles are often entrenched and they are based on each person's early history and attachment style.  Although these emotional survival strategies were once adaptive in early life to keep a child from feeling overwhelmed, these same strategies are detrimental to the adult relationships.

When a couple seeks EFT couple therapy, they're often already entrenched in a negative pattern and fixed roles.  They might not know about negative patterns or roles, but they know that there are problems in their relationship and they don't know how to change them.

How Does Empathy Help to Change a Negative Pattern in a Relationship?
After a couple's emotional reactivity has been de-escalated during Stage One of EFT couple therapy, among other things, the EFT couple therapist helps each person in the relationship to develop self empathy as well as empathy for the partner.

For instance, if there's a couple where one person is in the role of the pursuer and he tends to blame and criticize his partner, and his partner is in the role of the distancer and she tends to move away emotionally, cognitively and physically, there is little room for empathy at that point because each person is dug into his or her positions of either pursuing or avoiding.

Add to this dynamic that one or both people might feel burnt out by all the arguing and negativity, especially if it has gone on for a long time, and there is even less incentive to put aside the negative dynamic and the roles to try to feel empathy.

The EFT couple therapist is trained to listen for the primary emotions that are underneath the more defensive emotions and she attempts to create a safe emotional environment for each person to be more vulnerable.  Then, after the couple is emotionally de-escalated enough, she attempts to help each person to become aware of what's going on underneath all the emotional reactivity.

If EFT therapist thinks that the couple is ready to explore the underlying primary emotions, she might respond by making a tentative statement to see if it resonates with the individual:

"Mary, you get angry when Bill gets home late from the office because the dinner you made is getting cold and spoiling.  What I think I also hear is that you feel sad [a primary emotion] because you want to spend time with Bill in the evening."

If Mary says, "Sad!?!  I don't feel sad!  I feel furious that he takes me for granted!," the therapist realizes that Mary isn't ready to explore her innermost emotions yet, so she will take a step back rather than trying to impose this on Mary.  She might wait until Mary seems more receptive or she might try a different way to get to the primary emotions.

For instance, she might try to elicit the early loving feelings that the couple had for one another at the beginning of their relationship in order to create greater openness in the present:

"Mary, can you tell me what first drew you to Bill when you first started dating?"

If Mary is willing to go there, she will think back to the early days of their relationship and she might say, "Well, I really thought he was very handsome, intelligent and I loved his sense of humor."

As the therapist reflects this back to Mary, she is also watching Bill to see his reaction to hearing how much Mary liked him when they first began dating.  Usually, this will elicit at least a smile or a nod from the other partner.

When the therapist asks Bill the same question, he smiles and says, "I liked Mary immediately.  I noticed her eyes first because they're so pretty, and I liked her smile.  What I liked most about Mary at first was her passion for the things she believes in.  I still like all those things about her.  I just wish she would smile at me now more often--the way she did back then."

After Bill says this, Mary and Bill make eye contact for the first time during the couple therapy session and give each other a tentative smile, so the EFT couple therapist can see that they are beginning to connect.

The therapist might say, "Bill, can you tell Mary more about what it's like for you when Mary smiles at you--like she did just now.  What are you feeling right now?"

Bill looks a little shy at first, which the therapist understands because she knows she's asking him to take somewhat of an emotional risk by opening up.  After his hesitation, he says, "When Mary smiles at me, like how she just did, it makes me feel happy.  It makes me feel like maybe she doesn't see me as a complete failure as a husband and maybe we have a chance."

When Mary hears Bill say this, she's surprised and there's a look of empathy on her face, "I don't think you're a failure as a husband.  I never thought that.  Not at all.  I just don't like to feel taken for granted."

Bill responds by smiling at Mary and taking her hand.

The EFT therapist, who has been seeing the beginning of empathy, might try again, "So, Mary, I know you're angry when Bill is late, but is it possible there are some other emotions underneath that anger?"

At that point, Mary, who has been gradually opening up to Bill's emotions, sighs, "Yeah, I guess I...I miss Bill all day long and I want to see him, so it makes me feel sad when he's late."

Bill squeezes Mary's hand when he hears this and tells her, "I know I don't tell you this, but I think about you many times during the day and I think about how nice it would be to come home to you and for us to have time to ourselves."

This is the beginning of both Mary and Bill opening up to their innermost primary emotions of sadness, love and longing.  This is what allows for a change in their dynamic.  Instead of focusing on their secondary emotions of anger, they can dig a little deeper and recognize their primary emotions.

Over time, if Mary and Bill continue in EFT couple therapy, they will probably develop a new way of  relating to one another as they're able to access their primary emotions and communicate to each other in a deeper way--rather than their more reactive way.

Being able to develop a sense of empathy for yourself as well as your partner can go a long way to helping you to change a negative dynamic in your relationship.

People in relationships tend to focus on their secondary emotions, like anger and frustration (to name just a couple of them) because focusing on those emotions allows them to defend against feeling their more vulnerable primary emotions.

The problems is that focusing on secondary emotions doesn't allow for the possibility of empathy, which can lead to change.

A skilled EFT couple therapist can help a motivated couple to access their primary emotions so they can feel empathy, which allows them to get to primary emotions.  By accessing and communicating from the experience of primary emotions, a couple can make positive changes in their relationship.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
The dynamic that is presented in the fictional vignette above is common.  It's the kind of negative dynamic that many couples get stuck in and don't know how to get out of on their own.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples provides couples with the necessary tools to improve their relationship.

If you and your partner feel stuck in your relationship, you can get help by seeking assistance from an EFT couple therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps You to Express Your Emotional Vulnerability to Your Partner

My focus during the last few weeks has been Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, an effective, well-researched therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson (see my articles: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?What Happens During Stage One of EFT Couple Therapy? and What Happens During Stage Two of EFT Couple Therapy?).

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps You to Express Your Emotional Vulnerability to Your Partner
The focus of this article is a more in-depth look at emotional vulnerability and why it's often so hard to express these deeper emotions, which are underneath protective/secondary emotions, to a spouse or romantic partner.  This article also illustrates how EFT couple therapy can help couples to express their emotional vulnerability to each other.

Many couples experience difficulty with expressing vulnerability to each other, especially if there is a longstanding negative pattern that hasn't been addressed.  Negative patterns can take on a life of their own and get in the way of improving the relationship.

Before a couple can change their negative pattern, they first need to be able to identify it as well as the roles that they take on when they're not getting along.  In the heat of an argument, it can be very difficult for the couple to see their pattern and the roles each person plays.

As mentioned in a prior article, the first stage of EFT couple therapy includes the couple therapist's assessment of the particular pattern a couple engages in when they're arguing and what role each of them plays (see my article: How EFT Couple Therapy Helps "Pursuers" to Become Aware of Primary Emotions and How EFT Couple Therapy Helps "Distancers" to Become Aware of Primary Emotions to Improve Their Relationship).

In a tactful and non-judgmental way, an EFT couple therapist can, for instance, listen to each person's account of a recent argument and begin to notice certain patterns and roles that the couple is usually unaware of before coming to couple therapy (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy Helps Couples to Move Beyond Reactive Emotions and Destructive Arguing Cycles).

Fictional Clinical Example: Jane and Peter
For instance, Jane and Peter's pattern is that Jane blames and criticizes Peter when he forgets to do a particular chore that he agreed to do.

Peter's pattern is that he begins by getting defensive and minimizing Jane's upset ("You're getting upset about nothing"), which further infuriates Jane so that she raises her voice and becomes increasingly more critical.

In response, Peter continues to dismiss Jane's concerns, which escalates the argument.  Then, Peter responds by leaving the house for hours to avoid his Jane's anger.

When Peter returns, neither of them discuss what happened.  They remain aloof for the rest of the evening, and they begin talking, as necessary, the next day.

Eventually, they appear to be okay but, over time, unaddressed resentment is building up and eroding the relationship.  Even though they're each concerned about it, neither of them knows how to talk about it, so their concerns go unexpressed.  This is their negative pattern, and they're stuck in it.

With regard to their roles, Jane tends to be the one who wants to talk about their problems (the role of the pursuer) and Peter tends to want to distance himself from the strong emotions related to their struggles.

When Jane can't get Peter to talk, she gets anxious because, deep down, she feels emotionally abandoned.  Then, she gets louder and more critical.  And when Jane gets louder and more critical in response to Peter's avoidance, Peter becomes emotionally overwhelmed and needs to distance himself--either emotionally, cognitively and/or physically.  He doesn't tell Jane but, deep down, he feels like a "failure" in Jane's eyes and his fear is that if they continue to argue like this, Jane will leave him.

Neither of them is to blame for their pattern and the roles that they take on.  Each of them has a particular attachment style from which their emotional survival strategies developed from and which continue to use in their relationship--whether they're aware of it or not (see my article: How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Can Save Your Relationship).

Rather than placing the blame on each other, this couple would benefit much more from looking at their roles and patterns in their relationship dynamic and asking themselves how they can change it.

It's the negative pattern and the entrenched roles that are the problems--not the individuals in the relationship.

As Jane and Peter's EFT couple therapist listens to how they interact during an argument, she knows that, underneath Jane's exterior of anger Peter's exterior of emotional aloofness, they're both hurting, but they don't know how to tell each other this.

So the couple therapist will help Peter and Jane, first, to de-escalate their reactivity to try to develop a safer emotional environment for each person to take a risk to explore what's underneath their emotional reactivity/secondary emotions.

But this can be very hard work for individuals who are accustomed to protecting themselves emotionally by using their particular coping strategy.  It would mean taking an emotional risk to be vulnerable and trusting that the partner will be open, compassionate, non-judgmental and nonreactive.

Back to Jane and Peter:  The EFT couple therapist is aware that, even though Jane yells and she blames and criticizes Peter, these are her secondary emotions that mask her innermost/primary emotions.

On a deeper/primary emotion level, Jane wants very much to reconnect emotionally with Peter.  The therapist knows that Jane is using the only coping strategy she knows (anger, blaming, criticizing), based on her childhood history, to try to get through to Peter.  In addition, the therapist is aware that when Jane gets highly anxious that Peter is distancing himself from her, she gets so terrified of being abandoned that she lashes out desperately to get a response from him.

So, the couple therapist talks to Jane (knowing that Peter is listening right next to Jane) about how very difficult it is for Jane when Peter seems to shutdown emotionally.  Jane, who is still angry, agrees that it is "frustrating" (a secondary emotion) when she tries to talk to Peter and he shuts her out.  At that point, she is still blaming him, but she has softened a bit.

Then, the couple therapist says, "Yes, it's so hard for you when you feel Peter isn't listening to you anymore and you want so much to connect with him that you raise your voice to get his attention."

As the therapist says this, she is looking at both Jane and Peter to assess their responses.  Until now, Peter has been sitting slumped in his chair and looking down at the floor as if he is waiting to be criticized by Jane.  But when he hears the therapist say that Jane is raising her voice as a way to connect with him, he looks up at Jane momentarily before he looks back down again.  So, the therapist is aware that Peter has taken in this information about Jane wanting to connect with him.

Jane hesitates before she responds.  She starts out in a softer tone, but then she glares at Peter and reverts somewhat to her former stance of criticism and blaming, "I do want to connect with Peter--more than anything.  But it's so hard to do when he stonewalls me!  If only he would stop shutting down, we might have a chance of saving our relationship!" (blaming and criticizing).

Picking up on Jane's innermost/primary emotions that she has just revealed (before she went back to blaming and criticizing), the EFT couple therapist responds to Jane (keeping in mind that Peter is listening too), "You care so much about Peter that you want more than anything to get through to him in order to save your relationship.  And when you feel you can't get through to him, you get anxious, just like you did when you were a child, and get louder, hoping that if you get louder, maybe you'll get through."

When Jane hears the therapist mention her childhood experiences, she begins to cry.  Until then, she had not made the connection between how she desperate she felt as a child trying to get her alcoholic mother's attention and how desperate she feels with Peter when she thinks she isn't getting through to him.

Before this, Jane would berate herself after each argument with Peter for yelling, blaming and criticizing him.

But after the therapist helped Jane to make the connection to a traumatic childhood, Jane understood why she felt so emotionally overwhelmed with Peter at times.  She could picture herself as a young child standing over her mother, who was passed out on the couch, trying to rouse her mother--calling her name and, finally, yelling at the top of her lungs to get her mother's attention--to no avail.  As painful as it was for Jane to go back to those memories, now it made sense to her why she got so emotional with Peter.

"Even though the circumstances are different, "Jane says to the therapist in a soft voice, "it feels the same.  I was so scared of being alone when my mother blacked out and, even though I'm an adult now, I become so afraid when Peter shuts down and I feel alone."

The EFT therapist listens empathically as Jane responds.  She also notices that Peter is now sitting up and he is looking compassionately at Jane.  It's obvious that he is moved by what she just said and he appears to be more receptive to her.

The therapist turns to Jane, "I can see how sad all of this makes you feel [addressing the primary emotion of sadness rather than secondary emotions of anger and frustration], "Can you look at Peter and tell him this is how you feel?"

Jane looks at Peter for a moment and seems like she is about to speak, but then she turns away, "I can't do it.  I tried in the past, and it never works.  I don't feel safe enough to be so open with him."

When Peter hears this, he looks deflated and slumps in his seat again.

The EFT therapist understands that, at this point, Jane isn't ready to make herself so emotionally vulnerable with Peter, but their emotional reactivity has been reduced (if not completely de-escalated), so she responds by saying to Jane (and also intending for Peter to hear and understand), "It's so hard to open up and take an emotional risk when you're afraid that you won't be heard again."

Jane is moved by the therapist's empathy.  She feels understood, but she's still not ready to express the emotional vulnerability underneath her secondary/protective emotions.

During the next few weeks, in an effort to help the couple to de-escalate, the EFT couple therapist continues to empathize with Jane's fears.  At the same time, each time she addresses those fears, she continues to affirm how much Jane cares about Peter, which makes it hard for her to take a risk.

Jane is able to acknowledge that it's difficult for her to risk getting hurt, and Peter is moved to hear this.  So, even though Jane is unable to talk to Peter about it directly, the EFT therapist, as a facilitator, helps both Jane and Peter to understand what's going on so they can begin to soften with each other.

It will take many more attempts by the EFT therapist, who remains attuned and empathic, to help Jane to express her innermost emotions to Peter.  Each time, Jane gets a little closer, the EFT therapist helps to expand the interaction by addressing the primary/innermost emotions that Jane is having difficulty relaying to Peter.

Then, during one session Jane takes a tentative step to tell Peter how she feels.  She is so afraid to open up that, at first, she stammers and begins to cry.  In response, the EFT therapist remains attuned to Jane and reflects back to her how difficult this is for her.

When Jane begins again, she looks at Peter, looks away and then looks back at him, "When we argue and you shutdown, I get so scared that I'm losing you.  I feel like the young child that I was when my mother was passed out on the couch.  I know I'm not a young child anymore and you're not my mother, but it feels so much like that time.  When I think you don't hear me, I raise my voice to try to get through to you, and I know now that raising my voice just makes you want to move away from me.  But I don't know what else to do.  I don't want to lose you, and it feels like I'm losing you when you distance yourself from me."

Peter reaches out to hold Jane's hand, "I'm sorry that I caused you pain.  I never meant to hurt you.  Even though I distance myself, I still love you and I want things to work out between us.  When I distance myself, it's because I feel so overwhelmed.  I feel like you see me as a failure as a husband, and I feel so ashamed and sad" (expressing primary emotions).

During this interaction, with the EFT therapist's help, Jane has de-escalated enough so that she can access her innermost/primary emotions and communicate to Peter from that place.  Even though she is still afraid to express her emotional vulnerability, Jane is willing to take that risk because she knows that if she doesn't, things between her and Peter might not change.

All the work that led up to Jane taking the emotional risk, including the therapist's attunement, empathy and reflecting back what Jane was feeling to both Jane and Peter, helped to develop the foundation for Jane to take the risk.

Speaking from that vulnerable place, Jane is able to convey to Peter how much she cares for him and that her outer appearance of anger, frustration, blaming and criticizing masks her deeper feelings of love, vulnerability and fear of abandonment.

Peter was so moved by Jane's vulnerability that he opened up too and expressed his fears/primary emotions.  Rather than distancing himself, he opened up when he realized that Jane was hurting, she loved him, and she wanted their relationship to survive.

During the next few sessions, Jane and Peter were able to relate their individual dynamics to their attachment history in early childhood.  This also helped to de-escalate emotional reactivity between them as each of them were able to picture the other as a small child trying to get his or her emotional needs met, which engendered empathy and compassion.

For the sake of brevity, the fictional clinical vignette above is relatively straightforward.  How a couple gets to the point of expressing emotional vulnerability will be different for each couple.

The couple might take two steps forward and one step back in their effort to reconnect with each other emotionally so that they can express their innermost emotions.  This is especially true if the problems have been longstanding and if there is a childhood history of being emotionally neglected or abused that is getting triggered.

The EFT couple therapist is trained to be empathically attuned to each individual in the couple to help each one to express the underlying vulnerable emotions (see my article: The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative).

Even though she might be speaking to one of the individuals in the couple, the therapist is also aware  that the other partner is listening and tries to deepen the work in a way that feels safe for each person.

Underlying attachment issues are addressed as a way for each person to appreciate the complexity of their interactions and that it "makes sense" that they are interacting the way that they are, even though they want to change it.

Understanding the attachment issues that might be getting triggered helps each person to feel self compassion as well as feeling compassion and empathy for his or her partner.  This opens up the possibility for positive change.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
As previously mentioned, EFT is one of the most effective forms of couple therapy as evidenced in research.

A trained EFT couple therapist knows that one of the most difficult things for a couple to do is express vulnerability when there has been a lot of contention in the relationship.  This is why de-escalation of emotional reactivity is so important during Stage One of EFT couple therapy.

Empathy is one of the hallmarks of EFT couple therapy, and the couple therapist uses empathy to attune and reflect to each person in the relationship.

Rather than blaming each other, the EFT couple therapist helps the couple to focus on their innermost/primary emotions and how they can change the negative dynamic and the roles they play.  Working together, rather than against each other, is one of the keys to improving the relationship.

If you and your partner have been struggling in your relationship, rather than continuing to struggle on your own, you could benefit from working with an EFT-trained couple therapist to save your relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Unfortunately, many couples, who love each other, never seek help.  They continue to struggle with their negative pattern and ingrained roles on their own.  After a while, as a way to stop the arguing and struggling, some couples will begin to "walking on eggshells" to avoid getting into conflicts.  Although they might not be arguing anymore, they have also become emotionally disconnected from each other and the relationship isn't satisfying to either of them.