NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

EFT Couple Counseling Helps Couples to Move Beyond Reactive Emotions and Destructive Arguing Cycles

In prior articles about EFT (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy), which was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, I discussed how this well-researched form of couple counseling can help couples to improve their relationship.

See my prior articles:
In this article, I'm focusing specifically on how EFT can help couples to move beyond reactive emotions, like anger and frustration, to the more vulnerable underlying emotions, like hurt and fear, to help change destructive patterns of relating.

EFT Couple Counseling Helps Couples to Move Beyond Reactive Emotions and Destructive Cycles  
Reactive emotions tend to drive arguments.  Rather than communicating the hurt, sadness or fear that are underneath these reactive emotions, couples often tend to lead with emotional reactivity.

Not only does this often lead to defensiveness, but it all tends to fuel escalating, destructive arguments.  After a while, this can become a pattern of relating that couples often find difficult to change on their own.

Fictional Clinical Vignette:  EFT Couple Counseling Helps Couples to Move Beyond Reactive Emotions and Destructive Arguing Cycles
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how an EFT couple therapist can help a couple to move beyond their reactive emotions to end destructive arguing cycles:

Mark and Tara
After more than a year of couple therapy where they were focusing on developing "better communication skills," Mark and Tara decided to see an EFT couple therapist recommended by Tara's individual therapist because their regular couple therapy wasn't helping them.

Tara's individual psychotherapist, who was training in EFT couple therapy, told Tara that EFT went far beyond looking at communication skills and focused on the dynamic between the couple, including their individual ways of relating.  She also told her that the latest research indicated that getting to the underlying emotions was key to improving relationship dynamics.

During their first EFT couple therapy session, Tara told the couple therapist that, in their five years of marriage, she and Mark usually had arguments that escalated to the point where she was yelling and Mark "stonewalled" her by not speaking or leaving the apartment during heated arguments.

She said that the worst part was that nothing ever got resolved between them and, even though they still loved each other, they were growing farther and farther apart with time.  She feared that they weren't going to make it if they continued arguing this way.  Focusing on communication skills in their prior couple therapy did nothing to change their dynamic, Tara said.

While Tara spoke, Mark looked away and remained quiet.  When it was his turn to speak, he admitted that he never wanted to start couple therapy, but he did it at Tara's insistence.  Initially, before they started their prior couple therapy, he feared that he would be blamed by both his wife and their female couple therapist.  He thought they would "gang up" on him.  So, he said, he was pleasantly surprised that their prior couple therapist was evenhanded and didn't automatically blame him for the problems in the relationship.  However, he agreed with Tara that, even though they were in couple therapy, they continued to have destructive arguments that went nowhere.

With some prompting from the EFT couple therapist, Mark gave an example of a recent argument that was typical of the type of arguments that he and Tara would have.  He said he came home from work last week and Tara seemed annoyed and as if she was waiting for him to say or do something.

At a loss as to what was going on, he asked Tara why she looked so annoyed, and she began yelling at him that, once again, he forgot their wedding anniversary.  She told him that she had hoped that when he came home, he would tell her that he remembered this year and he made a reservation at their favorite restaurant for that evening.  But when he said nothing about it, she told him, she realized that this was all a repeat performance of the last few years where he completely forgot.

At that point, Mark told the EFT couple therapist, he felt guilty, he was genuinely sorry and he wanted to apologize to Tara, but he knew that he had done this each year and she wasn't ready to accept his apology.  He also knew that his apology wouldn't make up for Tara's disappointment.

In thinking about what to do, Mark knew from their prior arguments that Tara would be piling on a litany of complaints and disappointments.  Even though he knew he was at fault, he also felt too tired to deal with Tara's anger.  So, instead of listening to her, he went upstairs to take a shower, and he thought he would come back down to talk to Tara when both of them had cooled off.

Rather than giving him his "space," he said, Tara followed him upstairs and pushed the door open to their bathroom.  She was even more angry that he left her standing downstairs by herself than she had been originally when he got home, and she yelled at him for all the things he did to disappoint her over the last few months.

Mark said that he felt at the "breaking point" when Tara "cornered" him in their bathroom.  At first, he said, he wasn't sure what to do.  From his perspective, Tara saw him as "a loser" who couldn't even remember their wedding anniversary, and he felt like "a loser" too.  He dreaded the thought that Tara might get fed up one day and leave him.  But not knowing what else to do, he remained silent, hoping that Tara would eventually stop yelling at him and he could calm himself.  But rather than stopping, Tara was escalating and getting louder.

When he felt he couldn't take it anymore, Mark said, he reminded Tara about things that were important to him that she had forgotten.  He told her that she acted like she was "Miss Perfect," but she was far from perfect, so she should get off his back.

After he said this, he told the EFT counselor, he was immediately sorry, especially when he saw the hurt and guilty look on Tara's face.  His first impulse was to take Tara in his arms and kiss her, but she walked out of the room and he decided not to pursue her.

Later on, Mark said, when they were having dinner, they were both quiet and barely made eye contact.  The argument had stopped, but now they remained in stony silence for the rest of the evening.  He told the EFT counselor that, when they first got married, they had agreed that they would never go to bed angry, but there were so many arguments like this that they often went to bed angry and woke up barely speaking to one another.

That particular night when they each remained on their side of the bed, Mark said, he thought about reaching out to Tara, but he thought it would be pointless.  He stayed up most of the night thinking about how Tara would probably leave him and feeling scared and lonely.  The next morning, he said, was the same as many other mornings after they argued--they barely spoke before each of them went off to work.

When the EFT couple therapist asked Tara for her reaction to Mark's recounting their last argument, Tara said that she was surprised.  From her perspective at the time of the argument, she thought that Mark's initial lack of response meant that he didn't care, and this infuriated her.  Then, when he walked away from her, she said, she became even more angry.  When he reminded her of the things that she had done wrong, she didn't know what to say.  She felt so guilty that she needed to withdraw from him.  She said she also spent a sleepless night after their last argument, and she wanted to reach out to Mark too, but she didn't know how anymore.  She agreed that this was the usual pattern to their arguments and these arguments were eroding their relationship.  She was beginning to feel hopeless about their marriage, but she didn't want to give up.

Their EFT couple therapist helped them to see that there were "no bad guys" in their relationship--instead, there was a destructive pattern of interacting that wasn't working.  Then, over the next several sessions, she helped each of them to focus on their pattern--rather than blaming each other--and express the more vulnerable feelings that were underneath their anger.

Mark had an easier time expressing his sadness, loneliness and fear.  In response, Tara seemed genuinely moved by his expression of vulnerability, but she said she also felt too afraid to allow herself to be emotionally vulnerable with Mark.  She said there had been too many times in the past when she opened up to Mark to express her sadness and he responded, from her point of view, by being "cold and rational," telling her that she had "no reason" to be sad.  Now, she felt she had to protect herself from being emotionally vulnerable with him.

During the next several sessions, the EFT counselor helped Mark to tell Tara that he now realized that his attempts at being "rational" were hurtful to her, and he wanted to be open to whatever she had to tell him about her more vulnerable feelings.  At various times, Tara seemed on the verge of opening up emotionally to Mark, but then she would shut down again.

Based on what she learned in EFT couple therapy, Tara said she understood that, in order for their negative dynamic to change, she and Mark needed to get beyond their reactivity to express their emotional needs and she asked Mark to be patient with her, which he agreed to do.

During that time, the EFT counselor reflected back to each of them what she saw in terms of the love that each of them felt for the other.  She also modeled the type of open dialogue that they were striving to have with one another.

Then, in their next EFT couple session, Tara made a tentative effort to begin telling Mark how sad and fearful she felt whenever they had destructive arguments.  At first, her words were halting and she looked at the couple therapist, who encouraged her to continue.

When Tara was midway through expressing her feelings, Mark reached out and held her hand to reassure her that he was there, he was listening and he wasn't going anywhere.  At that point, feeling assured by him, Tara responded by squeezing his hand and smiling at him.

They both acknowledged that this was the first time in a long time that they held hands and felt so close to one another.  Mark said that he realized that Tara didn't think of him as "a loser" and that she was committed to their relationship, which was a big relief to him.  Tara said that this was the first time in a long time that she felt "heard" by Mark and really cared about.

During subsequent EFT couple therapy sessions, Mark and Tara continued to open up to each other.  They told their couple therapist that they still had arguments, but they were able to stop them more easily to say what they were really feeling underneath their anger.  Rather than remaining reactive to each other, they were able to respond with love and compassion to one another.  This tended to end the argument so that they could talk about what they each needed.

Mark and Tara remained in EFT couple therapy to consolidate what they had learned and to develop other healthy ways of relating.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
Many forms of couple therapy focus on how to communicate and listening skills.  There's nothing wrong with this, but the problem is that couples often don't get to look at their destructive dynamic.  Just as important, they don't get to the underlying emotions beyond their reactivity so that little or nothing changes.

An EFT trained couple therapist has the skills to help couples to get to their more vulnerable emotions underneath the reactivity.  She knows that, ultimately, getting to these more vulnerable emotions is what enables the dynamic to change.

Rather than continuing to engage in destructive patterns that are ruining your relationship, you can get help in EFT couple therapy to salvage your relationship.

For more information about EFT Couple Therapy, read the following books:

Hold Me Tight - by Dr. Sue Johnson
Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies - by Brent Bradley and James Furrow

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and EFT couple therapist.

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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.