NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples: The Importance of Primary Emotions to Improve Your Relationship

In my prior article, Why Does Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) Focus on Emotions? I began discussing why EFT places so much emphasis on emotions to help couples to make changes and improve their relationship.  In this article, I'm focusing more in depth on primary emotions (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 For Couples: The Importance of Primary Emotions to Improve Your Relationship

What Are Primary Emotions?
As I discussed in my prior article, primary emotions are your first emotional reaction to an experience, and these emotions happen very quickly--so quickly, at times, that you might not notice them, especially if they are emotions that you're not comfortable with, like sadness or fear.

Primary emotions include:
  • joy/happiness
  • sadness
  • hurt
  • surprise
  • excitement
  • disgust
  • shame
  • anger (although not always)
  • fear
Primary emotions are biologically based and instinctual so they are hard wired into human beings.

From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense.  For instance, centuries ago when people lived in caves, they needed an emotional response to danger that was quick and efficient.  If a caveman or cavewoman walked into the wrong cave--the cave where the lion lived--instead of the family cave, having an emotional response, in this case fear, that propels you to run before you even have time to think about it, is immediate and could make the difference between life and death.

Although we no longer live in caves and we don't need to run from bears or tigers, primary emotions still contain important information for you as an individual and for your partner (more about this below).

Anger, as noted above in the list of primary emotions, isn't always a primary emotion.  Sometimes, it's a secondary emotion.  For instance, when someone experiences anger because she is being abused or manipulated, this is usually a primary emotion.  However, if someone uses anger to mask deeper feelings (primary emotions) of hurt or sadness, then anger is a secondary emotion (more about what secondary emotions are below).

Primary emotions are you at your most emotionally vulnerable, especially when you attempt to share your deepest emotions with your partner.

Being able to say, "I'm afraid you might leave me because I keep disappointing you" is a lot different than saying in anger, "You make me so angry when you complain about how I disappoint you, and I know you're probably going to bail on our relationship!"

In the first example, the person is showing an emotional vulnerability, which is more likely to elicit a compassionate response than in the second example where the statement is said in an angry tone and which is blaming and critical.  The partner is more likely to become defensive after hearing the second statement.

As you can see from the list of primary emotions above, these emotions include both positive emotions (like joy) and so-called "negative emotions" (like disgust).  The "negative emotions" are not called "negative because they're "bad."  They're called "negative" in contrast to the positive emotions.

All emotions, whether they are labeled as "positive" or "negative," are normal and they provide you with important information about what you're feeling, how you might be impacting your spouse or partner, and what might be going on in your relationship (more about this below).

Secondary emotions, which I will discuss in a future article, are emotions that are a reaction to primary emotions, so they come later.  These emotions often mask the primary emotions that you feel uncomfortable with.

What Role Do Primary Emotions Play in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?
An EFT couple therapist understands the importance of primary emotions and helps each individual in the relationship to become aware of these emotions to help the couple overcome a negative dynamic in their relationship and to make positive changes.

Becoming aware of primary emotions is important because they:
  • Let you know how you are feeling in the moment
  • Provide you with information about what you need to do to take care of yourself, your partner and your relationship
  • Motivate you to seek help from those who can help you
  • Encourage your loved ones to be compassionate to comfort and reassure you (when you share your primary emotions in a vulnerable way without criticism or blame)
As I mentioned in an earlier article, EFT Couple Therapy: Overcoming the Negative Dynamic in Your Relationship That Keeps You Stuck, the EFT couple therapist will assess the couple's pattern of relating during Stage One of EFT  and reflect this back to each individual.

She will also help each individual to become aware of the primary emotions that are being masked by and communicated with secondary emotions.

In addition, she will help each person to get comfortable with communicating primary emotions once the dynamic in the relationship has been de-escalated so that each person can feel safe enough emotionally to risk being vulnerable.

In my next article, I'll give some examples of couples who use secondary emotions, instead of primary emotions, to communicate with each other, show the detrimental effects of this dynamic, and why it's so difficult to change these patterns on your own.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
So many people, who love their spouses or partners, get stuck in destructive relationship dynamics that destroy an otherwise good relationship.

If you and your partner haven't been successful with improving your relationship on your own, you could benefit from attending couple therapy with an EFT couple therapist.  

Not only is EFT, which was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the most well-researched couple therapies, but it also has a high success rate.

Rather than remaining stuck in a negative cycle that's ruining your relationship, you could get help in EFT couple therapy and 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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.