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