NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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