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