NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps "Distancers" to Become Aware of Primary Emotions to Improve Their Relationship

I discussed "pursuers" in my last article and how Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples (EFT) helps them to go beyond their secondary emotions (anger, frustration, blaming,  criticizing) so they can communicate from their innermost, primary emotions to improve their relationship.  In this article I'm focusing on the other side of the relationship, "distancers" (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy: Becoming Aware of Your Primary Emotions to Communicate Your Emotional Needs to Your Spouse or Partner).

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps Distancers to Become Aware of Primary Emotions to Improve Their Relationship

The Difference Between Pursuers and Distancers
Pursuers usually want very much to connect with their spouses or partners.  As mentioned in my last article, the problem is that pursuers often achieve the opposite of what they desire because of their emotional reactivity stemming, which often makes distancers uncomfortable enough to withdraw emotionally, cognitively and sometimes physically.

Like pursuers, distancers also tend to come from a place of good intentions in their relationship.  They often distance themselves as a way preserve the relationship by withdrawing in an effort to reduce emotional reactivity. However, like pursuers, this strategy also often achieves the opposite of what they desire because the pursuer will become even more emotionally reactive when sensing withdrawal from the partner/distancer.

The problem is that when distancers withdraw, pursuers become even increasingly fearful of losing their emotional connection to their partner, so they pursue more intensely--sometimes desperately--in order reduce feelings of abandonment.  This, in turn, usually leads distancers to take even more distance until they are both in a negative cycle of pursuing and distancing that usually goes unresolved unless they get help in couple therapy.

Just to reiterate:  It's important to understand that, for the most part, both pursuers and distancers, in their own way, are trying to preserve their relationship.  They're not trying to create problems.  But, unfortunately, they're using longstanding maladaptive coping strategies, which might be the only strategies they know.

Signs of a Distancers' Withdrawal
People who tend to be distancers often display the following emotional and cognitive withdrawal tendencies:
  • A reliance on mostly logic.  As a result, they often miss emotional cues from their partner
  • A reliance on strict objectivity rather than emotion
  • A focus on "the facts"
  • A distrust or discomfort with emotions
Not all distancers display all of the tendencies above, but these tend to be the main signs.

The point is that distancers tend to move away from emotional reactivity, and emotional reactivity is usually the hallmark of pursuers.

There are often negative consequences for emotional distancing.  Not only does it exacerbate the problem in the relationship, but it also can have personal adverse consequences for the distancer both physically and psychologically (see my article: How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems).

Looks are deceiving:  From an outside perspective, it can appear that there's not a lot going on for distancers, which can infuriate pursuers who want to elicit a reaction.  From the outside, it might look like they're relatively calm and quiet or that they're disinterested. But inside there are all kinds of physical and emotional reactions roiling, especially as it takes more and more energy to suppress emotions and remain withdrawn.

Behind what appears to be a calm or disinterested exterior, distancers often fear they are a failure in their relationship.  If they could somehow remain present enough to communicate what's going on for them on a primary emotional level, they might tell their spouse or partner that they want to get closer to them, but they fear the pursuer's emotional reactivity as well as the possible loss of the relationship.

Some distancers go as far as denying to themselves and others that they have negative emotional reactions (e.g., "I never get angry").

Just like pursuers, distancers' coping strategies often begin early in life.   Many of them were raised in a home environment where their primary emotions might have been dismissed or disregarded ("Don't be so sensitive" or "You're making too big a deal out this" or "You better toughen up" or "Be a man").

This disregard for their emotional experience early in life leads them to suppress their innermost experience (primary emotions) and focus on more superficial emotions (secondary emotions) which don't leave them feeling so vulnerable.

As a brief reminder from prior articles:  Primary emotions are the immediate, visceral, innermost emotions, that are experienced first before people.  They're experienced before secondary emotions, which are used unconsciously to mask the primary emotions.  Primary emotions come at least two and a half times faster than thoughts so they happen very fast.

Secondary emotions, which are defensive strategies, don't come as fast as primary emotions, but they come fast enough that people who use them are unaware they're using them defensively.  They're just trying to protect themselves from being emotionally vulnerable.  It's important for each partner to remember this so s/he can understand and feel compassion (see the following article for a more detailed discussion of the difference between primary and secondary emotions: EFT For Couples: The Importance of Primary Emotions to Improve Your Relationship).

When two people in a relationship have had this kind of negative dynamic going on for a while, they each come to anticipate the other's reaction before it even occurs.  As a result, each of them can become entrenched in his or her own maladaptive coping strategy before an argument even begins (similar to the couple in the fictional vignette from my prior article).

Let's continue with the same fictional clinical vignette from my last article to see things from the distancer's perspective:

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How EFT Couple Therapy Helps a Distancer to Become Aware of Primary Emotions to Improve the Relationship:

Ann and Ed
After their EFT couple therapist helped Ann and Ed to reduce the emotional reactivity in their interactions as part of Stage One of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, especially with regard to Ann's anger, frustration, blaming and criticism, Ann and Ed felt safer to open up a little more with each other.

Ann was able to convey to Ed that, even though she came across as angry and critical, all she really wanted was to get closer to Ed.  She explained how desperate she felt when she saw Ed withdrawing from her emotionally and physically.  She felt abandoned by him.

With the help of the EFT couple therapist, Ann was also able to make a connection between how she felt in her relationship with Ed and how she felt as a child when she was emotionally abandoned by her parents.

This helped both Ann and Ed to understand why Ann became so frantic when she felt Ed moving away from her.  Not only was she dealing with the current situation between them--she was also getting emotionally triggered by her childhood history.  As a result, when Ed heard this, he felt more compassionate for Ann, and Ann felt more self compassion.

As Ed began to grapple with his tendency to be a distancer, he also remembered his childhood history.  He said that his parents were, generally, loving and caring parents.  But both parents, who were well meaning, had a discomfort with strong negative emotions so that whenever Ed, as a young child, cried or expressed sadness or other strong negative emotions, they would either dismiss his emotions, try to talk him out of these emotions or cheer him up rather than remaining emotionally attuned to him.

He had many childhood memories where one or both parents were dismissive of his emotions.  On one occasion, when his pet hamster died when Ed was five, his mother tried to cheer him up rather than soothe him over the loss, "Looking back on it now, I know my mother loved me, but she was so uncomfortable with negative emotions that she just couldn't tolerate seeing me sad, so she tried to cheer me up rather than just be with me in my sadness.  The message I got was that it wasn't okay to be sad."  He also remembered his father, who was a kind man in other respects, telling him to "Be a man and stop crying" even though Ed was a young child.

The EFT couple therapist told Ed that this was a common experience that many men (and women too) experienced in their families with parents who would, otherwise, be considered "good parents."  She explained that his parents probably had similar experiences in their families when they were children, so they never learned how to tolerate negative emotions--their own or other people's.

Ed began to understand the origin of his distancing strategies.  He realized that, by the time he became an adult, these strategies were already entrenched because the message he got as a young child was that his negative emotions were "bad."  As a result, he learned to stuff his emotions to protect himself and his loved ones.

As Ann listened to Ed talk about his childhood experiences, she felt a surge of empathy for Ed, "I had no idea that this went back to childhood.  Now I understand what happens to you, Ed, when we argue."  Then, Ann reached out and took Ed's hand.

"When we argue," Ed told Ann, "especially when I feel like I've screwed up, like when I forgot to make the appointment with the pediatrician for our son, I worry that I'm a poor husband and father and you might be getting so fed up with me that you're going to leave me."

Ann reassured Ed that, even though she got very angry with him at times, she never considered ending their marriage.  She was surprised that Ed felt so badly and that he thought she was contemplating ending their marriage.  She also assured him that she felt he was a great husband and father.

Over time, as Ed and Ann continued to attend EFT couple therapy, they worked on becoming aware of their primary emotions and communicating to each other from their more vulnerable emotions.  Their progress was often two steps forward and one step back, but they knew they were making progress (see my article: Progress in Therapy Isn't Linear).

Instead of coming at Ed in an angry, critical manner, which were her secondary emotions, Alice learned to communicate from her primary emotions, like sadness.  And as difficult as it was for him, Ed tried to remain emotionally and cognitive present with Ann rather than withdrawing from her.

They still had arguments, just like any other couple, but they weren't as volatile as their prior arguments.  They also recovered much more quickly because they were able to recover by accessing and communicating from their primary emotions rather than their reactive secondary emotions, and they reached towards each other during difficult times rather than remaining entrenched in their former negative dynamic.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.  EFT is one of the most well researched and most effective forms of couple therapy.

A major component of EFT is helping couples to overcome their negative dynamics by assisting them to interact from primary emotions rather than their defensive secondary emotions.

Another important component is assisting couples to understand their attachment styles (see my article: How Understanding Your Primary Emotions and Attachment Style Could Save Your Relationship).

There is also an emphasis in EFT that there are "no bad guys" in the relationship--there is only a negative dynamic that needs to change to improve the relationship.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
Couples, who really love each other, often get stuck in a negative dynamic and don't know how to get out of it.

Taking that first step of asking for help in couple therapy can be the most important step you take to salvage 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, 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.