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Saturday, September 1, 2018

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

In my recent articles, I've been focusing on why Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples places so much importance on primary emotions and how communicating based on primary emotions can improve a relationship.

EFT Couple Therapy 

I'm focusing on pursuers in this article.  In my next article, I'll focus on "distancers."

What Are the Typical Dynamics For People Who Are Pursuers in Relationships?
With the understanding that each individual is unique, there are some typical dynamics that many people, who are pursuers, exhibit.

Just like individuals who are "distancers"in relationships, pursuers tend to communicate based on their secondary emotions rather than communicating from primary emotions (for more details on the difference between primary and secondary emotions, click on the following link for a prior article).

If they were to communicate from their primary emotions, they might tell their romantic partners things like, for example, they fear abandonment and emotional distance in the relationship.  For many people who are pursuers, emotional distance makes them feel very insecure and desperate to reconnect.

Unfortunately, when pursuers go through conflict with their romantic partners, they often come across as angry and frustrated, which are secondary emotions.

Their emotional reactivity often gets the best of them so that, rather than being able to access their primary emotions, they come across as argumentative, critical and overly demanding of their partner--all of which are secondary emotions.

If a pursuer is in a relationship with a distancer and s/he becomes angry and critical during a conflict, the distancer usually withdraws.  From there, the cycle goes round and round with misunderstandings on both sides.  Each person's reactivity/secondary emotions exacerbate the other's, and it can become an endless cycle that ruins a relationship.

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, the EFT therapist helps the pursuer to de-escalate emotional reactivity so that the distancer will feel safe enough to re-engage emotionally.

Once the couple is sufficiently de-escalated, the EFT couple therapist can help each person to access their primary emotions.

She will also help each person to understand how his or her family history or prior relationships might be triggering the current dynamic in their relationship.  Then, she helps each person to separate out their prior experiences from their current relationship (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences of the Past and Working Through Psychological Trauma: Learning to Separate the Past From the Present).

This might start out with a basic understanding that everyone is affected by their history of family relationships and prior relationships--whether these relationships were primarily positive, negative or mixed.

Usually, couples unknowingly bring these former experiences into their current relationship. So, just knowing this information can help each person to understand what happens when they get into a conflict with their partner.  Gradually, with help from the couple therapist, each person can learn to deal with emotional triggers as they occur.

Over time, with help, a couple can develop an awareness of primary emotions and communicate to their partner from these more vulnerable emotions. This usually goes a long way to improve the dynamic in a relationship.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How EFT Couple Therapy Helps a Pursuer to Become Aware of Primary Emotions to Improve the Relationship
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how EFT couple therapy can help someone who tends to be a pursuer to be aware of primary emotions and communicate based on primary emotions to make changes in the relationship:

Ann and Ed
After five years of marriage, Ann and Ed were deeply unhappy in their relationship.  Although they were happy and in love when they were dating and in the early years of their marriage, they both felt that their happiness had been eroded by unresolved conflict and accumulated resentment.

By the time they had their second child, they were under tremendous emotional and financial stress, especially after Ann lost her job and they were trying to manage on Ed's salary.  That's when their arguments became the most contentious and damaging to their relationship.

At the recommendation of Ann's individual therapist, Ann spoke to Ed about attending couple therapy and, when he agreed, she set up an appointment with the EFT couple therapist that her therapist recommended to her.

Over the course of their early EFT therapy sessions, both Ann and Ed described their contentious relationship.  Although they had different perspectives about their problems, they both agreed that they were committed to salvaging their relationship.

From Ann's perspective, Ed tended to shutdown emotionally (also known as stonewalling) when they had a conflict.  She told the EFT therapist that she felt herself become very angry and frustrated that she couldn't get through to him, and this made her even more persistent about getting him to talk, which only made Ed withdraw more.

Ann described how Ed would ignore her whenever she tried to talk to him about what was bothering her, "I feel so alone in this relationship.  When I try to talk to Ed, it's like I'm talking to a wall!"

The EFT couple therapist noticed that Ed was looking away and shifting around in his seat as Ann spoke.  It was clear that he was so uncomfortable that, for all intents and purposes, he was emotionally disengaged and probably wanting to leave.

The therapist knew that if she was going to get Ed to re-engage emotionally, she would have to help Ann to de-escalate and move from her secondary emotions of anger and frustration to her primary emotions of hurt and fear of being abandoned.

As a start, the couple therapist provided psychoeducation to Ann and Ed about the difference between primary and secondary emotions and why EFT emphasizes primary emotions.

Then, she asked Ed to describe a typical argument that he and Ann had in the last several months.  Although he still appeared emotionally disengaged, Ed spoke about a recent argument they had about a big outstanding credit card bill.

According to Ed, he recently took over paying the bills because when Ann was in charge of paying the bills, she tended to procrastinate and they would incur finance charges, "When I saw that Ann hadn't paid the credit card bill and that there were overdue charges, I told her that we couldn't go on incurring these charges, especially because we're trying to live on one salary since Ann lost her job.  It seemed logical to me, since I'm better at paying the bills, that I take over this responsibility.  But when I told Ann that I should pay the bills from now on, she hit the roof and started yelling at me.  She thought I was being critical of her and accusing her of being irresponsible.  But I never said that.  I just don't want to pay finance charges.  Whenever she gets this angry and begins yelling at me, I just shutdown because I don't want to get into a big argument with her.  That's not going to fix anything."

The EFT therapist noticed that as Ann listened to Ed, she seemed to be fuming.  When it was her turn to talk, Ann responded, "It sure felt like he was criticizing me!  It was like he was saying that not only am I not contributing to the household since I lost my job, but I'm a miserable failure when it comes to paying our bills.  It made me angry and I wanted to talk to him about it, but he did what he always does--he walked away, which makes me even more angry.  Then, no matter how much I try to get through to him, he won't answer me.  He won't even look at me.  That only makes me even more angry and I try harder and harder to get him to talk, but he just withdraws from me even more.  I feel like I have no choice but to keep trying to get him to talk, but nothing I do works."

As they continued to attend EFT couple therapy, Ann and Ed developed an understanding that Ann was a pursuer and Ed was distancer in their relationship.

As Ann talked in couple therapy about her family history.  Over time, she became aware of how her arguments with Ed triggered her traumatic experiences in her family of origin.

She explained to the EFT couple therapist that she was an only child and she was primarily raised by her mother.  Her father was in and out (mostly out) of the household.  Ann said that when her father disappeared for months at a time, she would miss him so much that she would cry herself to sleep at night thinking about him.  Her mother tended to enter into emotionally abusive relationships with men during the long periods when Ann's father was away.  Her mother would provide for Ann's basic needs, but she was emotionally distant with Ann.  This resulted in Ann feeling lonely, insecure, and emotionally abandoned most of the time.

In terms of attachment styles, Ann developed an anxious/insecure attachment style that carried over into all her marriage to Ed (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

More than anything, when she and Ed got into an argument, Ann wanted reassurance that Ed still loved her and he wasn't going to leave her.  These were her primary emotions.

But instead of communicating her need for connection, Ann communicated based on her secondary emotions of anger and frustration, and Ed responded by withdrawing from her emotionally.  This, in turn, made Ann even more anxious and she tried even harder to get Ed to talk to her, which never worked.  This was their negative cycle.

As mentioned in my prior article, de-escalation is one of the primary goals during Stage One of EFT, so the EFT therapist worked with Ann to help her to de-escalate so she could be less reactive.

Ann began to sense her primary emotions of fear and sadness, which were underneath her emotional reactivity/secondary emotions, and she realized that they were connected to her family history.

Although it was difficult for her to be so emotionally vulnerable, Ann learned to communicate her innermost fear and sadness to Ed in their couple therapy. When this occurred for the first time, it was a major breakthrough for Ann and Ed.

After Ann allowed herself to be more vulnerable with Ed, he opened up and held her hand, "I didn't know that this is what goes on for you when we argue.  I just saw you getting angry, frustrated and critical.  Now I understand that deep down you're really scared and sad--just like you were when you were a child.  I'm sorry that I withdraw from you.  I'll try to remember that the younger part of you that is frightened and sad."

This was the first time that Ed moved closer to Ann emotionally and physically since they started couple therapy, and Ann said she felt loved and comforted by Ed's compassionate gesture.

Although they still had arguments, they were arguing less and their arguments were shorter. At that point in couple therapy, Ann continued to get triggered by her early childhood experiences, but they both had a better understanding of what was going on between them.

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

As time went on, Ann recognized her emotional triggers and recovered quicker without criticizing and blaming Ed, and Ed was better at staying emotionally present when they had arguments.  They each knew that they still had work to do in couple therapy, but now that they were more aware of their innermost/primary emotions, their relationship had begun to improve.

More about Ed's progress in couple therapy in the next article when I discuss people in relationships who tend to be distancers.

In most cases, when pursuers reveal their family history, it makes sense why they react the way they do when there is conflict in their relationship.  Old feelings of sadness, fear and, possibly abandonment, get triggered in the current relationship, and they have no way of knowing that their history is getting triggered. They assume that what they're feeling is only related to their current relationship.

People who are distancers are also affected by their early relationships (more about this in my next article).

In some cases, it might not be the family of origin history that gets triggered.  Experiences from prior relationships, especially relationships where there was abusive, might also get triggered in current relationships--even current relationships where there is no abuse.  Any feelings of insecurity can trigger the old negative feelings.

Just being able to make sense of their emotional reactivity is often reassuring to people because they realize that there are coherent reasons for their reactivity and that their reactions aren't coming from "nowhere."

Being able to separate the past from the present is often a significant part of EFT couple therapy so that each person begins to understand and, eventually overcome, the emotional triggers that complicate their current relationship.

As I have mentioned in prior articles, being able to communicate from the experience of primary emotions, which are visceral, vulnerable emotions, is a challenge for most people.  This is a skill that an EFT couple therapist can help each individual to develop.

If, eventually, there is a sense of emotional safety between the individuals in the relationship and in the therapy sessions, people are more likely to take the emotional risk of accessing their primary emotions and communicating these emotions to their partner.  This is an important part of making positive changes in a relationship and a core part of EFT couple therapy.

In the fictional vignette above, the woman is the pursuer and the man is the distancer.  But this is just one example of this dynamic--men can be pursuers and women can be distancers.  

And, of course, in same sex relationships either person can be a pursuer or distancer.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.

With regard to participating in therapy, fear and misconceptions often keep people out of therapy, especially couple therapy.

Couples are often afraid of what will be revealed about them in couple therapy and that couple therapy might make their situation worse.  However, as illustrated in the vignette above, which is representative of what often happens in EFT couple therapy, there is much to be gained from EFT therapy.

Heterosexual men are often reluctant to come to couple therapy, especially if the therapist is a woman, because they fear that they will be blamed and "ganged up on" by their partner and by the woman therapist.  But a couple therapist trained in EFT focuses on the dynamic between both people in the relationship.

Rather than blaming an individual in the relationship, an EFT therapist emphasizes to the couple that "there are no bad guys" in the relationship.  Rather, it's the negative dynamic between them that needs to change.  She helps the couple to focus on changing the dynamic rather than criticizing or blaming each other.

If you and your partner are stuck in a negative dynamic that's ruining your relationship, you owe it to yourselves to get help in EFT couple therapy, one of the most well-researched and successful forms of couple therapy.

By changing the negative dynamic in your relationship, you can have a happier and healthier relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist in NYC who has been practicing psychotherapy with individuals and couples for over 20 years.  

I am also a 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.