NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, September 8, 2018

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps You to Express Your Emotional Vulnerability to Your Partner

My focus during the last few weeks has been Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, an effective, well-researched therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson (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?).

How EFT Couple Therapy Helps You to Express Your Emotional Vulnerability to Your Partner
The focus of this article is a more in-depth look at emotional vulnerability and why it's often so hard to express these deeper emotions, which are underneath protective/secondary emotions, to a spouse or romantic partner.  This article also illustrates how EFT couple therapy can help couples to express their emotional vulnerability to each other.

Many couples experience difficulty with expressing vulnerability to each other, especially if there is a longstanding negative pattern that hasn't been addressed.  Negative patterns can take on a life of their own and get in the way of improving the relationship.

Before a couple can change their negative pattern, they first need to be able to identify it as well as the roles that they take on when they're not getting along.  In the heat of an argument, it can be very difficult for the couple to see their pattern and the roles each person plays.

As mentioned in a prior article, the first stage of EFT couple therapy includes the couple therapist's assessment of the particular pattern a couple engages in when they're arguing and what role each of them plays (see my article: 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 to Improve Their Relationship).

In a tactful and non-judgmental way, an EFT couple therapist can, for instance, listen to each person's account of a recent argument and begin to notice certain patterns and roles that the couple is usually unaware of before coming to couple therapy (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy Helps Couples to Move Beyond Reactive Emotions and Destructive Arguing Cycles).

Fictional Clinical Example: Jane and Peter
For instance, Jane and Peter's pattern is that Jane blames and criticizes Peter when he forgets to do a particular chore that he agreed to do.

Peter's pattern is that he begins by getting defensive and minimizing Jane's upset ("You're getting upset about nothing"), which further infuriates Jane so that she raises her voice and becomes increasingly more critical.

In response, Peter continues to dismiss Jane's concerns, which escalates the argument.  Then, Peter responds by leaving the house for hours to avoid his Jane's anger.

When Peter returns, neither of them discuss what happened.  They remain aloof for the rest of the evening, and they begin talking, as necessary, the next day.

Eventually, they appear to be okay but, over time, unaddressed resentment is building up and eroding the relationship.  Even though they're each concerned about it, neither of them knows how to talk about it, so their concerns go unexpressed.  This is their negative pattern, and they're stuck in it.

With regard to their roles, Jane tends to be the one who wants to talk about their problems (the role of the pursuer) and Peter tends to want to distance himself from the strong emotions related to their struggles.

When Jane can't get Peter to talk, she gets anxious because, deep down, she feels emotionally abandoned.  Then, she gets louder and more critical.  And when Jane gets louder and more critical in response to Peter's avoidance, Peter becomes emotionally overwhelmed and needs to distance himself--either emotionally, cognitively and/or physically.  He doesn't tell Jane but, deep down, he feels like a "failure" in Jane's eyes and his fear is that if they continue to argue like this, Jane will leave him.

Neither of them is to blame for their pattern and the roles that they take on.  Each of them has a particular attachment style from which their emotional survival strategies developed from and which continue to use in their relationship--whether they're aware of it or not (see my article: How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Can Save Your Relationship).

Rather than placing the blame on each other, this couple would benefit much more from looking at their roles and patterns in their relationship dynamic and asking themselves how they can change it.

It's the negative pattern and the entrenched roles that are the problems--not the individuals in the relationship.

As Jane and Peter's EFT couple therapist listens to how they interact during an argument, she knows that, underneath Jane's exterior of anger Peter's exterior of emotional aloofness, they're both hurting, but they don't know how to tell each other this.

So the couple therapist will help Peter and Jane, first, to de-escalate their reactivity to try to develop a safer emotional environment for each person to take a risk to explore what's underneath their emotional reactivity/secondary emotions.

But this can be very hard work for individuals who are accustomed to protecting themselves emotionally by using their particular coping strategy.  It would mean taking an emotional risk to be vulnerable and trusting that the partner will be open, compassionate, non-judgmental and nonreactive.

Back to Jane and Peter:  The EFT couple therapist is aware that, even though Jane yells and she blames and criticizes Peter, these are her secondary emotions that mask her innermost/primary emotions.

On a deeper/primary emotion level, Jane wants very much to reconnect emotionally with Peter.  The therapist knows that Jane is using the only coping strategy she knows (anger, blaming, criticizing), based on her childhood history, to try to get through to Peter.  In addition, the therapist is aware that when Jane gets highly anxious that Peter is distancing himself from her, she gets so terrified of being abandoned that she lashes out desperately to get a response from him.

So, the couple therapist talks to Jane (knowing that Peter is listening right next to Jane) about how very difficult it is for Jane when Peter seems to shutdown emotionally.  Jane, who is still angry, agrees that it is "frustrating" (a secondary emotion) when she tries to talk to Peter and he shuts her out.  At that point, she is still blaming him, but she has softened a bit.

Then, the couple therapist says, "Yes, it's so hard for you when you feel Peter isn't listening to you anymore and you want so much to connect with him that you raise your voice to get his attention."

As the therapist says this, she is looking at both Jane and Peter to assess their responses.  Until now, Peter has been sitting slumped in his chair and looking down at the floor as if he is waiting to be criticized by Jane.  But when he hears the therapist say that Jane is raising her voice as a way to connect with him, he looks up at Jane momentarily before he looks back down again.  So, the therapist is aware that Peter has taken in this information about Jane wanting to connect with him.

Jane hesitates before she responds.  She starts out in a softer tone, but then she glares at Peter and reverts somewhat to her former stance of criticism and blaming, "I do want to connect with Peter--more than anything.  But it's so hard to do when he stonewalls me!  If only he would stop shutting down, we might have a chance of saving our relationship!" (blaming and criticizing).

Picking up on Jane's innermost/primary emotions that she has just revealed (before she went back to blaming and criticizing), the EFT couple therapist responds to Jane (keeping in mind that Peter is listening too), "You care so much about Peter that you want more than anything to get through to him in order to save your relationship.  And when you feel you can't get through to him, you get anxious, just like you did when you were a child, and get louder, hoping that if you get louder, maybe you'll get through."

When Jane hears the therapist mention her childhood experiences, she begins to cry.  Until then, she had not made the connection between how she desperate she felt as a child trying to get her alcoholic mother's attention and how desperate she feels with Peter when she thinks she isn't getting through to him.

Before this, Jane would berate herself after each argument with Peter for yelling, blaming and criticizing him.

But after the therapist helped Jane to make the connection to a traumatic childhood, Jane understood why she felt so emotionally overwhelmed with Peter at times.  She could picture herself as a young child standing over her mother, who was passed out on the couch, trying to rouse her mother--calling her name and, finally, yelling at the top of her lungs to get her mother's attention--to no avail.  As painful as it was for Jane to go back to those memories, now it made sense to her why she got so emotional with Peter.

"Even though the circumstances are different, "Jane says to the therapist in a soft voice, "it feels the same.  I was so scared of being alone when my mother blacked out and, even though I'm an adult now, I become so afraid when Peter shuts down and I feel alone."

The EFT therapist listens empathically as Jane responds.  She also notices that Peter is now sitting up and he is looking compassionately at Jane.  It's obvious that he is moved by what she just said and he appears to be more receptive to her.

The therapist turns to Jane, "I can see how sad all of this makes you feel [addressing the primary emotion of sadness rather than secondary emotions of anger and frustration], "Can you look at Peter and tell him this is how you feel?"

Jane looks at Peter for a moment and seems like she is about to speak, but then she turns away, "I can't do it.  I tried in the past, and it never works.  I don't feel safe enough to be so open with him."

When Peter hears this, he looks deflated and slumps in his seat again.

The EFT therapist understands that, at this point, Jane isn't ready to make herself so emotionally vulnerable with Peter, but their emotional reactivity has been reduced (if not completely de-escalated), so she responds by saying to Jane (and also intending for Peter to hear and understand), "It's so hard to open up and take an emotional risk when you're afraid that you won't be heard again."

Jane is moved by the therapist's empathy.  She feels understood, but she's still not ready to express the emotional vulnerability underneath her secondary/protective emotions.

During the next few weeks, in an effort to help the couple to de-escalate, the EFT couple therapist continues to empathize with Jane's fears.  At the same time, each time she addresses those fears, she continues to affirm how much Jane cares about Peter, which makes it hard for her to take a risk.

Jane is able to acknowledge that it's difficult for her to risk getting hurt, and Peter is moved to hear this.  So, even though Jane is unable to talk to Peter about it directly, the EFT therapist, as a facilitator, helps both Jane and Peter to understand what's going on so they can begin to soften with each other.

It will take many more attempts by the EFT therapist, who remains attuned and empathic, to help Jane to express her innermost emotions to Peter.  Each time, Jane gets a little closer, the EFT therapist helps to expand the interaction by addressing the primary/innermost emotions that Jane is having difficulty relaying to Peter.

Then, during one session Jane takes a tentative step to tell Peter how she feels.  She is so afraid to open up that, at first, she stammers and begins to cry.  In response, the EFT therapist remains attuned to Jane and reflects back to her how difficult this is for her.

When Jane begins again, she looks at Peter, looks away and then looks back at him, "When we argue and you shutdown, I get so scared that I'm losing you.  I feel like the young child that I was when my mother was passed out on the couch.  I know I'm not a young child anymore and you're not my mother, but it feels so much like that time.  When I think you don't hear me, I raise my voice to try to get through to you, and I know now that raising my voice just makes you want to move away from me.  But I don't know what else to do.  I don't want to lose you, and it feels like I'm losing you when you distance yourself from me."

Peter reaches out to hold Jane's hand, "I'm sorry that I caused you pain.  I never meant to hurt you.  Even though I distance myself, I still love you and I want things to work out between us.  When I distance myself, it's because I feel so overwhelmed.  I feel like you see me as a failure as a husband, and I feel so ashamed and sad" (expressing primary emotions).

During this interaction, with the EFT therapist's help, Jane has de-escalated enough so that she can access her innermost/primary emotions and communicate to Peter from that place.  Even though she is still afraid to express her emotional vulnerability, Jane is willing to take that risk because she knows that if she doesn't, things between her and Peter might not change.

All the work that led up to Jane taking the emotional risk, including the therapist's attunement, empathy and reflecting back what Jane was feeling to both Jane and Peter, helped to develop the foundation for Jane to take the risk.

Speaking from that vulnerable place, Jane is able to convey to Peter how much she cares for him and that her outer appearance of anger, frustration, blaming and criticizing masks her deeper feelings of love, vulnerability and fear of abandonment.

Peter was so moved by Jane's vulnerability that he opened up too and expressed his fears/primary emotions.  Rather than distancing himself, he opened up when he realized that Jane was hurting, she loved him, and she wanted their relationship to survive.

During the next few sessions, Jane and Peter were able to relate their individual dynamics to their attachment history in early childhood.  This also helped to de-escalate emotional reactivity between them as each of them were able to picture the other as a small child trying to get his or her emotional needs met, which engendered empathy and compassion.

For the sake of brevity, the fictional clinical vignette above is relatively straightforward.  How a couple gets to the point of expressing emotional vulnerability will be different for each couple.

The couple might take two steps forward and one step back in their effort to reconnect with each other emotionally so that they can express their innermost emotions.  This is especially true if the problems have been longstanding and if there is a childhood history of being emotionally neglected or abused that is getting triggered.

The EFT couple therapist is trained to be empathically attuned to each individual in the couple to help each one to express the underlying vulnerable emotions (see my article: The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative).

Even though she might be speaking to one of the individuals in the couple, the therapist is also aware  that the other partner is listening and tries to deepen the work in a way that feels safe for each person.

Underlying attachment issues are addressed as a way for each person to appreciate the complexity of their interactions and that it "makes sense" that they are interacting the way that they are, even though they want to change it.

Understanding the attachment issues that might be getting triggered helps each person to feel self compassion as well as feeling compassion and empathy for his or her partner.  This opens up the possibility for positive change.

Getting Help in EFT Couple Therapy
As previously mentioned, EFT is one of the most effective forms of couple therapy as evidenced in research.

A trained EFT couple therapist knows that one of the most difficult things for a couple to do is express vulnerability when there has been a lot of contention in the relationship.  This is why de-escalation of emotional reactivity is so important during Stage One of EFT couple therapy.

Empathy is one of the hallmarks of EFT couple therapy, and the couple therapist uses empathy to attune and reflect to each person in the relationship.

Rather than blaming each other, the EFT couple therapist helps the couple to focus on their innermost/primary emotions and how they can change the negative dynamic and the roles they play.  Working together, rather than against each other, is one of the keys to improving the relationship.

If you and your partner have been struggling in your relationship, rather than continuing to struggle on your own, you could benefit from working with an EFT-trained couple therapist to save 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 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.

Unfortunately, many couples, who love each other, never seek help.  They continue to struggle with their negative pattern and ingrained roles on their own.  After a while, as a way to stop the arguing and struggling, some couples will begin to "walking on eggshells" to avoid getting into conflicts.  Although they might not be arguing anymore, they have also become emotionally disconnected from each other and the relationship isn't satisfying to either of them.