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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Breaking the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship With Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples

In my prior article, Identifying the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship, I described a negative dynamic that many couples get stuck in after they have been together a while. 

That article also has a composite vignette about a couple and their underlying dynamics that contributed to their negative cycle. 

Breaking the Negative Cycle in a Relationship

If you haven't read the prior article, please review it here so you can follow the continuation of this topic in the current article.

I'm continuing with the same vignette to show how Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples helps couples to break and, eventually, to prevent negative cycles from occurring.

As a brief recap: The negative cycle is a repeating pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors within a relationship that cause distress.  This ongoing cycle erodes relationships if couples don't learn to break and prevent the cycle.

Aside from their repetitive nature, negative cycles create difficulties for couples because they don't know how to get out of them and they don't understand the underlying unconscious issues that fuel these dynamics.

Clinical Vignette - Part 2
The following is a continuation of the vignette about Tom and Jane from my prior article:

Tom and Jane
Since Tom and Jane were unaware of the concept of a negative cycle, they had no way to address it on their own.  They knew they needed professional help, so Tom and Jane sought help from an Emotionally Focused Therapy couples (EFT) therapist who was also a sex therapist.

By the time they sought help, Tom and Jane were so stuck in their negative cycle that they were having frequent arguments. In addition, their relationship had become so contentious that they were hardly having sex.  

Breaking the Negative Cycle in a Relationship

After getting detailed family, relationship and sexual histories, their EFT couples therapist helped them to de-escalate enough so they could talk to each other calmly. 

Then, she explained the concept of the negative cycle in relationships so they could begin the work of repairing their relationship. 

Jane talked about how unhappy she was because she felt Tom had so little regard for her feelings. She had told him many times that maintaining order in their apartment was important to her sense of well being.  She said she felt hurt that he didn't take into account how anxious she felt when he multi-tasked while doing housework so that the environment in the apartment was chaotic. 

Jane said she felt he must not love her if he continued to create a chaotic environment at home even though he knew this upset her so much.  She gave an example of how he left laundry in the dryer, instead of folding clothes right away, so that the clothes became wrinkled.  

"I know this might sound petty and ridiculous," Jane said to the couples therapist, "but the wrinkled laundry and the chaos he creates when he's doing chores makes me anxious. He knows this, so why would he continue to do it if he loved me?"

When it was Tom's turn, he told the couples therapist that he has his own way of doing things and he didn't want to be dictated to by Jane and treated like a child. He said he liked to multi-task because that's how he does things and, in the end, everything gets done and the household is neat and orderly afterwards. He admitted he could do a better job with the laundry, but he felt Jane's reaction was out of proportion to the situation.

"I feel so unappreciated and unloved by Jane." Tom told the couples therapist, "I just can't understand why she's making such a big thing about this. We keep arguing about the same thing and it has taken a toll on our relationship. If she really loved me, she would just relax about it."

Since the therapist had already taken a family history from each of them, she had a good idea that the unconscious underlying issues were for each of them was their history of unresolved trauma:

Jane's Unresolved Trauma
Jane grew up in a chaotic household with alcoholic parents. As a young child, she functioned as a parent to her younger siblings because there was no one else to do it.

Not only was this overwhelming for such a young girl, it was also traumatic and remained unresolved for Jane because she had never worked through these issues in therapy.  

It was apparent that Jane's unresolved trauma was getting triggered in her relationship with Tom whenever he created a mess in the apartment, but she didn't see the connection between her childhood trauma and her current situation.

Tom's Unresolved Trauma
Tom was an only child who grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by his parents because they paid little attention to him.  

He tried to elicit their love and attention by excelling at school and in sports, but his parents were preoccupied with their work. Their praise was meager, so Tom grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated.

It was apparent that Tom's unresolved trauma was getting triggered whenever Jane criticized him and he felt unloved and unappreciated, but he had no awareness of this.

Breaking the Negative Cycle in Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples
The couples therapist knew that Jane and Tom's triggers were unconscious so they didn't understand that their relationship dynamic was triggering these old unresolved childhood wounds.

Over time, she helped Jane and Tom to make their unconscious issues conscious so they could understand the connection (see my article: Making the Unconscious Conscious).  

She also helped them to stop blaming each other and to focus on breaking their negative cycle.  This was a crucial part of the work because it allowed Jane and Tom to come together as a team, instead of fighting with each other.

Their therapist helped them to understand how each of their attachment styles affected their dynamic (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

Their couples therapist helped them to develop the tools to interrupt their negative cycle so they could each calm down and discuss their problems calmly.  

After they interrupted their negative cycle, they would each take time to get grounded and centered using the coping mechanisms they learned from their EFT couples therapist.

They each learned to regulate their own emotions as well as provide emotional co-regulation for each other.  

After she taught them to interrupt their negative cycle, over time, she helped Tom and Jane to prevent the negative cycle from occurring by teaching them to create an attachment-friendly environment for their relationship, as discussed in Julie Menanno's book, Secure Love.

An Attachment-Friendly Environment For a Relationship
The EFT therapist taught them to:
Sex Therapy
Learning to prevent their negative cycle enabled Tom and Jane to work with their EFT couples therapist,who was also a sex therapist, to improve their sex life.

    See my articles:

Over time, they were able to have enjoyable sex that was better than before their negative cycle began.

Working in Trauma Therapy to Overcome Unresolved Trauma
Tom and Jane each attended individual therapy with trauma therapists to work through their individual histories of trauma.

Tom chose an EMDR therapist and Jane worked with a Somatic Experiencing therapist so they were no longer triggered by unresolved childhood trauma.

The work was neither quick nor easy, but Tom and Jane learned to prevent their negative cycle from occurring by overcoming their underlying unresolved issues.

Breaking the Negative Cycle in a Relationship

They also learned how to interact with each other in a healthy way by creating an attachment-friendly environment for their relationship by developing empathy, trust, emotional connection, an expanded emotional capacity and practicing emotional vulnerability and validation.

Getting Help in Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples (EFT)
The negative cycle is difficult to overcome on your own because you and your partner might not see the unconscious issues beneath the surface, and even if you see these issues, they're difficult to change on your own without the help of a skilled couples therapist.

If you and your partner are struggling with a negative cycle, get help in EFT couples therapy so you can have a more fulfilling relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a sex-positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples to help them to overcome unresolved problems, including a history of trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

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.