Jackie Pack talks about the EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), a method developed by clinical psychologist Sue Johnson for couples trying to heal attachment wounds and experience their relationship in a positive, inviting, and safe way.
What happens when couples get stuck in conflict? What happens when communication doesn’t lead to connection? Often old patterns of interacting are leading to negative messages in the relationship. These patterns are creating a dance that’s getting in the way of communication and healing for the couple.
Learn from this informative podcast episode how you and your partner can reconnect and find satisfaction once again in your marriage or committed relationship.
TRANSCRIPT: EFT: Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples
Hi friends, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Now that it’s August, I’m going to be focusing… not because it’s August but just because it’s a new month, I’m going to be focusing this month on intimacy. I’m going to be focusing on couples, and I’m going to be focusing on how we improve conflict within couples, how we increase intimacy, all sorts of things about couples.
So today I wanted to start and talk about EFT as a therapy modality. Now you’ve heard me talk about the Gottmans, which I’m trained in. I’m also trained in EFT, and I actually use both of them and kind of just mix them together in a way that makes sense to my brain and seems to work when I’m working with couples. In June of this past year, I was invited as a presenter, it was online of course, as a presenter on working with couples, high-conflict couples who had experienced trauma, and one of the reasons that they had reached out to me, the people who were putting on this workshop had reached out to me is because they noticed in my bio I was trained in both Gottman as well as EFT, which is Sue Johnson’s work, and as we were dialoging back and forth about this presentation and whether or not it was going to work in my schedule and getting more details about what they were looking for, they commented that it’s unusual. They find that it’s unusual for therapists to be trained in both Gottman as well as EFT, that it’s either or, and if you’re in the EFT camp, that’s the camp you’re in, and if you’re in the Gottman camp, you’re in the Gottman camp, and I was unaware of that. I knew that both the Gottmans and Sue Johnson and her folks are highly acclaimed in their work for couples. I’ve also seen both of them present numerous times, and they are aware of each other’s work and quite supportive of each other’s work, so to me in my mind it seemed like EFT was a little bit less concrete. Gottman is pretty concrete and has certain activities that you do with couples or certain skills that you teach couples, which I wouldn’t say EFT doesn’t. I don’t want to offend EFT folks if they’re listening to this. It’s not like EFT doesn’t have steps and skills that are being taught to the couple. That’s just kind of how I organize it in my brain that Gottman’s a little bit more concrete, EFT is a little bit less concrete, but I also find that they work really well together and are interchangeable at least in my mind.
But today I wanted to talk about EFT because people may not be aware of EFT. Maybe they’ve heard of Gottman, but they haven’t heard of Sue Johnson and her work. Sue Johnson does have some great books out, “Hold Me Tight” I think is her first book and has been highly acclaimed, and then she has a second book as well, and so I would recommend reading her books and getting to know her work if you aren’t aware of her work. So EFT stands for emotionally focused therapy, and it’s a well-known humanistic approach to psychotherapy. It was formulated in the 1980s and developed in tandem with the science of adult attachment, which was a profound developmental theory of personality and intimate relationships. EFT has been applied with great success to couples struggling with problems in their relationship. EFT helps couples understand themselves and their partner better, which makes it easier to interact positively with one another.
The goal of EFT is to work toward what’s called “secure attachment”. That is the idea that each partner can provide a sense of security, protection, and comfort for the other and can be available to support their partner in creating a positive sense of self and the ability to effectively regulate their own emotions. Now one of the reasons that when I was being trained in EFT several years ago, how many years ago? Many years ago. In the last decade, so in the last 10 years. I can’t think of the date off the top of my head or the year. It took me about a year to go through the training. One of the things that I just really liked about both Gottman and EFT work is it allows partners to start to be egalitarian. They get to be partners and they get to be equals. It’s not like males are supposed to provide security and protection for females and females provide comfort or support. It’s that both genders, their work, both Gottman and Sue Johnson’s work also applies to homosexual couples, so it’s not just the research based on heterosexual couples, but that each person in a relationship needs to work towards secure attachment and provide a sense of security, protection, and comfort for the other person as well as being able to support them in a positive way and regulate your own emotions.
Now EFT is not to be confused with if you were to type EFT into the Google search engine, you would find 2 things that come up. EFT is emotionally focused therapy. The other one that often can get confused with EFT is called emotional freedom technique. It’s an alternative treatment for physical pain and emotional distress. It’s also referred to as tapping or psychological acupressure. According to its developer Gary Craig, a disruption in energy is the cause of all negative emotions and pain. May be true, I don’t know what his research is. They do offer their own training, but if you were to be trained, so if I were to be trained in emotional freedom technique, it wouldn’t really matter that I hold a professional license or that I have my master’s degree in social work. None of that is really required. You don’t have to be a licensed professional. EFT courses are marketed to “those who have a desire and need to help others live life on their terms.” Now EFT tapping is also different from EMDR that I’ve talked about on my podcast. In the EMDR does require licensed therapists who have training to work through trauma because… just let me say that because as we’re doing EMDR it can be emotionally destabilizing to the clients, and so as a therapist, we’re also trained then when that client becomes dysregulated or destabilized what do we do? So I don’t want to go off on that tangent. I just wanted you to know that if you Google EFT, you’ll find emotional freedom technique. That’s not what I’m talking about. EFT is emotionally focused therapy, and you do have to be a licensed professional in order to take their training.
Now emotionally focused therapy includes a family of related approaches to psychotherapy with individuals, couples, or families. A lot of times we think of it as just couples work, we’re working with a couple. EFT does provide for breaking that apart. Sometimes we have to do individual work, and sometimes we do this on a whole systemic level and work with the whole family. EFT approaches include elements of experiential therapy such as person-centered therapy and Gestalt therapy, systemic therapy, and attachment theory. EFT approaches are based on the premise that human emotions are connected to human needs and therefore emotions have an innately adaptive potential that if activated and worked through can help people change problematic emotional states and interpersonal relationships.
Now like I said EFT began in the mid-1980s as an approach to help couples. EFT was originally formulated and tested by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in 1985, and the first manual for emotionally focused couples therapy was published in 1988. To develop the approach, Johnson and Greenberg began reviewing videos of sessions of couples therapy to identify through observation and task analysis the elements that led to positive change. Now they were influenced in their observations by the humanistic experiential psychotherapies of Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls, both of whom valued in different ways present moment emotional experiences for its power to create meaning and to guide behavior. Johnson and Greenberg saw the need to combine experiential therapy with the system’s theoretical view that meaning making and behavior cannot be considered outside of the whole situation in which they occur. In this experiential systemic approach to couples therapy, as in other approaches to systemic therapy, the problem is viewed as belonging not to one partner, but rather to the cyclical reinforcing patterns of interactions between partners. Emotion is viewed not only as within the individual phenomena, but also as a part of the whole system that organizes the interactions between partners.
Now in 1986, Greenberg chose to refocus his efforts on developing and studying an experiential approach to individual therapy. Greenberg and his colleagues shifted their attention away from couples therapy toward individual psychotherapy. They attended to emotional experiencing and its role in individual self organization, and they built on the experiential theories of Rogers and Perls and others such as Eugene Gendlin as well as in their own extensive work on information processing and the adaptive role of emotion in human functioning. Johnson continued to develop EFT for couples. Now the primary routes of EFT include experiential therapy, which was Fritz Perls, person-centered therapy, Carl Rogers, systemic therapy, which is Minuchin, and attachment theory, which is Bowlby, and others. Johnson’s model includes three stages and nine steps and various interventions that aim to reshape the attachment bond. So one set of interventions is to track and restructure patterns of interaction, and then one is to access and re-process emotion. Johnson’s goal is the creation of positive cycles of interpersonal interaction where individuals are able to ask for and offer comfort and support to others and facilitate interpersonal emotional regulation.
Now EFT posits that love is, one, an exquisitely logical survival system, not the romantic type of love that we’re thinking of, I know, but love is an exquisitely logical survival system, also our foremost and most basic need, and this happens from the cradle to the grave. We do not outgrow this need for love, and it’s our most basic need. EFT also posits that our only defense against emotional starvation is love, and that love is also a haven of safety, strength, and effective dependency. Now EFT has a high success rate because of the emotional responsiveness that’s created in the coupleship. Now it’s not that we don’t become self-actualized, but we don’t do it in isolation. We tend to be our best selves when we are dependent on others and thrive in those interdependent relationships, not an unhealthy dependence, but in a way that our needs are met by somebody other than ourselves.
In our primary relationships, when our emotional needs are unmet, it often leads to conflict. Conflict we know in our primary relationships can lead to increased cortisol levels. Conflict can depress the immune system. Conflict slows healing, and we know that rejection and exclusion trigger the same circuits in the brain as physical pain. Now EFT research has shown that lovers are hidden regulators of our body processes and emotional lives. Couples tend to know if they’re loved by their partner; however, the research is also clear that love alone is not enough. Research also is clear that a good relationship is better for our health than vitamins or exercise. Bessel van der Kolk, who I’ve referred to before in my podcast, found that “a secure bond is the best protection against helplessness and meaninglessness.” And in addition, John Gottman, who I’ve also talked about on this podcast before says that he is able to predict infectious diseases within four years simply based on contemptuous facial expressions from our partner. So as we’ve known for a while, the research is backing this up, our primary relationships have a lot to do with our overall mental and physical health.
Now EFT views couples’ distress as being maintained by absorbing negative affect and rigid interactional reactive cycles between partners. So couples are reacting to what if scenarios. EFT also talks about the absorbing negative effect, which is an alert state, thinking of all the negative possibilities. So absorbing negative affect both reflects and primes rigid, constricted patterns of interaction, and it blocks emotional bonding and engagement. Often when I’m working with couples, I have a slinky in my office, and it’s not the nice slinky that comes right out of the box because I’ve expanded it quite a bit, so it’s a little bit bent and it doesn’t all collapse nicely the way slinkies are supposed to. But I have this slinky that I will use. I won’t extend the slinky really high, I’ll just kind of move it kind of up and down in this like flexible state and talk about that like this is how our nervous system, this is how we are supposed to feel in our relationships, that we’re just kind of adaptive and fluid and moving in our relationships. Now what happens when we move into those what-if scenarios or we’re absorbing negative affect and we think of all these negative possibilities? We tend to become pretty rigid and constricted, so this is when I will kind of slam the slinky down to its smallest state and just kind of say this is how it’s reacting, or I might extend it high, which is how I bent my slinky, I might extend it high and say we alternate between this extended state and then this collapsed state, and we’re not just kind of fluidly moving in the relationships that we’re a part of.
Now we have a pathway wired into our brain that has to do with attachment, and when we don’t know what to do regarding our attachment or our attachment in this particular relationship, our brain codes this as danger. It’s inherently disorganizing to us, and we tend to get stuck in distress. Now in these key moments, empirical evidence has shown that all negative possibilities sink in. Also that the negative components are more compelling than the positive components. Again you’ve gotta think about if my brain is registering danger, I’m moving into this fight or flight, so my brain isn’t necessarily considering like hey, maybe I’m not going to die because that’s not going to keep me safe and help me survive. So the negative components are more compelling than positive components, and then we key into these non-verbal signals, but we have to remember when we’re keying into these non-verbal signals, our brain is still in this lens of negativity and threat or danger. This often leads to character blame and a vigilant focus on the negatives. Safety first becomes the rule, and it doesn’t matter how full your bank account in relationship is. These key moments matter and they switch how we’re feeling and how we’re processing.
EFT research has shown that the danger coding happens six times faster than any other emotion, and it’s routed through a lens of we have a problem, then I start to see this relationship is the problem, since this relationship isn’t helping me regulate or I can’t regulate in this relationship, and that moves me into thinking well it’s either you or it’s me. Now depending on maybe some of our core beliefs about ourselves, I may be more inclined to think it’s you or I may be more inclined to think it’s me, and in EFT, we say it’s both. It’s both you and it’s the partner. The problem for this in relationships is that if I read this as I’m the problem, then I’m going to take a step back and I’m going to detach in order to protect myself because rejection and exclusion are highly impactful in a negative way for me. Now if I process this issue and I conclude that it’s you, you’re the problem, I may detach, but I also may pursue in order to get you to change and do what I need you to so I can emotionally regulate.
Again, the basic goals of EFT are to first access, expand, and reorganize key emotional responses. Another goal is to create a shift in partners’ interactional positions. Another is to foster the creation of a secure bond between partners through the creation of new interactional events that redefine the relationship and often redefine relationships. If we’re having issues in our current relationships, there’s typically some issue that has brought us out of secure attachment. Research shows that accessibility and responsiveness are the building blocks of a secure attachment bond. This means that couples therapy is about the security of the attachment bond, accessibility and responsiveness to each other. In EFT, the solution is emotional presence, and they will also say that the fights that matter the most are the ones about emotional connection. It’s not about finances, it’s not about kids, or it may be depending on how emotional connection is handled through the conflict. So when we’re looking at emotional presence or emotional connectedness, some of the questions that we’re asking, maybe not verbally in that moment of fight, but one of the things that our non-conscious brain is looking for to determine attachment is number one, are you accessible for me? Which means are you emotionally present? Are you here? Second, are you engaged? Do you also share? Do you get vulnerable? Do you listen to me? Can you touch me in safe ways? And the third question is are you responsive? Can I depend on you? Is what responsiveness means. Will you come when I call you?
Now again, this doesn’t mean in this exact moment, and this is where sometimes we start to read each other, like if I say to my partner, are you accessible for me? It’s ok if the answer is not right now, not in this moment, but I will get myself to a place where I can be. Are you engaged? And again, this is kind of speaking of overall, but it’s also talking about in that present moment, can you engage with me? Can you listen to me? Can you touch me? Can you help regulate me, and can you stay regulated yourself? Do you also share in this relationship? So again, some of this we’re looking at is collective in terms of the relationship. Does this person do these things? And it’s also about this moment, and again, this isn’t about connection on demand. It’s not like I need you to be engaged right this moment, and if you aren’t, it’s going to negatively impact our relationship, or at least it shouldn’t be that way. We need to give each other space to also be human and have things going on in our lives that may not make us emotionally present at any given moment.
EFT also views emotion as a source of information about the relationship in that emotions organize the social environment and give meaning to it. EFT also views emotions as something that communicates and organizes social interactions. Emotions also orient and prime our behavioral responses, and they’re a vital element in meaning, in that they color all of the events, they bring meaning to the events that are happening, so again, when I work with couples, oftentimes when I’m first meeting with them, the emotions are coloring the events in some pretty dark colors. They’re coming in and the conflict that they’ve gotten into is processed in a way that feels threatening and dangerous for both.
Now negative emotions occur at two levels, so they occur at a primary level and a secondary level. Primary emotions are the deeper, more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, hurt, fear, shame, and loneliness. Secondary emotions are the more reactive emotions, such as anger, jealousy, resentment, and frustration. Secondary emotions often occur as a reaction to the primary emotions, meaning that as a person, I may feel lonely or I may feel sad, but instead it comes out as a secondary emotion, so I may come out angry, I may come our jealous, or I may come out blaming. Primary emotions generally draw partners close, while secondary emotions tend to push partners away. So in trying to connect, distressed couples often get caught in negative repetitive sequences of interaction where partners express secondary emotions rather than the primary emotions, and as I said, primary emotions are typically deeper and more vulnerable, so if I’m not feeling safely secure and connected in my relationship, then yeah, I’m going to give you the secondary emotions and I’m going to protect the primary emotions. So in EFT, the therapist’s role is to try to identify what are the primary emotions that are going on, and how are they coming out through secondary emotions? And then help the couple start to understand when they see the secondary emotion, keep looking, or make yourself safe so that the primary emotion can be revealed.
Now EFT doesn’t necessarily focus through a diagnostic lens. Instead, EFT looks through the attachment lens and the attachment language, so for example, saying something like “You know, things have never been safe for you, have they?” or “You’ve been left alone a lot, and I can see how…” etc. etc. So couples often get stuck in their interactions and they can’t go into that attachment language because it doesn’t feel safe for them to proceed. I also think it’s important to note here that what I’m talking about isn’t just about the current relationship or the current marriage. People often come into their adult relationships with an attachment largely being already defined, and I often say to clients that I’m working with it’s your job, wherever… when you got launched out of this secure attachment quadrant, which I usually will say I think we’re all born into secure attachment, meaning that I’m willing to show emotion that’s connected to my need in order to get that need met. Infants can do that, and they don’t even speak languages. Now it is an immature secure attachment, it has not been matured, it has not kind of grown up, but I believe that we’re born into secure attachment, and at some point we’re launched out of that secure attachment. Now for some people that happens pretty early in life, and we recognize that as a failure to thrive for those babies who are diagnosed with that. It may happen the time you go to school, and your world gets a little bit larger and there’s more people, friends, classmates that start to come into the picture. I usually tell clients I don’t know how anybody makes it through junior high without being launched out of that secure attachment, and we end up starting to question ourselves and we end up starting to hustle for our worth and to adapt and fit in.
In EFT, Sue Johnson has developed what she calls “The Demon Dialogues,” and she talks about when these demon dialogues present themselves or when they come up in the conversation with your partner, the key is to begin to name what the demon dialogue is because if we name it, we can start to tame it. Demon dialogues will devour our relationships if we don’t learn to tame them. So the first demon dialogue is called “find the bad guy” or it’s also known as “mutual attack”. Now this is, she says, a full battle mode where both parties hurl missiles just to regain a sense of control. The emotional music ,I will say this just FYI. Sue Johnson has a background in dancing, which I do not, but you will find a lot of dancing metaphors or dancing language in her modality. So she talks about the emotional music in the first demon dialogue of “find the bad guy”, which is hostile criticism. Both partners feel rejected, but they go for the prize of, it’s not me that’s mad or bad. It’s you. This demon dialogue wounds and even if it “works”, you end up married to a bad person. The deeper core message behind this dialogue is you can’t do this to me, and I’ll show you, or I’ll get you.
The second demon dialogue she talks about is the “protest polka”. Again, a dancing metaphor, or also known as “demand and withdraw”. So she says everyone knows this one. It’s one person complains and when the other one doesn’t respond, they poke and criticize while the other person defends and shuts down. Partners put each other off balance into loneliness and rejection, and soon no one will feel safe and the dialogue spins faster and faster. The deeper core message behind this demon dialogue is where are you? I can’t find you, and I can’t face your disapproval, so I’m going to turn off now.
The third demon dialogue is called “flight and freeze” or also known as “tension and avoidance.” She says after some time of being trapped in “find the bad guy” or the “protest polka”, partners give up on safe connection. Everyone tries to numb out and distance takes over. The emotional music is silence. Partners lose hope, and they turn away to nurse their own wounds. The deeper core message is I’m hurt and I’m afraid and I’m going to hunker down and let the relationship or let us go.
Now she says of course you can have more than one demon dialogue in your relationship. Most of us, however, have a favorite one that we practice over and over and we use again and again. It kind of runs automatically, and it actually traps us in terrible isolation. She says underneath all three dances, the demon’s face is the same. Everyone feels hurt, rejected, and alone. Each person protects themselves in a way that feeds the demon and keeps the dance going. The beginning of the way out she says is to simply recognize that you’re both victims, that both of you are caught in a dance and that your fearful nervous systems automatically just turned on. She says just kind of sharing this or acknowledging this and being able to say “Yeah, I think we’re stuck in our dance right now” is the first step to safety and soundness. She says that problems pinpointed and faced together as a team actually get smaller.
Now EFT helps develop a language and an understanding for couples of a world that previously they maybe had little understanding for. It’s not a language that we typically talk about. We’re not taught it in school, probably our families didn’t talk about it, our parents didn’t teach it to us, so we had previously little understanding for this, but EFT begins to develop this language and understanding, and it offers a map for positive, loving, stable relationships. So in these positive, loving, stable relationships, we now have an outline for the logic of our emotions. We can feel our emotions, which is in our right brain, and we can understand and have some logic and be able to express this in our left brain. The longings and the needs that usually are hidden begin to guide our interactions. We also begin to develop a pathway for repair and renewal. We have a language of love that’s frequently expressed, and we have a guide to the pivotal moments in love relationships. Now in EFT when anger comes up, angry criticism is viewed as and attempt to modify the other partner’s inaccessibility. So I’m getting angry and I’m criticizing you and I’m trying to modify how you are in your accessibility to me. It’s a protest response to isolation and abandonment by the partner.
Recently I was in one of these and I could have done that. I will say since the quarantine started mid-March, for us here in Utah it started around St. Patrick’s Day, so around March 17 I think it started just prior to that, and for my husband’s work, so he had a date of April 1 that was given in January of this year that his department in the company was going to be taken into the parent company, and so it would switch how things were done. It would switch like the computer structure, all sorts of things, it would kind of as it was absorbed in this bigger part of the parent company. Now they had reassured him that this wasn’t going to necessarily be threatening to anybody’s jobs. He actually works in a fairly small department and a fairly specialized department, but it was going to entail some work, which most change does, and he’s also busy. He’s also doing his job while he’s preparing for this change, and like I said, his team’s pretty small, and his understanding of the job and how things are done, he’s kind of a one-man team that way, and then there’s other people who have different specialties and different understandings of the job. So initially it was going to be April 1 that they were preparing for this change, and like I said, he’s still getting jobs, he’s still bidding things, he’s still trying to make sure other projects are going through, and he was deemed an essential employee, so he continued to go to work even though the majority of people were now working from home, he was still going into the office in order to work and taking precautions. But what this meant is he started to work around maybe 60 hours a week, and what happens when you’re working 60 hours a week is when you’re not working, you’re exhausted. He would leave the house about 5:00 in the morning and he’d get home about 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening, and he was spent. He was done. Then he’d get up and do it again the next day. There were even a couple of Saturdays he had to go in because he felt he was so behind, and to this day, we’re in August, the demand for what needs to happen hasn’t changed. The date for when this was going to happen continually kept getting pushed back and back, and now we’re looking at September 1, which they’ve said hell or high water, it’s going to be September 1.
I was feeling his absence. I was feeling his inaccessibility to me as his partner. Now one of the ways this got triggered is he does certain things in the morning. I’m also busy, I work full-time, I own a company, so I’ve got demands on my time as well, and then we have four kids that we’re trying to keep in connection and contact with, and so there’s things that he typically does in the morning before he heads off to work, and because he was leaving so early and was so spent with his emotional energy, those things were falling to me. Now I will say it’s not that big of a deal. I can unload a dishwasher. But typically he unloads the dishwasher. So one morning I got up and I’m unloading the dishwasher again, which is not my portion of the work before we both leave for work in the morning, and I typed out a text to him like hey, I also have a job, something to that effect, and now I have to do both yours and mine before I leave for work so that our house kind of is ordered and that doesn’t become a source of chaos, and I’m typing this out, and thankfully, gratefully I had a moment where I was like he leaves at 5:00 in the morning and he gets home at like 6:30, sometimes even 7:00 at night. Are you wanting to send this text? And I had the wisdom to like backspace, backspace, backspace, delete my whole text, and instead I just said something to him that said, I got into more of my primary emotions and just said, hey I’m worried about you. The work that you’re doing doesn’t really have an end in sight, and it’s exhausting, and I know you’re exhausted, and that can’t be good for you. Is there anything I can do to help? Much better text. Much more relational, instead of me griping about unloading a dishwasher. But again, I was protesting. It was this feeling of abandonment by my partner, even though I know he doesn’t abandon me, but he’s not accessible to me. His stress levels and his workload has made him inaccessible, and when I was just able to point this out in a very nice, securely attached way, he could respond and say you’re right. You’re right. It is exhausting. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I need to make some changes. And I was so glad to hear that from him, and he has made some changes.
Now in EFT, avoidant withdrawal is seen as an attempt to contain the interaction and regulate fears of rejection. So again I might come at you with criticism or blame. I may be coming at you with blame, or one of the partners may avoid and withdraw. Both of these, though, however, are seen and kind of framed in a way that is about the relationship and fears that they have about the relationship and wants that they have from the relationship. So avoidant withdrawal is seen as an attempt to contain the interaction and regulate fears of rejection, an attempt to avoid confirming working models that define the self as unlovable, this whole idea of if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me, so withdrawing is this attempt to avoid confirming that working belief. Withdrawal is also seen as the need for attachment being suppressed because they don’t believe that they’ll get it or that they deserve it. With withdrawal, the focus which is to tasks instead of connection, and then also there’s withdrawal and then this focus on how to limit distressing engagement, and for the person who withdraws, the answer is typically to withdraw. I’m going to limit distressing engagement by taking a step back. Now we can see how that plays out in the cycle that as I take a step back, my partner who is pursuing me comes at me even harder because they feel me taking a step back, and so they see that this inaccessibility actually increased and this response to isolation and abandonment increases so the pursuer goes even harder and the withdrawer keeps taking steps back in order to limit distressing engagement. Now the process of separation distress is that typically we will make an angry protest. We may be clinging to our partner. We may feel depression. We may feel despair. Eventually detachment will happen, which then leads to depression around the loss of this connection. Closing down and shutting off is also a sign of distress, and often this is read by the partner as rejection instead of self-preservation. Sue Johnson says we need someone to talk to as much as we need fire and water, and if we don’t have them, we will create them. We are all searching for a safe attachment.
So as I just noted in EFT we talk about the pursuer and the withdrawals. Typically a couple falls into one or the other, although you can have like sometimes I’ve worked with couples where this person typically is the pursuer, but they’re burned out, so you have a burned-out pursuer, which will get the withdrawer to engage just enough to get the pursuer back online and then typically the withdrawer takes a step back and the pursuer is back at it again. Both roles, pursuer and withdraw, are intended to protect or preserve the relationship. Usually the couple understands how the pursuer is kind of this pro-relationship because they pursue and pursue, so that looks like they care. It’s usually harder, though, for the pursuer to understand that the withdrawer is also pro-relational because it doesn’t look or feel that way, right? If they’re avoiding or withdrawing, it attempts to block out negative emotions and may come across as cold and uncaring. However, again, if we go back too what this avoidant withdrawer is trying to accomplish, they’re trying to contain interaction and regulate the fears of rejection. They’re attempting to not validate or confirm this negative core belief they have that if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me because I’m not lovable, and they’re attempting to limit this distressing engagement. When I’m working with a couple, I need both the pursuer and the withdrawer to understand that it’s not working, that this is simply part of this negative cycle that keeps everything going in a way that doesn’t benefit the relationship or either person in the relationship, so we have to work to soften the pursuer and engage the withdrawer. The pursuer often is highly emotionally expressive. This is where they look like they are being relational. The problem, though, is that often they can’t self-regulate or integrate emotions, and then they demand their partner help them do this or do this for them.
Now there are like I was saying at the beginning, in my mind, EFT seems a little bit more vague and less concrete than the Gottman, but there are nine steps of EFT, and these steps are descriptive, not proscriptive, meaning we don’t just move through these steps in a linear fashion. In fact if you haven’t listened to my podcast enough, this is one of the things I think I maybe not say every episode, but things are more complex, which keeps us from moving from point A to point B in a linear way. Now there’s also 3 stages in EFT. Stage 1 of EFT helps partners come together and contain the negative dance that constantly triggers their attachment vulnerabilities and leaves them in emotional starvation. In stage 2, the therapist kind of becomes this choreographer who restructures the clients’ interactions and guides them through a process of being more open and responsive. Stage 2 is about deepening engagement, and couples become able to clearly see and articulate the old and new ways of interacting. This allows the couple to avoid falling back into their old interaction style ,and without the old negative interaction style and with the new emotional connection and attachment, it’s easier for the couple to develop new solutions to old problems.
Stage 2, I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a micro-manager kind of therapist, but I will say when I’m working with couples, there are times in both stage 1 and stage 2 that I get pretty micro-managing and some of this is because I want to make sure that we’re hearing things the way that they’re said and we’re actually getting the emotion behind that, so I want to make sure if I have a negative read on my relationship, my partner may say something that actually is a primary emotion, it’s vulnerable, it’s a bid for connection, I know that’s a Gottman word, but it’s a bid for connection, and the other person may not hear it or they may not trust it. This is the old pattern of interacting, so I usually have to get involved and say did you hear this? What did you hear? How did you interpret it? And then I want to go back. Is this how you meant it? Is this what you’re trying to say? So again, I actually sit closer to the couple. I usually sit on the end of the seat of my chair so that I’m closer in that space and I actually kind of can step into the system and restructure their interaction and kind of guide them to this more open and more responsive process that actually feels safe and connecting and they start to attach to each other.
In stage 3, the final stage, couples exhibit open communication. They are flexible, problem solving, and they have resiliency. The couple is able to resolve present problems differently, and they’re able to make repairs and renew the relationship. In stage 3 there are shifts in both the partners’ sense of self and the views of one another. They can both comfort and be comforted. They can both be vulnerable and share their feelings and needs. Both are defined as lovable, and they both own this as their new foundation. So the steps kind of go… the 9 steps, I’m not going to get into the 9 steps, but the 9 steps go along with each phase, so in phase 1, we have steps 1-4 and it’s kind of about stage 1 is really about assessment and deescalating the cycle. And then the 2nd stage is about changing interaction patterns and creating new bonds, and then the final 2 steps make up stage 3, which is called “consolidation and integration”, so I integrate this into myself and this becomes my new norm, and this is the lens through which I view my partner.
Now there are contraindicators for EFT. We can’t begin EFT therapy if there’s ongoing violence. We can’t do EFT if there are serious addictions, and we can’t do EFT if there’s ongoing affairs because it’s not safe to attach if those things are going on, and so we don’t want to start to create a feeling of safety when it actually isn’t safe. As I’ve worked with individuals and couples over the years I’ve been a therapist, I have seen over and over again that our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection, and that’s why healthy relationships can be so difficult for people who are wounded through relationships. Human beings are wired for love, for touch, for connection, and intimacy. However, when our conditioning tells us it isn’t safe to be in our emotions, we form what we call an adaptive self, and we stray from our authentic self in order to survive. This adaptive self is who I needed to be, not who I am. When we’re young, the messages we receive from our caretakers and the outside world shape our adaptive self. Again, it’s not who I am or who I’m capable of, it’s who I needed to be.
Our coping mechanisms formed in early childhood become barriers to intimacy as adults. In order to be healthy in our relationships and to have healthy relationships, we must reclaim our emotions. EFT provides the scaffolding for which emotions become acceptable. All of our emotions are worthy of having a seat at the table. Our emotions are nothing to apologize for. You don’t have to apologize for crying or you don’t have to say that you need to be more positive in order to make up for something heavy that you’re sharing or working through. It’s okay to feel what you are feeling. I often, though, will say to clients the paradox is you get to feel whatever you want to feel; however, our feelings can’t be like a dog on garbage day that gets out of the house, runs down the street, ripping into everybody’s garbage cans, loves garbage day as the dog, leaves a mess of garbage strewn along the street, and then we say, well I didn’t do it. While it may be true that you didn’t go garbage can to garbage can, rip stuff out and leave it sitting in front of the garbage can, if it’s your dog, you are the owner of that dog, you have to be responsible for going house to house, cleaning up the garbage, putting it back inside the garbage can. So again, it’s okay to feel what you are feeling, and we are responsible for how those emotions are expressed and the impact that they have on others.
Relationships in all forms are our teachers. As part of healing ourselves, we are responsible for earning back a secure attachment. This means I am a whole person apart from my relationships, and I can be a whole person in my relationships. It also means I allow my partner to do the same. Cathy Reams said, “Distancing from our emotions only guarantees a large gap in the experience of self and others.”