How Do We Repair?
Relationship Blog #2
How Do We Repair?
In Part 1 of this 2 part series, Zero to 60, I shared a bit about the nature of the distress that fuels our patterns of conflict and disconnection in marriage or romantic partnership. The fact that these attachment relationships are so central to our emotional and physical well-being amplifies the intensity with which we react to any perceived danger in the relationship. This impacts whether, and how, we reach for our partners for emotional support and care over time. I also shared that psychologist, Susan Johnson, has pioneered an approach to healing these distressed patterns in relationships called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). She has now offered them to the world in the form of a treatment approach to couples’ therapy that is being used by thousands of therapists internationally.
If your relationship is in distress or if you and your partner find yourselves “stuck” in the same repeating patterns of conflict or disconnection, this is likely leading to pain, anger, frustration, or doubts about the relationship. As you explore the possibility of entering into couples’ therapy with your partner, you may be interested in learning more about this highly effective approach that has been validated by research over and over again.
Why Emotions Matter
Sarah and John have been married for 14 years. They are struggling and unhappy because their relationship has become plagued by cycles of conflict and disconnection. Here are statements that might be made by each partner at the beginning of therapy:
Sarah: “I am so angry and frustrated with John. He is in his own little world most of the time. When I need his support, I feel like I have to shout to even get his attention. I don’t like having to fight so hard to connect with him. I feel like I’m the only one who cares.”
John: “Our marriage is so full of conflict and I hate it. Sarah is never happy with me. She seems to continually find fault in everything I do. I feel like I can never get it right and so I shut down and try less and less over time. I know this is not good for us, but at least if I keep my distance we are not fighting.”
These primary positions between Sarah and John appear to be in opposition to one another. When we explore underneath these positions, we find that Sarah and John are each struggling to find ways to cope with vulnerable emotions and a deep longing for a secure connection in the relationship.
Here are some more vulnerable emotional “subtitles” to above statements that Sarah and John are currently unable to share with one another (In fact they may not be fully aware of these feelings themselves yet):
Sarah: I feel sad and afraid about our relationship. I long for more closeness with John but I don’t know how to get that from him. Deep down I’m afraid that he doesn’t really want to be close to me and maybe that he doesn’t really love me any more.
John: I feel overwhelmed and sad about the state of my marriage. I know that Sarah is unhappy with me. When she expresses her unhappiness I immediately feel like a bad husband. I continually feel like I am not able to give her what she wants from me.
The iceberg graphic below helps us to understand the nature of these emotional statements and the way that the visible (above the water line) versus unseen (below the water line) experiences of each partner fuel the negative patterns in the relationship.
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?
Susan Johnson (2019) has shared that as she worked with couples early in her career as a therapist she recognized that methods such as teaching communication and negotiation skills to couples fell short of creating lasting change in the distressed dynamics that couples were dealing with. Johnson reports that when the survival system becomes activated, couples are just not able to access this information effectively to put these skill-based behaviors into action. But through her work with couples she also observed a phenomenon that did seem to create significant “shifts” in the relational dynamic between partners. As she tracked these experiences she noted that these shifts occurred when couples had opportunities in sessions to share vulnerable emotions such as fear, hurt, sadness, and loneliness in an authentic way as partners became increasingly able to be open to and responsive to these emotions. These experiences created bonding moments between partners that act as fuel for increased trust and ability to share these feelings in future moments. This observation became the spring board for the development of the 3-phase treatment model called Emotionally Focused Therapy.
If you’d like to learn more about the specific nature of EFT directly from Susan Johnson, take a look at this short video interview: VIDEO CLIP
The Process of EFT – What Should I Expect?
At the start of therapy the goal of your therapist will be to establish a positive, safe working relationship with both partners. In addition to this primary goal, the therapist will begin the process of assessing the relationship distress as described by each partner. The experience and even description of the relationship will likely be very different for each partner. Your EFT therapist may request one or more individual sessions with each partner as they work to assess the relationship. In this stage the therapist is gathering the information seen above the waterline in the iceberg graphic above.
The early stage of therapy will be devoted to identifying and understanding the negative interactional patterns within the relationship and the emotions underlying and driving these patterns. Partners work together with the therapist in sessions to understand their own emotions beneath their anger or withdrawal and begin to share them with one another. The therapist is beginning to explore and organize the information that is seen below the waterline in the iceberg graphic above. This process allows each person to make sense out of their partner’s behavior in new ways, allowing for new and different responses. As clients begin to make sense out of these reactive patterns the cycle of reactivity often begins to slow down and even shift naturally creating less conflict and reactivity in the relationship.
Towards the middle stage of therapy couples are increasingly able to access and talk about emotions in sessions with some confidence that their partner will be receptive and responsive to hearing and understanding their experience. The therapist is supporting the couple as they talk with one another about the emotions below the waterline. During this stage the therapist will continue to facilitate and guide these interactions, helping couples as they struggle to access their own emotion and to accept the experiences of their partners. This struggle is normal in the therapy process as couples continue to grow in their ability to access and share emotion. Clients will likely still fall into the old patterns, however they will become increasingly able to reconnect and quickly repair on their own as therapy progresses.
The final stage of therapy is designed to allow couples the opportunity to practice their new ways of relating to one another through new challenges and to celebrate all of the growth and progress they have made together as a team. The couple now understands the content both above and below the waterline of visibility and can more easily discuss emotions that live below that line most of the time. As couples are able to tell their story of healing they are able to describe their relationship in the “stuck” phase of distress, the process of learning to emotionally connect in new and healing ways, and the new experience of relating to one another in more secure ways (Johnson, 2011).
Where Should I begin?
If Emotionally Focused Therapy sounds intriguing to you and you’d like to explore possible next steps, here are a couple of recommendations…
If you would like to learn more on your own, you might want to consider reading a book about EFT. I recommend one of Susan Johnson’s books: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love or possibly the Christian faith-based edition of this book: Created for Connection: The Hold Me Tight Guide for Christian Couples.
I recommend just diving right in and getting started with therapy. It is important when selecting a therapist, that you find one that has specific training in Emotionally Focused Therapy. EFT trained therapists learn this model directly from certified instructors in a training process that is both rigorous and experiential. Look for a therapist that has minimally participated in a training called an EFT Externship, which is a 4-day intensive training with certified instructors.
With the assistance of a therapist, you can conquer the negative patterns that exist in your relationship and move forward together with new hope and a stronger bond.
Johnson, Susan (2019). Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families. New York, NY. Guilford Press.
Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K. (2016). Created for Connection: The Hold Me Tight Guide for Christian Couples. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.
Johnson, Susan (2011). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York, NY. Little, Brown & Co.
Michelle Schaefer has a master's degree in Mental Health Counseling from Trinity International University. She works with adults, couples, teens, families, and groups. She specializes in marital therapy and in women's issues, including perinatal mental health. Michelle strives to create a secure client-therapist alliance in order to support people as they navigate life challenges and heal relationships.