By Joshua Downs, LCSW
When I first started studying Emotionally Focused Therapy, I was attracted to how it puts even the most troubled couples in a kinder light. This positivity seems rare in the world. For example, talk shows that are supposed to be “helping” couples, seem to hyper-focus on which partner is to blame for the failing relationship. The expert makes a point of highlighting bad behaviors, and seems to put a judgment on one partner without trying to understand the reasons behind their behaviors.
Before I go too much further, it is important to note that EFT does not condone any hurt that we have caused toward those around us, or the hurt that we have experienced. We are responsible for how we treat others, even if how much we hurt them is unintentional.
The Hopeful Assumptions in Emotionally Focused Therapy
But what EFT does assume is that we care about and love our partners, and it is for that very reason that we are often so hurtful towards them.
“I love you, so I hurt you?” At first glance, the idea may seem odd. Or maybe the idea is easier to accept when it isn’t your relationship under fire. Regardless, it’s not likely the last time you had a disagreement with your loved one you immediately thought, “He just told me how much of a nag I am. He must really love me.” Or in some instances, it is even harder to see there could be anything redeemable behind a deeper injury of betrayal or other breaches of trust.
A Powerful Contrast
This unique bond we have with our partners allows for the most satisfying moments in our lives: the kind we want to frame and think of fondly. But this bond also makes for painful experiences that we cannot quickly forget and that unfortunately, define our relationship in equally powerful ways.
Consider how little it can take for our partner to affect our mood. Even a simple glance can eat at us for hours. Maybe it leads to thoughts of, “Why is she so mad at me?” or “What did I do wrong this time?” You may even act on these thoughts by lashing out or by becoming impatient and short with your partner. Why does a simple gesture cause such a surge in our emotions? Is it because we simply don’t like to be around grumpy or mean people? If that were the case, the driver who cut us off in traffic that morning or the impatient cashier at the grocery store would still be festering in our minds hours or even days later. Since this generally doesn’t happen, there must be a more significant reason why it does what it does to us.
If we could rewind and freeze that moment of time when we first caught that look or picked up an edge to something our partner just said, we would see a literal change in ourselves. It is a visceral feeling, one that at a neurological level is similar to being in physical danger—a “primal panic” as it is often referred to by Sue Johnson, the founder of EFT. There can be a spike in our heart-rate and our alertness. Our brain is sending messages of “DANGER!” “DEFEND!” “ATTACK!” “PROTECT!” Or, as some people are more familiar, “fight or flight.”
But it isn’t us that is truly under attack, it is our bond. But rather than speak about how much we cannot stand to have that bond endangered, we emotionally swing out at the very person we don’t want to lose. In a sense it’s like we are drowning emotionally, grasping violently at whomever is closest, rather than calmly reaching out for help.
Emotionally Focused Therapy gives you and your partner the opportunity to slow things down enough to get past the things that push you apart, and rediscover how much you truly mean to one another. As experts in marriage counseling, we’d love to help you learn how to protect your bond so that you don’t lash out at or pull away from your partner right when you need each other most. Call today! 720.468.0101