“I am really beginning again to feel him with me.”
Captured in that simple, heartfelt comment from Jamie is the essence of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT.
Yet not four months earlier, they were on the brink of divorce. She had asked him to move out, he had an “emotional affair” with a co-worker, and they described a “chasm” between them.
Unlike couples therapies based on just modifying a couple’s outward behaviors, EFT doggedly ignores a behavioral approach asking you to do certain routines with your partner.
The effect ends up staying on the surface… as deeper emotions and needs bubble below, unmet.
How often have you heard the rote advice to practice “caring” moments? Or that you set up date nights, or attempt to institute a policy of kissing one another upon parting or greetings?
While there is nothing wrong with these, they don’t mend a chasm widening beneath the surface between you. They don’t heal the hurts or unmet emotional needs. They don’t stop either of you from feeling deeply alone and feeling with each other.
So what can get below the surface?
Here’s the way:
EFT focuses on securing deep, emotional connection through the process of healing “attachment injuries” (sustained both in childhood and in adult relationships). It uses the power of emotion and emotion’s ability to build trust, trigger trust-building behaviors, and create more lasting secure connections between you.
It’s about experiencing what’s really there and healing it. And no amount of “caring moments” will do that without delving into each other’s deeper emotions and needs, healing the unspoken injuries and unmet needs lying below the surface.
The science behind EFT uncovered the fundamental needs and fears always at the root of all of that emotion broiling beneath the surface. It is the science of deep connection that forms the love bond, predictably and dependably. That rift between you isn’t because you aren’t kissing each other goodbye.
The rift goes deeper… but it isn’t a mystery anymore.
A Chasm Growing Between Them
Jamie told me that she was truly beginning to “feel” her husband really “with” her.
4 months earlier she tearfully told me, with her husband of 25 years present, that she and Robert were seriously considering divorce. At the time, he had already moved out. She had asked him to do so.
Jamie told me that Robert had been having an “emotional affair,” with a co-worker of his…
Not an unusual thing for us to see.
Jamie had accidentally discovered that Robert and Laura had (for the past few months) been exchanging dozens of texts daily. With Jamie present, Robert defensively owned that fact. He also owned that he had spent time with Laura under false pretenses.
He was firm on his assertion that nothing physical had occurred between him and Laura. I choose to trust him on that. Jamie did also.
With the seeds of initial trust between myself and the couple growing, we began to examine a pattern of emotions and resulting behaviors that I saw as setting the stage for the emotional infidelity.
We worked together to identify a cycle of hidden primary emotions and resulting pursuing and withdrawing behaviors that had opened a widening gulf between Jamie and Robert. That widening gulf, dubbed “the chasm,” proved to them in very visceral ways that the intimacy they once felt for each other had evaporated.
The Science of Connection… and Why it Breaks Down
Humans, men and women of all sexual identities and orientations, all exhibit a fundamental biologically driven desire to connect and bond with one another.
(For a great read on this topic see the book “Social, Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect,” by Matthew Lieberman, PhD)
This basic drive is a fundamental force in helping us know that another human is safe for us to be with. We are constantly scanning our environment for signs of danger. (This is the evolutionary reason why are so drawn to pay close attention to bad news.)
When we find a danger signal, which we constantly do, our emotional sensing system instantaneously does one of three things, we prepare to fight, flee, or at times, we freeze.
Based on our elegant emotional scanning system in our brain, mostly centered in our amygdala, we in 1/100 of a second have an emotional response which organizes one of these three behaviors. Once these base-level, bio-emotional reactions respond to stimulus in our environment, our social and cultural forces also kick in. Masculine traits tend to become reactive, assertive and perhaps aggressive. Feminine traits tend to observe and want to engage in less confrontational ways.
Individually, our reactions are more complex.
Respecting this complexity, EFT slows a couple down to intimately learn the individual moves each member of the couple will make when faced with distressing triggers. Sue Johnson the primary creator of EFT, call these moves, “our dance.”
The EFT approach looks for patterns of behavior with an eye to finding:
- The reactive emotions that are triggered
- The hidden primary emotions below the surface
- And the behaviors that result between you
It also works to uncover the fundamental attachment needs and longings of each member of the couple. These lie at the foundation of your relationship “dance,” affecting your love bonds and sense of connection, the way you react to each other, and are the source of healing the widening rift between you.
It has been my experience in working with couples for the last 7 years that there are two most universal ones:
- Attachment longings for safety and security
- Attachment needs to be seen, appreciated, and accepted with an intimate partner
Diving Into the Chasm Between Them, and Uncovering the Truth
With Jamie and Robert, it became very apparent they were trapped in a cycle – Jamie as the pursuer and Robert in a pretty classic male avoidant or withdrawing role.
(For more on the cycles couples get stuck in, how to identify which you’re in, and how to get out – see our article and quiz about The Spin Cycle » )
This pattern held for a good portion of the early years of their 25 yr. old relationship. By the time they got to me, their cycle had morphed into a quiet, “burned out,” protective pattern of both withdrawing.
Jamie, for very good reasons, no longer believed that her emotions were going to be validated by Robert. She did what many of us do when our emotions aren’t being seen, she simply gave up trying to make them seen or felt.
Giving up in her attempt to be validated by her husband fit very nicely with her learned role of being the “good girl” in her family. The daughter that, in contrast to her rebellious older sister, always did the “right” thing so as to not stir up more trouble for her parents.
After the rush of Robert’s early attention, she just got her head down and did what she thought “good” wives did. She took care of the business of running a home with two children. To do so she gave up a promising professional career.
Attachment theory identifies Jamie as “insecurely attached–anxious.”
“People with an anxious attachment style actively seek closeness and are afraid of losing it, and have a harder time trusting and knowing their partner will be there for them,” writes attachment blogger, Nora Saraman. (For your attachment style, take this quiz.)
True to her attachment style, Jamie tried for many years to have her emotions validated by her husband.
After many years of trying resulted largely in invalidation she gave up and withdrew herself. Robert’s inability to be validating of her, and vulnerable with himself, perfectly mated with her insecure anxious attachment style.
Together they co-created the the “chasm” between them…
This emotional disconnection nicely set the table for the emotional infidelity. Almost all infidelities are a clear sign of a profound missing in relationship. She and her husband were trapped in their cycle.
Feeling almost entirely defeated, she knew they needed help.
He agreed and they reached out for help.
The Fixer Getting in the Way
Robert, is an organizer. A proficient “get it done” guy. He is a hardware engineer in the hi tech world. 1st born of five, leader of his sibling set, a surrogate father, Robert has never found a problem he could not fix.
Until his 25 year old marriage was falling apart…
As his connection to Jamie grew more faint, he kept on deploying his socially learned skill of identifying the problem and attempting to effect a solution, which he believed meant changing/fixing Jamie. Certainly, Jamie knew things weren’t right. But in the “felt knowledge,” locked in by “the chasm,” her anxious insecure attachment ensured that her primary emotions of feeling alone, sad, betrayed and abandoned were not being heard.
Jamie tried voicing her feelings, but these often came out as complaining.
Frustrated, she vented anger onto Robert in short bursts. She would then give up. Over time she went straight to withdraw when all she got from Robert were solutions to “fix” her lack of happiness in their marriage. He tried hard to come up with solutions to help his wife.
He offered suggestions to…
- Go to certain classes
- Practice better time-management
- Take anti-depressants
- Take up yoga
Not unexpectedly, they didn’t work.
His suggestions all located the problem squarely in Jamie.
They provided very little room for what Jamie really wanted. She simply wanted to have her husband “with her,” when she was sad. To accept her for what she was feeling, to validate her emotions, and most importantly to share something of his own emotional state.
Robert’s attachment style:
Again let’s listen to relationship blogger Nora Saraman:
“Men with avoidant attachment styles may not notice the confusing nonverbal signaling they are actively sending that prevents safe trusted connection from happening with women who want and need their nurture and support.”
Partners of insecure avoidant men generally become more and more emotionally imbalanced towards them in response. This is what happened for Jamie and Robert.
Working with the EFT methods, Robert began to hear that his wife was actually more sad than frustrated, angry or withdrawing. The softer voice of sadness allowed Robert to become more engaged with her. Feeling safer to re-engage with her, he offered his own feelings of defeat, rejection and shame. This important shift in the way they were perceiving each other began our step toward moving out of “the chasm” of mutual withdrawal.
The approach in EFT couple’s therapy with an emotionally withdrawn couple like Robert and Jamie is to:
- Identify their cycle, which is made up of their revealed reactive secondary emotions and unrevealed primary emotions – largely fear and/or shame. When hidden these powerful primary emotions result in disconnective behaviors. Rejection for Robert and abandonment for Jamie. These reactive emotions and behaviors were effectively hiding their unrealized attachment longings for safe, secure, reliable connection. Unmet needs for secure connections when hit produce trigger points that ignite negative cycles.
- Slow down the escalatory behaviors in their negative cycle to reveal their hidden primary emotions of sadness (Jamie) and shame (Robert).
- With de-escalation achieved, several passes through heartfelt apology and forgiveness for the emotional affair could be given and received.
- With the negative cycle de-escalated and attachment injury of the emotional affair largely healed, we moved on to experiencing new bonding moments between Jamie and Robert. In these moments they could begin to openly share their fears, be accepted in these expressions, and also ask for what have always longed and yearned for in their lives – safe, secure attachment.
- When bonding moments experienced in session became possible with the couple in real life, Jamie and Robert began to really “feel together again,” after a long period of distance, disconnection, despair and preparation for divorce. As Sue Johnson, the primary creator of EFT says, “every moment of disconnection became a new opportunity for bonding,” They were effectively falling in love again.
Through the final 3 sessions of EFT (# 12 -14), I listened thankfully, as the couple described the growing ease with which they were turning once disruptive moments into connective moments.
“I really am now believing that I am being heard now. I am feeling that he trusts me to tell him how I feel. That my feelings are ok. Now, I trust him to be really listening to me.”
“In a number of ways,” Robert said, “I am not working as hard now in our relationship. I know that I don’t have to figure out what is wrong and somehow come up with a brilliant solution.”
“I am coming to know that a good part of her emotion is not really all about me, or something I did. I’m involved, but her emotions are hers. If I don’t get all defensive, I can listen to them. They will pass, and because I didn’t get all defensive it does feel like she trusts me more.”
Jamie quietly nodded in agreement.
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Turning the Chasm into Bonding Moments to Create New & Stronger Love Bonds
After 25 years this couple who had raised two successful children, had solid financial freedom, had good standing in their community and looked pretty solid from most exterior angles, was right on the verge of divorce.
Recall that Robert had been asked to move out, which he did. Familial, social and cultural forces had trained them to avoid paying close attention to their primary emotions. These forces joined and shaped their inability to express vulnerability, or acceptance. Together these learned ways of being in relationship blocked intimate sharing of primary emotions. Not able to tell Robert of her sadness, Jamie was essentially abandoned with feelings of dismissal, sadness, betrayal, and loneliness.
When Jamie held onto her dismissal and sadness via withdrawal and the understandable lack of trust that developed, she also unwittingly contributed to their negative cycle. This cycle completed by Robert’s inability to intimately share feelings of rejection, shame, defeat. His own perceived failure to change how his wife was feeling almost broke this relationship in two.
Together with the help of EFT and their therapist, they were able to:
- Identify their pattern
- Uncover the emotions hidden by their negative pattern
- And vulnerably share their connective primary emotions
As a result, they re-established the trust almost completely vacant when they first presented for EFT couple therapy.
Without new trust, Jamie wouldn’t have been able to say…
“I am really beginning again to feel him with me.”
Without tuning to hidden primary emotions, new trusted intimacy would not have emerged. It is quite likely their relationship would have ended in divorce. Understanding their pattern and revealing fearful emotion broke the negative tendency of their “chasm.” The door opened to them falling in love again… perhaps this 2nd time with much greater authenticity.
Joseph A. Losi, MA, LMFT
Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist
Co-Facilitator of “Hold Me Tight® Seattle, an Emotionally Focused Couples Workshop” to jumpstart the EFT process in your relationship, with the skills to take home with you in your real life.