Tony’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Primer – A New Framework for Communication

This post contains a document that I originally wrote immediately after a couples therapy session where I felt like there was so much potential for good, productive, meaningful dialogue between a couple but they just didn’t understand the “rules” or see the benefits of the “framework” that EFT, or Emotionally Focused Therapy (for couples in this instance), could provide. And a quick heads up, you can find my podcast on EFT here, the video of this podcast here, and a talk I did on EFT at Summit Christian Church in Lincoln, CA recently here. I highly recommend listening/watching it after digesting this document. Even better, I would recommend purchasing the book Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson, which goes into much more detail than I do about EFT and its evidence-based principals that, in my experience alone, have helped hundreds of couples find an effective, safe, edifying way to improve their communication, and their marriages in general. 

I began sharing the document and while I received some positive feedback, I was horrified when I finally went back and reread it! So I went in and cleaned it up a bit more and since that time the document has been shared via my Google drive a few hundred times. With the launch of my website, I thought it might be beneficial to have out on the internets in general, so feel free to share if you feel like it can help someone that you know. On to the document!

OK, quick note, I’m beginning to share this document with more people simply to try and explain a bit of how an EFT (emotionally focused ‘couples’ therapy) or  “attachment theory” dialogue would play out. Remembering that the goal is to be able to share what is in your heart, in your soul, something that may just be floating around in your head, to be able to say something that you really want to talk about with your partner but you may be afraid to because he/she might get defensive. Or, in the past, maybe when you’ve tried to bring up a topic your partner has quickly shut you down, they’ve been defensive, or they withdraw, not really giving you a chance to express yourself. Our goal is to change the very paradigm of how you communicate. I know with every fiber of my being that the attachment theory, or EFT, model of communication works if done with patience, if each person goes in knowing that the goal is to “turn toward each other” (not away from) and NOT to hurt the other person. Our goal is to feel secure enough with our partner than we can express ANYTHING and our partner will want to know where that comes from, why we think the things we do? And underneath all conversations with our partners, we’re essentially asking them “are you there for me?” “Do you care about me?” “Can I count on you?” And “do you love me?” So when you’re telling somebody that they are crazy for thinking something they’ve shared, please keep in mind that in essence you’re sending the signal that you’re not somebody that they can turn to, which they may view as NOT being there, or loving them.

Here goes…each question, or statement spoken, is looked at as an “emotional bid.” It’s an opportunity for connection, it’s an opportunity for one partner to put a topic out on the table and really seek to understand what their partner thinks or feels about that topic, but in order to get there it first has to be said (kind of obvious, right?), holding things in leads to a lot of assumptions, and people going to “worst case scenarios” in their minds. We do a lot of assuming in our relationships, and I’ll spare you the “you know what happens when you assume, you make an”…well, I guess I sort of didn’t spare you that, but the point is valid. So we have to be able to express an emotional bid and know that even it if might be uncomfortable, our partner is going to listen and respond with EMPATHY and seek further understanding, no “fix it” or “judgement” statements (like, “I can’t believe you think that” or “why on earth would you even say that?” or “I would have done it this way!”) because those are ALL going to shut down communication. These are BIG WORDS used often in my practice, LEAD with empathy, watch out for “fixing” and “judgement” statements, or even looks. Again, we’re changing the paradigm, in attachment theory I believe that none of these things are productive, and therefore let’s get them out of our conversations! When I speak on EFT, I have this reflexive response where I hold my two hands together in front of me in a cupping shape, as if I’m about to drink water out of them, and I move my hands toward my client, or my audience. What I share is that we need to view emotional bids as our partner saying, “OK, here’s my heart, can I trust you with it?”

True story, I looked all through the Bible trying to find the verse that says, “seek first to understand, then be understood,” only to find that it’s actually by Stephen R. Covey…yeah, I probably went a few months saying with confidence, “it’s like the scripture that says” or “I belive the Apostle Paul said…” 🙂 UPDATE – a good friend of mine reminded me that the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which is a wonderful prayer that another one of my clients uses as her daily meditation, has a beautiful line that says,,,OK, I didn’t see myself doing this, but here’s the prayer, it feel that it deserves to be read, regardless of one’s faith-status, because it sounds to me like St. Francis was doing some attachment theory work well before his time but I was going to point out the line in particular that says “…let me seek NOT as much…to be understood as to understand.” Here it is in its entirety:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me bring love.

Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.

Where there is discord, let me bring union.

Where there is error, let me bring truth.

Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.

Where there is despair, let me bring hope.

Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.

Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

O Master, let me not seek as much

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love,

for it is in giving that one receives,

it is in self-forgetting that one finds,

it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,

it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

OK, I’ve already gone on long enough, here’s the original document that I wrote to a couple to try and model an attachment theory (EFT – Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy) conversation.

Let’s set the stage, I worked with a wonderful couple, they filed for divorce, and then I started working solely with the guy, the woman started working with another therapist in our office (Shauna), so at one point we all, former husband, wife, Shauna and myself, reunited (does anybody else immediately sing the rest of the line…and it feels so good after they read the word reunited? So sorry, back to the doc) to try and work through some topics that were a real challenge for the two of them to discuss during couples counseling. The goal was to be able to finally process some of these issues.

————–

Hey guys, thanks for coming in tonight, Shauna and I were both really impressed by your willingness to be open, and to trust us when we tried to point out how conversations can spin up without you even noticing. With that said I wanted to try to put together a document that had some suggestions for moving forward with regard to communication using this new EFT “framework.” I’m blasting this out off the top of my head so I apologize in advance for the cliche and jargon that I’m sure will follow. I just had an idea to share this google doc with all of us, perhaps you can type up your own questions on here and Shauna or I can clarify in between sessions?

The goal is to “secure the attachment.” The more secure the attachment becomes the easier it will be to discuss potentially more intense topics. We first want to go after the “low hanging fruit” conversations before we get to what Sue Johnson calls the “raw spots,” (and I like to refer to the “greatest hits). So to begin, this means that when somebody expresses an emotion, a feeling, a perception, the goal of the other is NOT to explain it away, to defend why they feel that their partners view is incorrect, the goal at this time is to validate, and empathize, i.e. “I can understand why you would feel that way,” or “thank you for sharing that, I know that must have been hard.” Even better, and we’ll get there, is having your partner go into “full awareness mode,” which would lead to even more empathetic questions, like “so tell when how back you’ve felt this way?” Or “I had no idea, so tell me where you think that comes from?” I think you get the point, whenever a “…but, I thought” or “…but why didn’t you just” or “well that’s just silly, I have no idea why she would think that,” or any variation of that type of response is ready to come out, HOLD IT IN! Those are “fixing and judgement statements” and RIGHT NOW they aren’t going to be productive, they aren’t going to get us anywhere, they are simply going to shut down communication and cause you both to turn away from each other, to jump back down in your bunkers and assume battlestations hurling insults, or going into a “tit for tat” or “scorekeeping” mode. THAT IS NOT PRODUCTIVE AT ALL!  That is back in the realm of “if I argue enough, or present enough evidence or raise my voice or withdrawn enough THEN she’ll finally realize how wrong she is!!” And trust me, that will not work. If it works in the short term does it feel good? Do you feel more connected, or does the victor see their partner defeated, giving in and think “man, we’re so much closer now?” NO!! Remember, at the heart of each emotional bid is a real vulnerability, because you’re asking your partner through the things that you say: Are you there for me? Do you care about me? Can I count on you to listen and try and understand me? Do you love me?

With that said, as you get better at empathy and validation you will find yourself able to validate the other person’s comment, experience, and then share something like, “I can see why you thought that, I can’t lie, I recognized at times I was doing that, or I was saying those things just to try and get a reaction, and I’m sorry about that.” Or a variety of other equally vulnerable, real, raw responses. I’m a big fan of “thank you so much for sharing that with me, and yes, I wanted to ‘fix or judge’ but let me share with you where my mind went, or let me take you on my train of thought.” That can be incredibly powerful because then you share YOUR truth, it’s not an attack. That’s when I hear wonderful things like, “I truly didn’t have a clue you thought I was disrespecting you, in my mind I saw you shutting down and I purposely tried to do MORE around the house so you wouldn’t feel bad. But I can see how you might see that as me thinking that you were totally incapable.” Now there’s awareness!!! We gave these inner thoughts a voice and we have the tools to come out of that with MORE understanding and MORE love for our partner! Hopefully you can see a big difference of when to validate, empathize and put a period on it and when your own vulnerability can be expressed without it sounding like an attack.

Imagine a relationship where you truly feel safe in expressing any thought, or emotion because your partner will take that thought or emotion and immediately want to understand where it comes from because they care about you so much that they want to understand you, because they love you. And in turn, they learn what role their reactions have played in why you feel the way you do at that point in the relationship. When you are both good at this you turn “toward each other” instead of hunkering down in your respective bunkers just firing insults at each other, or being afraid to talk about anything other than surface things because you are afraid of getting into a fight or an argument. It really does work but you MUST work on responses to these emotional bids that your partner expresses. What you’re ultimately doing is not only learning how to express the feelings that you may have, or have had for years, rattling around in your head, growing in intensity based on incorrect assumptions, or fear of rejection, but you’re also allowing your partner to HAVE A VOICE to be able to speak to the things that you may be condemning them for that they aren’t even aware of!

A few other thoughts. BE PRESENT, enjoy the moments together, sharing experiences from work, stories about your children, just work on being present. Yet another plug for the headspace app, mindfulness, remember the concept, OF COURSE your mind will throw in some negative thoughts during those moments, you’ll have questions, you’ll want to express emotions, you’re human, you’ve had a past, but right now BE PRESENT, let those thoughts move through your brain, remember, a thought is a thought is a thought. We have thousands of them, we don’t have to react or hitch our wagon to any particular thought, especially those that aren’t very productive! So whether you have to focus on something in that moment, breathe through the moment (in through the nose, out through the mouth!) let those thoughts move through your head like cars on the road (with you sitting on the side of the road, watching the cars go by) and be present!! Hang on, I was putting my hair in a ponytail and looking for a robe right then, I was starting to go all zen on you! 🙂

I think that’s a good place to start. Hold Me Tight, THE EFT book for couples, which I highly recommend, by Sue Johnson, uses a nice analogy, when the attachment between two people IS NOT secure, arguments will feel like typhoons passing through when you’re standing on the beach, you will feel pummelled, knocked down, defeated. BUT when the attachment is secure, they will feel more like a breeze, yes, they are there, you feel them, but they won’t knock you over!

I feel like there should be some clever saying now to end this doc, but I’m only coming up with stay in school, or don’t do drugs, or remember who you are and what you stand for or something like that, which I don’t feel is very applicable, but good advice nonetheless 🙂

1 thought on “Tony’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Primer – A New Framework for Communication”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I will certainly look into the book as well. For some time I have felt I am in a tight spot. My wife and I never have loud fights. To be honest we are both kind of quiet people. Of course, we talk about stuff, but it usually is more day to day. To me, it seems that I initiate more emotional conversations than my wife and these don’t go very well. I wish she would initiate more of it. I am happy to listen. Heck, it would be nice just to be asked how my day at work went. I cannot put my finger on why it has become this way as there was more concern in our conversations earlier on. Yes, I do try to suggest “fixes” at times but I don’t think I do that often. One of my faults though is a health dose of sarcasm. I think that may have built a small wall around my wife. Now, when ever I try to talk with her about something she seems interested in her response is generally, “oh I am just doing stuff”. Anyway, this may the start to a path back. Do you happen to have anti-sarcasm resources???

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