Linda J. Engelman, Marriage & Family Therapist
Helping Couples Through Difficult Times
Couples Therapy: Heighten Emotion, Get Better Results
© 2014, by Linda J. Engelman, Licensed MFT
Couples sessions often move quickly. Not quickly as in "progress," but quickly as in ping-pong. Dizzying. Back and forth. Rapid-fire. It's enough to leave everyone in the room exhausted.
So, what do you do to manage the pace, to keep from feeling overwhelmed, and to contain your couples' anxiety? While it may sound like therapy 101, the answer begins with simple words: slow it down. Then slow it down even more. Emotionally Focused Therapy provides a wonderful framework for managing the acceleration of a couples session. The EFT therapist doesn't allow ping-pong, but rather grabs the ball mid-air as it flies across the net, and holds it up for a good long time.
The EFT therapist notices a specific attachment issue and stays there, mucking around in it, for longer than normal, deepening, moving only a quarter-inch at a time, slowly eliciting emotionally-laden conversations. A single phrase uttered by a client, or a subtle body movement (ie: hopeless hands thrown in the air) may be the focus of an entire session. Sound tedious? Boring? You decide…
Our fictitious clients are Mia and Lars:
Mia: "You see, when I tell him what I need, he rolls his eyes. It's like I'm the enemy."
In many sessions, the ping-pong starts here. Lars might respond: "Maybe if she would stop making demands, I wouldn't have to roll my eyes." They're off and running. But let's not allow that to happen.
Therapist: So Mia, help me to understand…you say it's as if you're the enemy. Someone he needs to keep at a distance, far away?
Mia: Right. He doesn't let me in at all anymore.
Therapist: (slow pace, lower voice) Right, doesn't let you in at all. You knock harder and harder on the door, and he just refuses to open it. Am I understanding?
Mia: (starts to cry)
Therapist: (rolls chair in closer, places hand on Mia's knee, slows tone)...yes, a tender spot. So tender, because at one time, you were the one he counted on...is that it?
Mia: He used to say that he could never make it without me. That we were a team. I don't know how we drifted so far away from that.
Therapist: Right, you used to be so important to him, so wanted and needed. And it's almost as if you say to him, 'Please try to remember those times Lars. Before you thought of me as a nag and an annoyance. You loved me so much. You relied on me. We were so connected.'
Mia: I keep trying to explain to him, I'm not trying to nag; that's not it at all; it's just that I have needs too.
While it might be tempting to now ask Lars for his view on all of this, that's an opening for more ping-pong. Instead, let's stay with Mia's experience, moving ever so slowly.
Therapist: Right. You say, 'that's not it at all.' And so you reach for him, and you say, please don't see me as the enemy. Please remember how you used to look at me. Remember how much you loved me.
At this point, our hypothetical client Mia becomes even more emotional because you're in the zone...you're talking about her attachment loss. She needs for Lars to be able to hold the space while she risks telling him how lonely she is. He needs to experience Mia as desiring attachment rather than as a "complainer and a nag." So stay there...for much longer than you normally would. Moving a quarter-inch at a time.
Mia: Yes, I remember in the beginning, he would describe me to his friends and family as his sidekick. Now it seems like he just sees me as the person he's stuck with.
Therapist: Stuck with. Like an obligation. And that's awful, yes? That he's now just stuck with you. Because it was great being his sidekick. It was great being that safe and connected.
Therapist: Mmm. Right. So much pain there. Not like the time when everything felt so safe, so loving. Like the two of you had your own private little club that no one could penetrate.
Mia: (tearful) Yes.
Now the therapist is remembering a story that Mia once told about her Dad. He had taken off when she was very young, leaving Mia with the narrative "I guess I didn't matter very much to him.", a painful loss from which she had never recovered.
Therapist: Right, (slowing voice and pace in response to tears), and as you say this Mia, the tears flow, and your body seems to curl up small, such a young feeling (heightening the emotion). Kind of like what you felt with your Dad at one time...like how can you matter to someone so much, and then have them go away? And so while part of you throws up your hands in despair, another part of you wants so much to matter to Lars again, just like you wanted to matter again to your Dad.
(Bringing in the past, only as it relates to the present attachment loss.)
Mia: I think that's it. It really does bring me back to that whole thing with my Dad. Like how can people just disappear on you like that? And now with Lars, well, I guess I want Lars to try harder to fight for us...to not give up...to not leave me here on my own.
Therapist: Right, it's like you're floating out there, and you say to Lars, please throw me some sort of life line, don't let me drown out here.
(moving another quarter-inch)
Mia: Yes (crying)
Therapist: And yet when you try to express any of this, the cycle between you two takes over, and he can't hear you, because he experiences you as negative, and complaining. So he goes away even further. And as he does, you feel more and more desperate?
Mia: (crying) Like I'm drowning. Just drifting out to sea, and he's going to leave me there.
Therapist: Lars, you placed your hand on her arm just then...can you tell her what's happening for you as you sit here now? What happens for you right now as you hear your wife say she's drowning, as she says 'please fight for us.'
You can imagine the next 20 minutes of this session, right?
Slowing down isn't always easy, but it's powerful when you can do it. The next time your couple is gearing up for a winner-takes-all ping-pong match, grab the ball in mid-air. Heighten the emotional dialogue. And have faith that ironically, a slower pace offers faster relief.
Linda Engelman, MFT, practices Emotionally Focused Therapy (a scientifically backed model of therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson). This framework of couples therapy effectively helps couples understand and break out of their negative cycles/patterns. In the safe space of therapy, couples begin to have corrective experiences that can lead to a lifetime of bonding and safety, vulnerability and secure connection.
CALL for a confidential consultation: 925.295.1036
LINDA J. ENGELMAN
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFC#46255
Psychotherapy and Counseling Services for Individuals, Couples, & Families
Office Located in San Ramon, California