Linda J. Engelman, Marriage & Family Therapist

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Linda J. Engelman, Marriage and Family Therapist

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Stuck Places: Part 1 in a Series: Why an "Upset Partner" is An Opportunity for Connection


© 2015, by Linda J. Engelman, Licensed MFT
You may print & distribute this article as long as the author's byline and copyright are included.

NOTE: Names/details of clients have been altered to protect confidentiality. The dialogue is a melding of sessions with different couples over many years of practice.

Emotionally Focused Therapy - Linda Engelman, MFT

As connection-craving beings, we seek bonded moments with our significant others. And we protest, plead, shut down, and sometimes even throw tantrums (yes, adult tantrums!) when those connections are out of reach.

Bradley and Mariah (names/details altered for confidentiality), are a couple who have been married for 15 years and recently started therapy to address some long-standing issues in their relationship.

One thing that I notice in session is that Bradley shuts down quite frequently, getting quiet, zoning out, looking sullen and suddenly uninterested. This is curious to me, so I watch carefully. And as this tendency of his repeats itself over several sessions, I begin to notice that almost always, it's in response to Mariah getting teary-eyed, or emotional. It becomes predictable, and cyclical, right here in my office (and almost certainly at home as well). He starts to talk about something, she gets tearful, then he stops talking and withdraws. Mariah notices it as well, and gets increasingly frustrated as her needs go unmet. She begins to criticize him:

Mariah: This is what he does. Now you see what I go through at home! It's like he sees me in pain, and he could care less. He just wants it to be over. He wants me to get it over with and move on. He wishes I would just shut up so that he doesn't have to be bothered.

Because I've seen this so many times before, I know that Mariah is criticizing because she feels so alone, wants her husband's attention, and has no idea how to reach him. She is anxious and scared, probably telling herself that it's always going to be this way. But because she isn't able to really voice this in a way that's tender and vulnerable, she lashes out. Another thing I know is that Bradley is terrified of her anger, feels like a huge failure in being able to please or comfort her. So it's not that he withdraws out of a desire to ignore her pain, but rather to protect himself and the stability of the relationship that's suddenly feeling like a landmine.

Bradley stares at her, but doesn't respond. It's like he's gone from the room…looking right through her, causing her to get more and more distressed.

What is happening with this couple?

I find this to be one of the more common stuck places in which couples find themselves. One partner panicking that the other is upset, and another distressed that their significant other isn't being responsive.

When I question Bradley and Mariah, here's what they tell me. See if it sounds familiar to you?

Linda: Bradley, I noticed just now that when Mariah became tearful, you stopped talking and seemed to go far away. Is that what happened? Did you notice that also?

Bradley:(Nods yes). I AM shutting down. There's nothing else I can do. I try to talk about things, I try to help her, but I'm just never able to get it right. She either keeps crying or I get it REALLY wrong and then it escalates to a major blowout between us. And so I stop talking because I don't want to make things worse.

Linda: Right, so this person that you love so much is over there crying. And you tell yourself that you don't have any way to make it better, no way to fix it. That no matter what you say, it will be wrong, and it's very likely that things will even get worse. Things will spin out of control? You guys will fight, and then go to your corners, and then you lose all connection with her for some unknown period of time?

Bradley: You hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what happens to me. We end up not talking, angry, and it can go on for days.

Linda: Wow, days. That's such a long time to feel disconnected, all on your own, without any emotional connection with Mariah.

Bradley: (looks cautiously at Mariah to see how she's reacting to my interpretations). It's devastating.

Linda: Devastating. Right. Devastating.

Bradley starts to become tearful as I repeat that word. He looks at Mariah tenderly now because she's his biggest support system and he's starting to feel a lot of emotion…the tables have turned, and he now needs HER. But hang in there with me, because that's a GOOD thing. It's opening the door for a wonderful moment that might happen in a few minutes.

Bradley: Yes, because I live in a constant state of fear that it's going to happen again.

Linda: Right. That is so scary…never knowing when the tornado between you two is going to start spinning, leaving complete wreckage in its path. And nothing, nothing you can do to make it better. Nothing but go away and be alone.

Bradley: (looks tenderly again at Mariah, who suddenly seems softer and very receptive to him). I just don't know what it is I'm supposed to do. I just don't have those tools. I just don't know. (he cries softly)

Linda: And my sense over here is that you're not shutting down because you don't care…?

Bradley: Not at all. Of course I care. I just don't have whatever it takes to help her. She tells me I'm missing the empathy gene, and maybe she's right.

Linda: Yes, so Bradley, you care SO MUCH, you wish so much that you knew how to comfort your wife when she is sad like this. But you guys have a history together that leaves you feeling like you'll never get it right, you don't have that empathy gene, and the best thing to do is just get quiet and hope that it all blows over soon.

Bradley: (tearful) No one has ever helped me express it that way. That's exactly what I go through.

It is at this point that I ask Bradley if he can turn to his wife and explain this to her…if he can tell her how much he cares and how horribly inadequate he feels to be able to help her.

What do you suppose happens next in this session? Well, let's see…

Mariah, so relieved that he's finally talking about his fear and his powerlessness, leans in to his vulnerability. She tells him that she doesn't need him to fix it, or say the "right" thing. She just needs to know that her tears matter to him…that they impact him. She tells him that what he's doing right now, the compassion and the honesty and the risk-taking of revealing his feelings, TELLS her that! He's doing it RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, in this room. He's getting it right.

Mariah goes on to tell Bradley that all he needs to do to soothe her is look in her eyes, hold her hand, and say "Mariah, I'm here with you" or "Listen Mariah, we'll get through this" or "Hey, I'm not going anywhere. You can cry. I'm right here. I'll hold you."

I tell them that it reminds me of the Brené Brown video clip on empathy where the one character puts his arm around the other and says, "I'm not even sure what to say right now, but I'm just so glad you told me."

Hearing this, Bradley looks so relieved. His whole body posture changes in session. He is a bit confused, and needs to process, because all of this time he's been making it more complicated than it needed to be. He thought there were special "fix it" words that he was supposed to know, but didn't. He had always wondered "if you're not going to try to fix it, what else is there?" He was convinced that he was without the capacity to show empathy. He had felt so powerless, for so long, imagining that he was a failure in his marriage, always screwing up, getting it wrong.

But now, right now, something has shifted. Bradley let his wall come down as he engaged with Mariah vulnerably and bravely. Mariah has softened, and is feeling drawn to Bradley as he emotes, no longer feeling threatened by his wall, and not needing to criticize him. In fact, Bradley and Mariah are so connected in this moment in session that they both forget I'm in the room (perhaps even wish that I wasn't!). They hold each other and they experience a deep sense of safety and closeness that they want to continue.

Bradley: (tearful, but smiling, and holding Mariah's hands) I'm so sorry. I want to do this. This feels so right. I never wanted that wall...I just kept telling myself that I couldn't do it...that I didn't have what you needed. But I do. And I'm excited right now because I think I can be there for you, and help you.

Having an upset partner can be terribly scary…it drives panic and fear and every word that means lonely. But having an upset partner is also an OPPORTUNITY. It opens the door for vulnerability, which in turn fuels connection and -- as Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy calls it -- "a safe haven."

If you recognize yourself in this article, and want to know more about how to connect, how to exercise your "empathy gene" (which, by the way, you DO have!), you might start by reading Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, or her more recent book, Love Sense. For hands-on practice, find an Emotionally Focused trained therapist in your area.

The New Year is approaching as I write this article. Here's to hoping that your New Year is filled with love and connection and vulnerability - and to getting unstuck from those places that keep you from experiencing deep passion. Here's to leaning in, and looking into the eyes of your upset partner, not with fear, with but with softness that says "we'll get through this together, even if we can't find a fix or solution right now."

New Year's resolution: Exercise. Empathy.

If you're in the Bay Area, and want "more than communication skills," contact Linda Engelman, MFT. Linda practices Emotionally Focused Therapy, a scientifically backed model of therapy that has been shown to help over 90% of couples improve their level of satisfaction in relationships.

CALL for a confidential consultation: 925.295.1036

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Linda Engelman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFC#46255
Psychotherapy and Counseling Services for Individuals, Couples, & Families

Office Located in San Ramon, California
(Contra Costa County, San Francisco, East Bay Area)

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