Couples primarily come in to tackle many issues that they believe get in the way of feeling heard and connected in the relationship. These issues often range anywhere from finances, parenting, sex, in-laws, to the deep hurt resulting from uncovering a deceit or an affair.
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, what we are primarily listening for is HOW the couple talks about these issues, rather than WHAT they are talking about.
All relationships, whether they be intimate couples, family dynamics or friendships, are inherently a back and forth of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In marriage counseling, these behaviors are really the primary defenses we use to express/convey/communicate our thoughts and feelings. In other words, “When I feel and perceive X, then I react by being defensive, critical/blaming, plaquating, walking away….”
It helps to picture an infinity loop of action and reaction tendencies that delineate the relationship. Meanwhile the content (i.e., the topic of discussion or argument) is simply the trigger that highlights this dysfunctional dance.
So let’s take an innocuous topic that starts the interaction: “Honey, can you pick up the dry cleaning on your way home?” Great! Simple enough: Partner A makes a request, Partner B picks up the dry cleaning, brings it home, Partner A says thank you, done. Well… not so fast.
Let’s say Partner B had a crazy day and forgot to pick up the dry cleaning (again!). Now what? B walks through the door and the spouse says in a frustrated tone “What happened to the dry cleaning?! I needed that shirt for tomorrow!” Now B is thinking “Oh ohhhh… I’m in trouble again” but instead says defensively with the hopes of not talking any further about the forgotten dry cleaning “Uh! I’m sorry ok!! You don’t have to make such a big deal about it!! It’s not like you always remember things I need!” And…they’re off to the races. Partner A is now really angry, feels dismissed, continues to berate; Partner B gets increasingly defensive and eventually walks away. What just happened here??!
This negative interaction is another brick on the wall that perpetuates this couple’s disconnection and emotional distance.
One goes back to his/her story that he/she doesn’t matter, while the other believes the narrative that he/she cannot get it right and is inadequate. This is a sad state of affairs and one that can be better understood when you slow it all wayyyyyy down.
The next time you find yourselves caught in your negative cycle start noticing the following elements:
How are you reacting? What are your defensive moves? Do you tend to criticize, blame, demand, get defensive, plaquate, walk away, or go for the kill by hitting that nerve you know will hurt most?
What are you thinking? What are your perceptions of your partner? Your perceptions of the relationship? And most importantly, your perceptions of yourself? In other words, how is this exchange fueling the story you’ve been telling yourself?
What are you feeling? Are you feeling hurt, sad, angry, disgusted, happy, scared?
Now connect the dots: “When I feel [insert emotions], I think [insert perceptions of I/You/We are…], so I do/say [insert action tendency].”
If you both identify your feelings, thoughts, actions then you will begin to see the automatic reaction that comes back to you in response and that you then in turn react to. And thus, your negative cycle.
Next time I will go over the different types of negative cycles. Stay tuned!