“I know I shouldn’t attack him,” my client–let’s call her Amanda–sobs. “Sometimes I just feel so scared that I’m going to lose him, and so alone. I try to grab onto him but it pushes him away. It’s because I love him so much.”
I nod encouragingly, trying to keep the tears from my own eyes. In the world of emotionally focused therapy (EFT), we’ve hit pay dirt. This is it, what we’ve been working toward for several months.
It’s called a bonding event. After one partner lets go of the angry defenses and expresses his or her deepest needs in a vulnerable way and the other partner is receptive and emotionally available, the relationship begins its transformation from insecure to secure.
Except this particular bonding event is not going according to plan.
Amanda’s husband–let’s call him Chris–is staring at her blandly. I wish I could say it was stonily, or angrily. But no, he’s that disconnected from her. What occurs to me, what breaks my heart for Amanda, is: He’s done.
“This is probably confusing for you,” I tell him, “because you’ve never seen this side of Amanda.” Fortunately, my voice doesn’t belie what I’m feeling, which is the therapist version of flop sweat. I’m failing here. I’m failing this woman who’s placed all her trust in me, and in this process, and as I watch, the vulnerability is slipping from her face and being replaced by–oh no, don’t do it, Amanda–anger. The very anger that’s driven Chris away.
As I continue, I keep my voice soft and slow, the EFT method of eliciting emotion. (Try it. Really, it works. Mostly.) “Amanda usually shows you her anger,” I say, “not her sadness. What’s it like to hear that she feels afraid and alone?”
The only thing that moves is his shoulder. He’s shrugging. I see that Amanda is about to go Vesuvius on him. I get that. What could be worse than to express your greatest fear and pain and then experience your partner’s indifference? You expose yourself, you take a risk, and you get the shrug.
Chris and Amanda didn’t stay much longer in therapy, or in their marriage. I did my best to help them divorce in the way that respected one another and protected their children. In that sense, I suppose I was successful.
I’m still not sure if it was them or me, if I let them down or they just came to me too late. I’m inclined toward the latter, which might seem self-serving, but hear me out on this.
John Gottman, noted marital researcher, has described the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when it comes to couples. Gottman’s the guy who can watch a five-minute video, slowed way down, parse for facial expressions, and tell with 95% accuracy which couples will divorce within 15 years. What he’s primarily looking for in his microanalysis is contempt. That’s labeling your partner with a character defect that makes him or her inferior.
Essentially, you’re dehumanizing them. And once they’re not human, why should you connect to their emotional pain? Sooner or later, you’re done, like Chris was. It didn’t matter what Amanda did, how vulnerable she seemed, or how much she loved him. For their marriage, the apocalypse had arrived.
From my perspective, the antidote is generosity of spirit. Believe the best about your partner. When you don’t know his or her intent for sure, make positive assumptions. That’s the good cholesterol of the relationship. Raise it, and you lower your risk of divorce.
Couples who’ve successfully completely EFT, who stay happily, healthily married, are not reportedly better communicators. What they are is emotionally connected, and that means they’re able to let things roll off their backs. They’re able to assume that nothing too bad was intended by the other’s statement. Their good will–much like good cholesterol–protects the relationship. It keeps them out of the biggest fights, and when they do fight, it helps them make up faster and more completely.
But how do you get there? First, don’t let things atrophy too far. I don’t say this to scare people, and maybe other couples therapists would disagree, but there comes a point where it’s too late. Contempt has set in and embedded itself too deeply. One or both people feel, in their bones, that they’re done.
Okay, maybe I don’t mind scaring people. Because you don’t want to find your marriage in a place of contempt. If you’re seeing the eye rolling, if you’re the eye roller yourself, start talking about that. Say, “What can we do to fix this thing? I want to think the best of you,” and mean it. Watch the good cholesterol climb.
Couples therapy photo available from Shutterstock