"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.
"I never used to be this anxious of a person," my client said. "At least, I don't think I was." She was in her early forties, a stay-home mom, surprised to find that she couldn't entirely remember her earlier self. She was that person not very long ago, after all, her baby being only six months old. "New motherhood can feel like a vortex," I said. I had only emerged from it myself two months prior, when I returned to work part-time.
Like all parents, I'd like to keep my child as distress-free as possible. That's not exactly the same as happy. I mean, I'd like perpetually happy, who wouldn't, but I'm willing to negotiate. I'll take non-crying. The truth is, after almost ten months of hearing my baby cry, my tolerance for her distress remains surprisingly low. That leads me to do all sorts of ridiculous things. Case in point: Sometimes she sits in her high chair like an empress on her throne and I mince around like Jim Carrey circa 2000 for her amusement. While I take a shower, she's in her car seat just outside the fogged glass, and I regal her with stories, songs, and all manner of vocal calisthenics, alert for her every whinny and whimper, all to stave off discomfort. Hers or mine? I'm not always entirely sure. I didn't know it would be this way. More specifically, I didn't know I would be this way. Sometimes I feel like a hostage to my love for her.
I've got this great young couple, newly married, and they're sweet and funny and in love. They're not remotely on the rocks. But I could see it getting there, and so could they, and that's why they've started therapy. Here's the dynamic: She gets critical (sometimes loudly so), he feels verbally attacked, he shuts down and is distant, she spends the night feeling lonely and scared and trying to figure out what's gone wrong. He fears that in the long run, he'll become more and more resentful; she fears what will happen when kids enter the equation. On one level, it's about communication style. We all fall somewhere along the continuum from aggressive at one end to passive on the other. The healthiest communication style is in the middle, an assertive style where we can express our feelings respectfully. In the couple I've described, each partner is too far to one side. So theoretically, I could teach them some skills and get them on their way. But that's not what creates lasting change. I'm actually interested in the feelings underneath. I want them to learn emotional awareness and trust. I want them to know what they're feeling and trust that if they express it to the other person vulnerably, they'll be met with understanding and concern. That's what makes a secure bond.
“We never have sex anymore,” my new client, the mother of an 11-month-old, tells me plaintively. “Is that normal?” Her husband stares at the floor like he’s waiting for a shot: Just let it be over quickly. “That’s definitely normal,” I reassure them. “And our conversations have gotten so boring,” she continues. “We don’t have time to really talk. Or we’re too nervous to really talk. We’re always on alert. At any minute, we can get interrupted. Our son will need something.” “That’s normal, too.” Is it ever. Though my little interrupter happens to be a female, nearly ten months old, I know what my client is talking about. Intimately. I debate whether to share that with her.
As if modern life wasn't hectic enough with constant demands on our time and attention, we're also expected to successfully navigate all of our relationships too. Often with little help outside of our own experience. While experience can be a great teacher, it can...