Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
When working with couples I use a therapeutic approach called EFT, or Emotionally Focused Therapy (not to be confused with EFT, Emotional Freedom Technique which is not an empirically validated technique and is based on energy work and meridians rather than psychology), created by Susan Johnson, a Canadian psychologist.
EFT has been clinically validated as an effective technique to move couples from conflict and reactivity to calmer, deeper mutual understanding. What I love about this approach is that, well, it works, plus it is affirming of both parties—no one is identified as “the problem.”
Often when couples come into treatment they have each been telling themselves a variation of the following story:
Partner A: Everything would be just fine if Partner B just cared more about me and tried to show it.
Partner B: Everything would be just fine if Partner A would get off my case
In therapeutic parlance, we call A the “pursuer” and B the “withdrawer” and the job of the couple’s therapist is to help B show up emotionally and A to cool their jets. But it’s not so simple. Both partners have a lifetime of habit, and prior to their own lives they have intergenerational patterns of those who taught those who taught them how to approach getting their needs met.
Unpacking these patterns require looking back at past experiences and the decisions that were made in their wake. Trauma is a major influence on the decision-making process. A neglected child, for instance, may learn to forge a fiercely independent personality to protect him or herself from the pain of unmet relational needs such as tenderness, caring and protection. Later in life, this decision (it is not safe to need others) can interfere with a mature adult relationship. An abused child learns that the world is not safe, and that those who they love and depend on will hurt them, on purpose. They then grow up to either identify with the perpetrator (at least then they can have some power) or the victim (then they can have some feelings). Subsequently may express their own big feelings in violent ways, or tolerate partners who express big emotions with violence. Or more on a more subtle level, they may subconsciously be hyper alert for attack and fly into defensive mode at the least provocation. They may have decided I must constantly be on guard to keep safe.
Notice that all of these decisions impact personal sense of safety and that they were a rational life-preserving response back when they were made. In adulthood however, these same life-saving decisions become self destructive and relationally toxic.
I love doing couple’s work because I consider relationship the stem cells of the therapy world: they can become darn near anything. Relationships are a source of potential healing, and of personal/intergenerational/societal evolution….or they can be a potent source of damage.
Those who are interested in learning more about EFT can read “Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Susan Johnson.