Are you Really There for Me?
Why are some couples so quick to respond to their partner with anger or defensiveness? How can we break the cycle of extreme arousal, pain and more wounding that some couples experience with nearly every interaction? “We can’t stop fighting,” I hear. “Everything turns into a major blow-up!”. According to Emotion-Focused Therapy’s theory, high reactivity comes from avoiding pain.
To give some background, EFT and Imago Therapy are based on Attachment theory. Attachment theory emerged from the work of John Bowlby, Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, and others, who assert that the need to be in a close relationship is part of our DNA. Human beings are programmed to be in relationship, and particularly when young, to be dependent on a few specific individuals, usually parents. This makes sense in the history of human survival because those who have someone to look after them when they’re young, are less likely to become prey! Our brains still have this biological mechanism. Studies have found that when you are facing pain if you have someone to lean on, you don’t experience pain to the same degree. On the other hand, if you sense that no one is there, the pain can sometimes be intolerable. A person who has no implicit memory of working through their pain with a specific individual can develop insecure attachment patterns, such as being anxious or avoidant when in intimate relationships.
We have primary and secondary emotions. A very common secondary emotion is anger. Anger can work as a shield to cover the pain underneath. What a therapist does first in EFT is connect to the couple, by building an alliance with each partner. Often the pain is so great between the couple, they cannot even look at each other without over-activating their nervous system. With a highly reactive couple, anger is their safe place. Those automatic, emergency emotions stored in our limbic system, are activated because the brain senses a threat to identity and security by our partner. (This is the person who is supposed to be our safe place) Anger keeps away the pain of feeling the primary emotions, which are underneath. Under the anger is sadness, shame, hurt, or hopelessness. These raw emotions are often connected to unmet needs in childhood, or attachment wounds. The anger has worked in avoiding the pain, but it has kept the couple from being open, accessing vulnerability, and finding the secure connection they so long for. In EFT, the therapist helps the couple heal by diving into the pain.
It is a delicate process when helping a client befriend an inner world they are trying to avoid. The limbic system can be slow to catch on, and the negative emotional memory has to be revised through positive experience. The couple learns about the negative pattern they have created. They learn about how they have adapted, and what they learned in childhood about vulnerability and safety. Working with their therapist, and their partner, they create a corrective emotional experience in the present. Each person learns to express what they feel on the inside (the primary emotion), rather than what they show on the outside (the anger). The couple finds a secure base from which to explore their vulnerable emotions.
When the belief is that you cannot trust your partner, and they don’t really care, it takes time to feel safe being vulnerable with this person. A therapist can help you see that it may be more about your attachment history, and the negative cycle of wounding you and your partner keep recreating. With this understanding and the experience of empathic listening, a path opens to believing that “yes”, YOU CAN BE THERE FOR ME.
Tory Joseph, M.Ed., LCPC Imago Relationship Therapist