Connection. Attachment. Intimacy. Attunement. These buzzwords, which therapists have been using and studying for years, have become commonplace in our vocabulary, but what do they really mean? At our core, we want to feel safe and secure in our relationships with our partners. We want to know and feel that the most important people in our lives are attuned to us, and are accessible and reliable when we need them. Secure attachment is the concept that people feel happier when they are in a safe, secure, and emotionally-connected relationship. When we don't feel this way in our romantic relationships, it creates anxiety, sadness, and disconnection.
If I need you, will you be there for me? Do you really love me? Am I important to you? Do you have my back? When we feel the answer to these questions is ‘no,' we experience disconnection, and our brains start to panic. Our brains interpret disconnection as a threat, and go into 'fight' or ‘flight' mode. This fear response manifests itself in different ways, such as anger and frustration (secondary emotions), with one person (the pursuer) criticizing/attacking and the other (the withdrawer) avoiding/shutting down (behaviors), inaccurately reflecting what a person is really feeling (primary emotions) and their attachment-related insecurities (unmet attachment needs). When you think about how bad it feels to be disconnected from your partner, these secondary emotions and behaviors make sense because we desperately want to reconnect and prevent the disconnection from getting worse. This 'cycle' takes a toll on a couple, and this is where couples counseling can help.
What is couples therapy, and why do people go?
You and your partner may be…
Stuck in a pattern of criticizing and blaming or emotionally shutting down.
On the brink of separation, but desperately want to work it out.
Trying very hard to reach each other, but you just can’t.
Suffering from the aftermath of an affair.
Lacking sexual intimacy.
Looking to deepen and enrich your relationship.
Preparing to take your relationship to the next level of commitment.
Couples therapy can help with all of these issues. It is a means of resolving conflicts that couples have not been able to handle effectively on their own. The modality I use in working with couples is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), created By Dr. Sue Johnson. EFT has been demonstrated over the past few decades to have great results for couples all over the world.
EFT offers a roadmap through couples’ disputes and disconnection so that they can reach each other. A therapist trained in EFT holds that map and gently leads distressed couples through a set of 9 steps and 3 stages until their relationship is strengthened. EFT is different than other approaches because it is based in attachment theory and with the recognition that emotions are the foundation of our relationships. Teaching behavioral techniques and communication skills can only go so far when emotions are running high. EFT helps couples achieve greater trust and safety in their relationship, a stronger connection and foundation, improved communication, and a better understanding of each other. Couples develop new skills to de-escalate when conflicts arise and an understanding of how to break negative cycles that can overtake their relationship and pull them apart.
So if couples therapy is proven to help couples resolve so many issues, and more people are in couples therapy than ever before, why are some people still hesitant to start? These are the 5 most common reasons I hear from people who are reluctant to go to couples therapy (and why you should try EFT!):
1. “Are we really that bad off that we need a professional's help? Maybe we can fix this ourselves.”
Needing a professional's help is not a bad thing. If you needed a root canal, you would go to a dentist. If you needed surgery, you would seek the help of a surgeon. You wouldn't perform these procedures yourself. Therapy is no different. Couples therapists spend years learning about relationship dynamics, identifying patterns and cycles, listening for feelings that individuals themselves are unaware of, and finding ways to help people express vulnerable emotions. When you are stuck in a negative cycle with your partner, it is hard to see things clearly. It is so easy to get lost in the weeds and spend hours arguing about who didn't take out the garbage or wash the dishes, escalating into an explosive argument. Couples therapists have the benefit of seeing the interactions between people through an objective lens. And think of it this way, we spend years in school taking every class and subject imaginable. Calculus, English Literature, Medieval History, Chemistry. But there are no classes on relationships. No one ever taught us how to be a good partner. The secondary emotions of anger or withdrawal can be all we see coming from our partners, but they are not a true representation of how they feel. Anger is often masking hurt. Indifference often covers up shame. A therapist can be the relationship teacher none of us ever had.
2. “This is our last resort, and I'm afraid it won't work.”
Some people say couples therapy is the last stop before the divorce. Not true. In an analysis of studies on EFT couples therapy, those who have gone through EFT rated their relationships 90% better than those who didn’t, with 70-73% of couples fully recovered from distress during a follow-up study. And after therapy ends, EFT even continues to strengthen the relationship over time. Based on decades of rigorous research conducted by Sue Johnson and her colleagues, EFT has been proven to help 9 out of 10 couples improve their relationship. Of course, there are times when couples therapy doesn't work, but if that is the case, at least you'll know you tried your best. Some couples give up on their relationship before giving couples therapy a try, because they interpret the constant fighting, silence, and lack of sexual connection and intimacy as incompatibility or having lost the love they once had. But it’s often just that they are stuck in a negative cycle. Once we identify the cycle, couples can team up against it.
3. “It’s going to take too long, and we just don't have the time.”
With longer and longer work days that extend well past 5pm, rarely include a lunch break, and often involve answering emails from home hours after leaving the office, the idea of adding one more thing to your schedule can be daunting. But one of the great things about Emotionally Focused Therapy is that it is just that – focused. It is a specific approach that is short-term, keeping a sharp eye on the underlying emotions of your relationship. We don't spend time on the content, but instead hone in on the real issues, which are the primary emotions and the unmet attachment needs. You can never say with certainty how long couples therapy will take, but for a couple without any history of trauma, EFT has been shown to produce great results in 12-20 sessions, regardless of the level of distress the couple comes in with. If you and/or your partner have a trauma history, the process may take a bit longer. Couples therapy does take time and commitment, but in the long run, costs less emotionally (and financially) than separation or divorce.
4. “What if my partner says things about me that I never knew? What if it just makes everything worse?”
Yes, you will discover things that you never knew your partner felt or thought, but it’s not necessarily what you think. 99% of the time, these are vulnerable feelings your partner has never shared with anyone (or perhaps didn’t even know they felt themselves!) I often hear things like:
“I feel alone and miss you.”
“I want to reach you and don't know how.”
“I feel helpless.”
“I'm afraid I'm unloveable.”
“I feel like a failure.”
“I''m afraid I'm too much for you.”
These statements are very different than the ones made when a couple is in the throes of an argument, and consequently, result in very different, positive responses from their partner, making things better, not worse. The most common response from their partner is not anger or shutting down, but rather leaning in and saying, “I had NO idea you felt that way.” And in that moment there is a shift, because before that, the cycle made it impossible to access those emotions. Often times, your partner is unaware of their feelings of sadness, helplessness, and shame, because it is easier to access anger and frustration or withdraw as a result.
5. “I’d feel embarrassed talking about this stuff in front of a stranger.”
Some clients worry that they will fight in front of their therapist and feel self-conscious. Let me reassure you. We have seen and heard it all. Therapy is not a place of judgment. We are not perfect either and have the same struggles you do. So rest assured, there are no feelings you cannot express. Even as trained EFT therapists, who spend years learning how to improve relationships, we get stuck in the same cycles you do, because relationships are hard, and human beings are complex. Clients often feel relief after their first session and express that they wish they had come sooner. Often referring to us with humor as “referees,” they know that there is someone there to intervene should they feel stuck. Someone who will create the space and time for them to express what they are feeling in a safe and supportive environment.
The benefits of couples therapy often spill over into other areas of life, with couples reporting improved mood and sleep, better performance and less stress at work, a healthier sex life, and better physical health. Brain science now shows us that healthy relationships make us more resilient in the face of physical pain and more courageous in the face of fear. In a 2013 study conducted by Sue Johnson and her colleagues, fMRI scans were used to measure the brain's response to pain and perceived threat in three groups of people – those who were alone, those who were holding the hand of a stranger, and those who were holding the hand of a partner that they were not securely attached to. The fMRI brain scans of all the participants indicated they experienced fear and pain when there was a shock to the foot.* Next, they look at the same groups of people after they had completed EFT couples therapy with their partner, which resulted in greater connection and secure attachment. For the participants who were alone, fMRI scans again indicated a fear and pain response. However, when holding the hand of a stranger, the brain experienced less perceived threat and pain than before. For individuals who were holding the hand of their partner, scans showed little to no pain or fear response. We literally experience less physical pain when we are feeling connected to our partner! If this isn't a reason to improve your relationship through couples therapy, I don't know what is.
As therapists, we are aware that the prospect of couples therapy can seem daunting, but all you need is the willingness to try EFT and a little hope. We can help with the rest.
*Johnson, S.M., Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgleish, T., Halchuk, R., Hasselmo, K., Greenman, P.S., Merali, Z. & Coan, J.A. (2013). "Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy." PLOS ONE, 8(11): e79314.
Dr. Kristin Kolozian is a New York State licensed clinical psychologist and ICEEFT Certified EFT couples therapist. She has a private practice in the West Village in New York City, and works with individuals and couples in both one-on-one sessions and workshops. Visit her at www.drkristinkolozian.com for more information.