When I tell couples the reason they are having relationship problems is because they matter so much to each other, I often receive quizzical looks. When couples are not getting along, the last thing they feel is important to one another. Instead they feel like enemies, roommates or even worse, like strangers. John and Linda sit in my office telling me that they repeatedly argue about how much time John spends in his “man cave” playing video games and watching sports. Linda rolls her eyes and says that “real men” don’t enjoy such brainless activities. John snaps back that Linda’s obsession with yoga doesn’t seem like rocket science. Linda starts to cry and John lets out a big sigh and stares down at the floor. John and Linda have only been in my office for 5 minutes, but they have already shared enough for me to know how important they are to one another. Embedded in their arguments fraught with anger and blaming is a subtext of pain and disconnection as well as a longing to be loved, wanted and accepted. Using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), an evidence-based couple therapy founded by Dr. Sue Johnson, I help couples see through the fog of their distress and identify what they are really fighting about.
After a few sessions of EFT Linda shares that when John plays video games she feels unimportant and like he doesn’t want to spend time with her. She explains that she feels invisible and that the only way she can get his attention is by getting angry and complaining. John seems confused and says that with Linda always “on his case” he feels like a huge disappointment to her, and wonders why she would want to spend time with someone she seems so turned off by. He adds that by staying away from Linda he can avoid more arguing. Linda complains and blames as a way of protesting the disconnection between her and John. She wants a reaction from John because any reaction no matter how negative is better than no reaction. John withdraws and shuts down in order to protect the relationship from further damage. Once partners realize that the arguing and distancing are their attempts to preserve the relationship, they are able to stop seeing each other as the enemy and start understanding how much they matter to one another. Linda takes John’s hand and says she didn’t realize her blaming was making him feel like a disappointment. John’s body visibly relaxes. He tells Linda he feels sad that she has felt invisible. By reaching underneath their anger and sharing their softer feelings, John and Linda have found a way to connect.
As an EFT therapist, one of the main things I do is help partners speak from the heart when they feel disconnected from one another. So often when we feel hurt by our partners we react in a way that scares them off. When we attack or shut down, our partner feels threatened, and cannot see that the reason we are so upset is because they matter so much.
We are more sensitive to our partners than we realize or would like to admit. What they say or don’t say, can knock us off our feet. A sigh of exasperation, a distracted look, or a tone one notch higher than usual can send a cold wind blowing through an otherwise peaceful moment. And that’s ok. In relationships, we are going to make mistakes and hurt each other. We are human and imperfect and disconnection is inevitable. What matters is how we react when the disconnection happens. Do we blame or withdraw? Or do we reach for our partners and share from the heart, so that they know we are upset because they are the most important person in our lives. It’s risky, and it’s vulnerable to let our partners see how much we need them. But it’s an invitation to connect. And that kind of invitation is very difficult to turn down.
Dr. Jessica Kokin is a staff therapist at the MindSpace Clinic and is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples.