Many couples have shared their lives with me in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Together we have journeyed through their stuck patterns and rediscovered the happiness that comes with safe and secure connection.
Couples Therapy Reunites Jon and Sally and Turns Their Teenager Around!
Couples Therapy Helps Ben and Selena Turn Trauma Into a Deeper Healing Connection
Raj and Surita Lift One Another’s Loneliness and Depression
Jon and Sally found that parenting adolescents increased the tension in their already-strained marriage. Whenever Jon got into an argument with Ryan, their teenage son, Sally would jump into the middle of the fight. As Jon saw it, she always seemed to take their son’s side. “What’s the use in even trying! She always knows what’s best and she is always defending my son and taking his side!” To keep the fight from escalating, Jon would leave the room. Sally saw Jon storm out of the room and not talk to any one all night.
In couple counselling Jon and Sally explored what was happening between them when they got caught in arguments about parenting adolescents. They identified the spinning circles they got caught in. With my coaching and the safety of my presence they explored their feelings underneath the negative spirals they were caught in. Unexpectedly they discovered that beneath their icy distance they both felt a similar sadness. They found that they shared a longing for family togetherness and harmony.
Sally acknowledged that what drove her to get so critical of Jon for how he spoke to the children, was that she was terrified that he and their son would get into one of their blow-up fights. The more she jumped in, the more embarrassed and frustrated Jon felt. Jon was able to tell Sally that when she entered the room he got that sinking feeling in his gut and that queasy feeling of “Oh, oh, here she comes… she’ll take Ryan’s side, and any moment they’ll both be ganging up against me!” In response he would mutter some angry words and escape behind a wall of silence for days.
Couples counselling became the safe place where they could join forces to fight against this repetitive destructive pattern that was driving them apart. Jon told Sally about his need to know that she accepted him and was standing beside him. Sally told Jon about her fears and longings to feel safe and connected to him. They shared their hopes and longings to show love and support to Ryan and their other sons.
After 20 sessions of therapy a new sense of calmness and peace took over. Now when Sally hears Jon and Ryan reaching a level of disagreement, she notices a sense of calmness and love in her body. She hears in Jon’s voice how much he loves Ryan and how hard he is working at talking through their disagreements in a respectful and persistent way.
When Sally enters the room where Jon and Ryan are talking, Jon feels her support. Knowing Sally is there, helps him remain calm with Ryan. He can see in her face that she understands how challenging these interactions with Ryan can be. Having her understanding and respect gives him strength to be a good father. He is excited to keep repairing and building his relationship with his son.
Jon and Sally were thrilled to discover that through couples counselling they created a safety between them that made their whole relationship flow more smoothly. As the trust and bond between them grew, Jon’s entire demeanor with Ryan shifted. He became soft and gentle and loving towards Ryan. Ryan, the formerly tough and defensive son became affectionate and fun to be around both his parents and siblings!
(Names and identifying features have been altered to protect client confidentiality.)
Dr. S. Johnson (2008) in Hold Me Tight writes, “When we feel securely attached to our partner, we tend to find it easier to be good parents, to provide a safe haven and a secure base for our youngsters. Our kids then learn positive ways to deal with their emotions and connect with others. There is a mountain of scientific evidence that securely attached children are happier, more socially competent, and more resilient in the face of stress. The idea that one of the best things you can do for your child is to create a loving relationship with your partner is not sentimental, it’s a scientific fact.” pp. 260-261.
Couples therapy Helps Ben and Selena Turn The Distance Created By a Traumatic Accident Into a Deeper Healing Connection
After losing his job due to a grave physical injury, Ben was extremely anxious and fearful that Selena would not want to stay with him. Selena tried without success to get him to talk about the trauma of his accident or his feelings. The more she persisted, the more withdrawn he became. He withdrew in silence, brooding endlessly. He refused to socialize with their circle of friends. He demanded sex on a daily basis, but could never look Selena in the eyes.
For Ben and Selena, couples counselling began with their difficult emotions of anger, pain and icy coldness. Gradually through couples therapy, Ben came to feel worthy of Selena’s love. He came to trust her comfort. They reached a place where he told her of the horrific accident he had lived through. He even shared about some childhood abuse about which he had never spoken.
Through couple therapy Selena and Ben’s relationship calmed and strengthened. Flashbacks, and anxiety attacks have nearly ceased. They have a secure bond that makes them feel safe and strong together.
Selena and Ben’s relationship became
- a safe haven to recover from painful memories
- a secure base from which they can thrive more fully in their lives!
- a comfortable place to share stories with each other and to give and receive support
Now when the terrors visit Ben in the middle of the night, he is able to turn to Selena and she holds him in her arms and soothes him while the harsh memories rush by. When they make love, Ben is beginning to feel comfortable looking Selena in the eyes. He feels much more satisfied with their times of sexual intimacy. He demands sex less frequently. “Now I feel important to her even when we are not having sex!” They find pleasure in sharing a simple walk or an evening by the fire together.
Selena says it is like they have fallen in love all over again! She feels that Ben is letting her love him again, and she truly feels she matters to him again.
In Hold Me Tight, Johnson writes, “A secure bond helps us deal with and heal trauma by soothing our pain and giving us comfort. Physical and emotional closeness actually calms our nervous system and helps us find our balance again physiologically and emotionally. To a wounded partner, a lover’s comfort is as desperately needed and powerful as any drug. Some times we do not offer compassion because we are scared…. We do not understand the power of the love we have to give.” p.241
A Reluctant Partner Invites a Spouse Into Marriage Therapy: Raj and Surita Lift One Another’s Loneliness and Depression
Surita came for therapy by herself, reluctant and fearful to include her husband, Raj. She feared that they would just get into another fight like they had with their last therapist. It had seemed to her that the therapist understood what it was like for Raj, but she couldn’t find the words to get the therapist to understand her side of the story. She claimed that she didn’t feel safe attending therapy with Raj again.
She was in intense emotional pain, convinced that she didn’t matter any more to Raj. As she told her story, some very torn and conflicting feelings emerged. Part of Surita wanted to leave Raj now to escape all the pain. Another part longed desperately to connect with him and to feel she actually mattered to him.
She longed for him to understand how hurt and lonely she had felt ever since an event that occurred between them, before their daughter, now 9 years old, was born. She described with venom and pain how he accepted a terrific promotion across the country. She had given up a new and prestigious position in a growing business, to follow him and to support him in his career. Little had been said between them at the time.
Their life in the new city had taken on a very somber tone. Surita became pregnant a second time soon after they arrived. Raj became totally preoccupied in the responsibilities and stressors of his new position. Their lives grew further and further apart.
Surita complained that Raj turned towards his work, instead of towards her. She also realized that Raj likely felt that she couldn’t talk with him anymore except to criticize him for how he had let her down.
In the midst of her hurt, she retreated in silence to nurse her wounds. In that place of silence, she felt at a safe distance from the person who was hurting her so deeply, yet she longed for him to see her desperation and to come to her.
Although I encouraged her to invite Raj to a session, she wasn’t ready to do this. First we had a few individual sessions. Gradually she felt that she could trust me to provide a safe place in therapy where her story as well as Raj’s would be heard. Slowly she gained confidence in my assurances that I would not take sides nor would I allow either one of them to get out of control in angry attacks against the other.
Therapy with Raj and Surita began with Surita by herself, unsure of staying in the marriage. She was skeptical that she could ever find a new way to dance with Raj. Anger, loneliness and depression was the music of their relationship dance.
After three sessions together with the couple, their angry outbursts and cold silences gave way to a slowly emerging recently-forgotten true story of soft, loving and caring feelings towards each another. They told the story of how years ago they had gotten stuck in spinning cycles of Raj hiding in silence when Surita protested about how he ignored her, and of Surita protesting more and more loudly as her desperation for his attention increased.
Raj was shocked to hear from Surita how much she was missing him! He had no idea that she still longed for his attention, and that she had not entirely given up all hope that he would ever understand her and care for her again. Discovering that she still wanted him gave him the courage to turn towards her and acknowledge that he felt he had failed her as a husband and that he turned away to mask his fears of her rejection.
Surita was surprised! She was deeply moved to hear this. She had never imagined he had those fears or that he missed her tenderness and companionship. She was astounded to discover how much he did, in fact, care. Most of all she was relieved to find that he listened with compassion to her grief for having left her “dream job” many years ago and that he understood the anger and bitterness she had felt for years! Gradually she found the courage to ask for the comfort and connection she longed for from Raj.
Raj’s caring and remorse began to have a soothing effect on Surita. Together in therapy we worked with these difficult emotions to create positive change and to choreograph new ways to dance together. Therapy became a hopeful venture of Raj and Surita developing the flow of a new dance.
Raj’s depression is lifting as he feels spontaneously energized and motivated to support Surita and to ask for her support. Surita no longer feels alone in this relationship. She knows she matters to Raj and she feels free to ask for and to offer care.In the new dance, conversations about finances or who does the vacuuming or who drives the kids to their lessons, have become times where Surita and Raj fully hear each other’s needs and concerns. Together they are finding cooperative ways to do these tasks without even struggling or trying to make it work.
Together they are nurturing their connection by sharing affection, care giving and sexual pleasures. “Once again, we found the hand to hold and the friend to love, that we knew 16 years ago!”
Johnson in Hold Me Tight writes, “A sense of secure connection between romantic partners is key in positive loving relationships and a huge source of strength for the individuals in those relationships.” “Love is not the icing on the cake of life. It is a basic primary need, like oxygen or water. Once we understand and accept this, we can more easily get to the heart of relationship problems. pp. 22 & 27
Since I met and worked with these couples, Dr. Susan Johnson, who created Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and who taught it to me, has put out a remarkably useful book for couples: Hold Me Tight (2008). You will find this book helpful it you are considering couples therapy. It is also an excellent resource to use to accompany your journey in coupes therapy.