If you’ve been in a relationship for any length of time, I’m guessing you’ve experienced misunderstandings and miscommunications between you and your partner.
There is no healthy relationship that is entirely free of disagreements and it isn’t conflict in itself that is problematic. Sure, no one enjoys feeling misunderstood or getting into an argument with someone they love, but in healthy relationships these moments of disconnection don’t change how you see your relationship or the other person.
Partners in connected relationships know how to revisit these difficult conversations and work through it.
Unfortunately, for many couples, over time, these moments of disconnection seem to happen more often and communication seems to become increasingly difficult. Both people begin to wonder what happened to the harmonious connection they had in the early days of their relationship.
Partners in disconnected relationships feel discouraged by the destructive communication patterns that seem to be keeping them stuck.
Let me explain with an example about a fictitious couple, whose relationship is much like the ones I see in my counselling practice
You’ve had a long day at work. You are exhausted. Traffic on the way home from daycare pick up was a nightmare and the kids are wailing in the back seat. Mentally, you try to work through the list of ingredients at home in the fridge to figure out what you can put together in a pinch.
You get home and begin to pull out the ingredients you need and as you reach for the frying pan to cook the meat you realize it is still dirty from the eggs your spouse made this morning.
All the frustration and overwhelmed feeling from the day begin to spill out. You accuse your partner of being lazy and inconsiderate and of never pulling their weight around the house. They are obviously frustrated. But instead of stepping in and helping, they tell you that they have had enough of your foolish talk and that they are going somewhere where they will actually be fed – McDonalds.
As the door closes behind them you begin to cry. You feel so overwhelmed, hungry and alone. You still need to clean the pan and put supper together for you and the kids. You wipe your tears and settle the kids at the table with a snack to buy you some time to make supper.
You feel so misunderstood by your partner. How could they not see how hard you are trying and what a horrible day you had. You make a mental note that you will never ask them for help again.
Before bed you spend your down time researching 15 minute meals so you won’t depend on your spouse at mealtime again.
Couples Describe This as a Communication Problem
And while it is true that communication between this couple is a part of the problem, the real issue is much deeper.
The reactive behaviours that each person is showing come from our biological need to know that our most important person is accessible, responsive and engaged.
Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworthy in the 1960s, was applied to the bond between a mother and a child. Ongoing research in this area has shown that even as adults, the need for a safe other to turn to does not go away.
After studying countless hours of couples therapy sessions, Dr. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, concluded that it is our internal ‘attachment alarms’ that drive these reactive behaviours and contribute to the destructive communication patterns that couples can get stuck in.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is backed by 30 years of scientific research and when practiced by a trained therapist following the model, outcome measures show that 70-75 percent of couples move from being distressed to being close and connected and approximately 90 percent show significant improvements.
In this blog series I will introduce you to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and hopefully help you and your partner experiment with some new ways to communicate.
WHY YOU NEED MORE THAN COMMUNICATION SKILLS TRAINING
What does it mean to be emotionally responsive to your partner? Think back to the ‘disastrous dinner’ scenario for a second. While you have that in your mind, I want introduce you to an important concept; emotional responsiveness. Once you know a bit more about it, I want you to consider whether you think being more emotionally responsive might have helped this couple….and if it might be helpful for you and your partner too.
There is a ton of fascinating research that shows that our human need to find connection and responsiveness is literally wired into our brains. Check out how this baby responds in this experiment known as the ‘Still Face Experiment.’
Guess what, as adults our behaviour might look different, but we react when we cannot establish a connection with our most important person.
Knowing this helps Emotionally Focused Couples Therapists see communication breakdown and conflict as a an attempt to have our need for secure connection met.
Rather than viewing either person as flawed or dysfunctional, and EFT therapist would understand this interaction through the lens of unmet attachment needs.
Because of this, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is different than skills training. It allows couples to have new experiences of actually being there for each other in the therapy room and then apply this in real life rather than giving a list of skills to learn.
If the ‘disastrous dinner’ couple could recognize that the hurtful exchange described above is a pattern that showed up in part because of a lack of emotional responsiveness, then they could view it differently. They could revisit the conversation in a way that was more responsive and find new ways to be there for each other.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy with a skilled therapist, helps couples slow down their conversations to explore underneath these reactive behaviours to learn more about their unmet needs and how they are playing out in the relationship.
As Dr. Sue Johnson notes, what truly makes a relationship thrive is emotional responsiveness.
I’m curious. Are you in an emotionally responsive relationship?
Here is a quiz that she includes in her book, Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (which you should definitely read!).
If you want a clearer sense of how responsive you and your partner are towards each other, take the quiz and find out!
Come back next week for part 2 of this blog series and find out more about how you and your partner can restore closeness and improve communication in your relationship.
If after checking out this blog post you and your partner realize that you’d benefit from some help to improve the connection and communication in your relationship, let’s chat. You can book a free 15 minute consultation call online or call Tamar at (902) 702-7722 to book an appointment.
I look forward to hearing from you.
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