Partners can stop fighting so much, and turn conflict into safety with a new focus on emotions
Often, when counseling begins with a couple experiencing a lot of conflict, they notice after a few weeks that they are arguing less.
As couples stop fighting so much and find a little bit of peace in therapy, a little less stress at home, they sometimes think, “okay things feel better, so we must be fine now.”
But I want couples to know there is so much more to a healthy relationship than just not fighting!
While things are better — and that’s great — we have not yet built that secure emotional connection that is the essence of healthy love. We are just at neutral.
The next stage is to learn to go from “not fighting” to making the relationship a strength.
Couples therapy, specifically Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), gives couples important skills to move from negative to neutral to positive. It helps couples actually use new skills to learn from their conflict so they can draw closer together, and build a relationship that feeds each person’s strengths.
How Does EFT Help Couples Stop Fighting and Grow Closer?
Conflict between partners usually doesn’t just go away when it remains unsolved — it escalates instead. When conflict pushes couples to the breaking point, they may wonder how focusing on emotions can possibly help, when it seems emotions are driving them apart. To understand how focusing on our emotions is helpful, it’s important to understand escalation and de-escalation.
When our partner lobs an “emotional bullet” our way — or says something that triggers strong emotions — we protect ourselves by putting up a wall. Our defenses are there for a reason — we absolutely need them. But in a romantic relationship, when our defenses show up too often, they cut us off from connection, because we’re all hiding behind our own wall. On one level we feel safe, but on a deeper level we feel alienated, heartbroken and lonely!
The wall of defensiveness looks different for different people. For some it’s about withdrawal and silence. For others it’s about noise — anger, yelling, or slamming doors. Everyone puts up their wall in their own way.
De-escalation is the beginning of getting behind the wall. The EFT approach helps us find ways to hear more clearly what is happening for our partner and for us. It starts when we create a feeling of safety so that we can rely less on the protective wall, and take it out of the equation bit by bit.
Healing Starts with Emotional Safety
Lowering our defenses means we can offer each other a safe space for our more tender emotions. We become able to talk about the thoughts and feelings under the hurt, anger or fear. We’re not yelling and screaming; we’re not avoiding each other. We are able to understand that there is more to each person’s inner world than just the defensiveness we are used to seeing.
Without help, it can be very hard for couples who have become defensive to experience healthy emotional connection on their own. Learning to re-connect, through counseling, is a complex process that draws from many therapeutic skills. The strength of EFT is that creating safety is a priority. It’s a specific goal. It’s not something that happens as a by-product of other work that you’re doing.
The focus on creating emotional safety helps couples appreciate why this goal is so important. They start to see for themselves the benefits of emotional connection. It helps them recognize and work for emotional safety for themselves and their relationship.
Creating Safety in Relationships
One key ingredient to creating safety is emotional validation. Being able to hear from your partner that he or she understands the emotion you are sharing, is so important.
We need to recognize when we are listening and when we stop hearing each other. When we first try to tune into a person we’ve been fighting with, we often stop listening half way through. We may disagree with something our partner said, or we feel blamed. If I feel attacked, it’s hard to keep listening if I think I need to defend myself.
Partners work on communicating so it is easier for each person to hear what is important to each other. It is difficult to have a productive discussion if you’re only hearing half of what your partner is saying.
Empathizing and validating are the building blocks of safety. Unfortunately, this isn’t something people learn just by being told how to build safety, they have to experience it. As therapists, we help people have these validating experiences, what we call “corrective experiences.”
In therapy our work is to guide partners so they can experience the benefit of opening up to each other. It’s about walking alongside them and helping them have safe emotional connections together.
It doesn’t happen all at once. But, even small changes make a significant difference to partners who have been struggling for a long time.
Couples learn to “listen to their emotions, speak their needs clearly and reach for their partner in a way that helps that partner tune in and respond,” says couples therapist and founder of EFT, Dr. Sue Johnson“. A book I recommend for people is Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. It outlines how couples can help themselves move from conflict to safety, to greater openness.
How Emotional Attunement Deepens Relationships
When we are able to tune in to each other, and help each other through our distress, our relationship enables us to live healthier, happier and more resilient lives. This is because our relationship can provide the rich emotional connection we are wired for as human beings.
Our sense of safe attachment to a loved one is tremendously empowering. When we know that our partner will be there if we need them, we are able to go out into the world with more confidence.
EFT helps couples step back when they get caught up in conflict, because they are able to see what escalation is, and what de-escalation is. And beyond de-escalation, they have discovered the healing gifts of vulnerability and connection.
A healthy loving attachment is much more than relief from conflict. It is vital to our well-being. It provides the comfort and security we need to face and grow through life’s challenges. Even if it seems that nothing will help you stop fighting now, know that there is hope. Couples can learn to work together and help each other make the emotional connections we need as human beings.
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