This article is part of our Why Couples Fight Series
Emotionally-Focused Therapy and the Marital Fight Autopsy
When it comes to marital fight dissection, evidence-based Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) is by far the most relational model. At the risk of being overly simplistic, it could be argued the entire EFT model is essentially one big fight autopsy.
And that is where its strength lies. EFT is essentially an experiential model that works towards corrective emotional experiences. Repair and re-connection of attachment bonds are fundamental to EFT.
Seven Steps to a Marital Fight Meta-Conversation… EFT Style
- Notice and interrupt the Demon Dance/Protest Polka. This involves shifting from a “You are hurting me! I am under attack!” stance, or “You are ignoring me! I am abandoned!” to a “We are doing it again, we’re trapped in our Demon Dance” stance. The essence of EFT is the recognition of a “dysfunctional relational cycle.” It helps you move away from blaming your partner and begin to collaborate with them instead.
- Claim Your Own Feelings. According to EFT, partners tend to linger in the safer “surface emotions” of anger and frustration. I will be writing a future post on the debate between the Gottman and EFT models on the nature of “surface” emotions and primary emotions. In this model, it is believed that it’s harder to go deeper into softer feelings of vulnerability and healthy dependence. EFT focuses on facilitating that process.
- Claim Responsibility for your own Moves. “The More you do x, The More I do y.” The Developmental Model is somewhat uncomfortable with these kinds of dependent observations. But I feel that “The More….The More” is a pretty accurate meme of how couples bob and weave under stress. We may want to be coolly differentiated, but ultimately, we are more sensitive than not to pokes and prods from our partner. EFT has a more scientific appreciation for how human emotions actually play out. EFT doesn’t apologize for seeking to foster a healthy relational dependence. It sees the benefits of differentiation as achievable only if a safe and secure attachment is firmly established.
- Own How You Are Shaping Your Partner’s Emotions. EFT acknowledges that couples have an enormous influence on each other. The science of how couples impact each other is a key aspect of EFT. Surface emotions are only a small part of the emotional reality of deep intimate bonds.
- Ask About Your Partner’s Deeper Emotions. In EFT Couples Therapy, partners are worked with carefully. The therapist acts as a “transitional attachment figure,” helping the couple become more comfortable with the process of exploring vulnerable emotions that lie beneath the surface.
- Standing Together. A couple with a strong intimate bond has what is called in attachment science, a safe and secure base. In EFT, it becomes easier to more quickly exit demon dialogues and return to a solid connection.
EFT Fight Autopsy Exercise…5 Steps from Glove Story to Love Story.
- Step One: Pick a fight or squabble from the past few weeks. Write down a simple description of the incident. What would a video camera have seen? In EFT, we work towards mutual agreement on this description. Now write out in simple language the actions you took in this situation. How did your actions influence your partner’s decisions and choices? Compare notes carefully. Decide on a version of events that you can both comfortably agree upon. Keep this narrative descriptive, but as simple as possible.
- Step Two: Report on the feelings that you had, and how each of you influenced each other’s decisions. Share your feelings, and agree on a common version of how each of your feelings played out during this fight.
- Step Three: Now ask each other about the softer, more vulnerable underlying feelings. Have these vulnerable feeling gone unexpressed? Be curious. Ask questions. If your partner has a hard time describing vulnerable feelings, offer a speculation based on your familiarity with his or her emotional make-up. But suggest this tentatively. “Did you feel sad? Confused? Hurt?” Check in with your partner and confirm what their more vulnerable feelings were.
- Step Four: What could you have said or done instead of what actually happened? Here is where the two evidence-based models, Gottman and EFT, have a similar approach. How could this fight have been navigated more perfectly? How could you have tuned into each other collaboratively? What would that have been like, if you approached the problem more collaboratively? How would you have felt about each other if you did that?
- Step Five: If it gets tough, slow down. Offer each other support. “This is hard to do isn’t it?” Breathe together. Maintain eye contact. Celebrate your small breakthroughs. This process takes practice and time.
What Do I Mean by Stopping the Demon Dance?
Demon Dances are the negative standard stimulus-response pattern which eases a couple into their preferred pattern of engagement.
You can prevent Demon Dances by employing the skill using softened start-ups, accepting influence, and the habit of complaining instead of criticizing.
Another example of a Demon Dance would be the Protest Polka, which is another bad communication habits that couples are often trapped in.
The Demon Dance floor inevitably leads into the roach motel, and you get into a heated argument that neither of you can ever seem to escape.
It only takes a second to dance into a positive or negative space. Door number one… productive and useful discussion…door number two…all hell breaks loose.
You say this… and I say that.
Why Do We Get Up and Dance in the First Place?
Your issues. More specifically, your perpetual issues. Dr. John Gottman tells us that 69% of problems in marriage are fundamentally unsolvable. They concern deep fundamental differences that call out for careful management with mutual respect, goodwill, and humor. Otherwise, you fall into a Demon Dance.
Couples therapists call them “content.” And we therapists are advised to try to stay out of content. It tends to drags us onto the Demon Dancefloor, with both of you expecting us to take your side against your outrageously unreasonable partner.
No Avoiding Content
The only problem is, of course, content is what you both care about most.
Amateur “all-purpose” couples therapists sometimes take this caveat about content too far, frustrating their new clients, and weakening the therapeutic bond from the start. Or else they have so little structure in their sessions that they let the couple rage about content, fighting about it openly. Either extreme is problematic.
One of the points my Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) trainer George Faller made to me in my recent training was that couples need to tell their story.
Empathy and validation with the feelings under the story are the best way to get to discussing the couples Demon Dance.
When a couple begins to see that there are opportunities for connection if they try different a different dance step, the blood can be cleaned off the dancefloor, and it could be a more spacious and welcoming place.
That’s what George says the therapist’s job entails; holding a space for new possibility. I imagine skillful couples therapy is like taking dance lessons.
Corrective emotional experiences are the beautiful new dance steps When you can truly see where your partner is dancing from, you also have a chance to lead or follow as well.
Demon Dances can be replaced with smooth moves. Empathy and mutual understanding are the best ways to go back to the dance floor.
Our Intensive Couples Retreat is a Perfect Way to Process Your Glove Story!
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Why Couples Fight Series
- Why Do We Fight?
- Fair Fighting: 13 Rules
- 8 Guidelines for Fair Fighting
- Fighting in Front of the Kids
- Why is My Wife So Angry?
- My Husband is So Mean!
- Problem with Being Defensive
8. Gottman’s Four Horsemen9. Nagging10. What is Contempt?11. Defensiveness12. What is Stonewalling?13. My Husband and I Argue Everyday!14. Escalating & Time Out15. Effects of Angry Parents on Children
16. The Art of an Apology17. How to Repair Your Relationship18. More than “I’m Sorry…” Repair Attempts19. Conflict Avoidance in Relationships20. Gottman Style Fight Autopsy21. EFT Style Fight Autopsy22. The Developmental Model Fight Autopsy