BY T. LEANNE CAMPBELL, Ph.D. & DAVID R. FAIRWEATHER, Ph.D.
Anne stomped into the room. Sitting upright, her lips were stiff and cheeks quivered with anger as she spoke. Barry slumped with tears streaming. After the discovery of Barry’s affair, Anne was crushed. “It’s all poisoned,” she sobbed. “All the good memories are tarnished …you’re a liar… a cheat.” Barry meekly whispered that he loved her, and never wanted to lose her. Arms crossed, she scoffed coldly, and ripped a tissue out of the Kleenex box. “Too late…my best years are gone!” Wilting, Barry was plagued with deep shame and disgrace. He felt powerless to reach her.
The course of EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) was not simple. For many weeks, Barry met with an individual therapist to address combat and childhood trauma-related issues. He came to grasp how emotionally numb he had been for decades, and not just in his marriage. Although a supportive father materially, he had largely missed his children’s growing years, and didn’t really know them. In his career, he felt unsatisfied. At one point, he sobbed, “I am financially successful…but emotionally bankrupt.”
As Barry worked through trauma- and grief-related issues, increased awareness became accessible in the marital sessions, but he still didn’t have a satisfactory explanation for his betrayal. Anne struggled to let go of the anger that kept her shielded from further hurt. It was still safer to dismiss him than express her own fear that, if she ever let her guard down again, he might disappoint her terribly, and devastate her further. She felt insulted and unattractive.
Barry perceived Anne as self-righteously telling him to jump higher. “I’m waiting for a sign that you’ve changed,” she would say, “and I can’t see it.” Barry continued to stay emotionally present in the sessions, and with the therapist’s help, Anne was eventually able to meet his gaze and bask, albeit briefly, in the feelings of warmth and importance.
By focusing on keeping Barry emotionally present and accessible, the therapist continued to promote and facilitate more bonding moments of this kind, and Anne slowly began to soften. There was more room to explore now, and less propensity for her to retreat into anger. Anne also became aware of some difficult experiences in her own childhood and past relationship life, and began to see some ways in which she had played a part in the emotional distancing between them over the years. Her changes allowed Barry to see that it was not all about him. His sense of shame lifted slightly, and he felt less the villain. Barry sat a bit taller in his chair, wanting to be strong for her. In being vulnerable and expressing her needs directly, Anne was now giving Barry the chance to take care of her, and to respond to the softer side that she had always wanted to show him. Perceptions of self and other, for both parties, were starting to change. Gradually, Barry began to talk more about his deep feelings of shame and remorse, and how much regret he had for having hurt Anne so badly.
A key turning point was when Barry finally was able to show Anne that he could really feel her hurt that the bonding significantly strengthened between them. Anne could finally see that Barry was genuinely empathizing with her. He really did care, and she really was important and special to him. The betrayal, she began to realize, was not all about his lack of attraction and desire for her, as she had previously feared it was. Anne moved toward forgiveness. And as she began to accept Barry, he was able to gradually forgive himself for the damage done to the relationship, and more importantly for the years of emptiness and lost opportunities.
“He looks so different now somehow,” Anne said softly and thoughtfully with a smile in one of the final marital sessions. “He isn’t the same man I married. I have never seen his cheeks glow like this, and I have never seen that sparkle in his eyes.” “It does feel different to be with him.” “I never felt before that I could really count on him, that he would be there for me. I am still scared to fully trust him, but I believe he will be there. In my gut, I believe he will.”
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an empirically-validated, experiential and systemic approachtotherapy with couples. Research has indicated that, when working with an EFT trained therapist, approximately 90% of treated couples rated themselves as better than controls, and over 70% of couples recovered from distress, and sustained that recovery at follow-up(Johnson et al., 1999).
As depicted in the above scenario, EFT focuses on helping partners to shift the emotional responses that maintain their negative interactional patterns. In addition to identifying and increasing partners’ awareness of their pattern of distress, the EFT therapist leads the couple away from conflict and deadlock into new bonding interactions by helping clients access and express unacknowledged emotions and related needs. As cycles of distress are transformed, the couple is able to move forward with a renewed sense of love and a stronger, more secure foundation than ever. The EFT approach is similarly used with excellent results with families. It also lends itself very well to working with couples where one partner or both partners are presenting with specific problems such as depression, trauma, anxiety, low sexual desire, and/or other sexual problems. Although individual therapy certainly is not a necessary adjunct to EFT, it is commonly useful in working with couples where one or both partners have a trauma history.
Drs. Campbell and Fairweather were trained and supervised in EFT in the early-mid 1990s by its co-originator Dr. Susan Johnson, and have been using the approach ever since, in addition to training and supervising other clinicians in its use. For more information, visit the websites of Campbell & Fairweather Psychology Group (www.cfpsych.ca) or the Vancouver Couple and Family Institute (www.vcfi.ca).
Johnson, S.M., Hunsley J., Greenberg, L., & Schindler, D. (1999). Emotionally focused couple therapy: Status & Challenges. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 6, 67-79.