Why improving your relationship is more than improving your communication skills (and
how Emotionally Focused Therapy can help)
“Don’t we just need to learn to communicate better?” If this is a question that you’re asking about the difficulties in your relationship, you’re not alone. And sure, learning better communication skills can be very helpful!
At the same time, you probably already know a lot about communicating well–using kind words and a respectful tone, listening to the other person, not interrupting…sound familiar? Yet you and your partner are still having difficulty. Why? Because when you’re in distress, in the heat of the moment, your thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) goes offline and your emotional brain (the limbic system) kicks in. It’s just neuroscience.
You can know the best communication skills in the world, but if you can’t use them in the moments when you and your partner are struggling, they don’t help you.
In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), your therapist uses what we know from neuroscience and attachment theory to help you and your partner develop a deep connection and a lasting bond. We know that in moments of distress– like when you and your partner are having a fight– your body will do exactly what it was designed to do: PROTECT you by any means possible!
When you're in physical danger, these protections are exactly what you need to stay safe: you’ll fight an oncoming attacker, or flee in the face of a predator. You might freeze if playing dead is the way your body chooses to protect you. Your body doesn't differentiate between an emotional or physical threat. And in either situation, you don't choose how you’ll protect yourself because your body and brain know that the moment of choice could be the difference between life and death. Instead, your body and brain react instantaneously. And in tense emotional moments with your partner, your body goes into that same survival protection mode.
Sometimes your protection may look like walking away, exiting the fight, or shutting down. It might look like blaming or criticizing your partner. Or cracking a joke to try to lower the intensity of the moment. Maybe you tell your partner about the latest relationship book you read and argue about how if they could just do this ONE thing better....
We all have protective strategies that automatically engage when we feel threatened. And they all make a lot of sense!
Your body is brilliant and wise…and yet sometimes the protective strategies that you learned earlier in life no longer serve you. In fact, they might be getting in the way of a close relationship with your partner. So how does EFT help?
Therapists who are trained in EFT know the importance of slowing down moments of crisis and helping you access the emotions simmering just beneath the surface of your protection. What was the feeling you had just before your body went into survival mode? What danger sign did you perceive and what emotion did it evoke? You might hear them say things like “Would it be okay if I slow you down here? You just said something really important…” Or “What happens for you when your partner says this…?”
Together, you will look at the good reasons why you automatically react the way you do and how it creates a negative cycle between you and your partner. More than just intellectually knowing the cycle, you will learn how the cycle feels in your body. Your therapist will help you practice safe and positive interactions so you and your partner can have a different experience of your relationship in your body. You will build and practice creating a new, positive cycle, so your body doesn’t feel like it constantly has to protect itself.
You’ll be working on a deep level with your therapist– one where your limbic system learns that when you are in the presence of your partner, you are safe and can make different choices. Even when you disagree with your partner and you’re in a state of heightened emotion.
In EFT, the goal is not just to stop fighting or make all the bad parts go away, but to transform your relationship into one of deep connection.
With this deep connection, you will know (prefrontal cortex again!) and feel (the limbic system) that you have a safe and secure bond with your partner. When you do fight–and ALL couples do– you can come together and repair what has been broken. Growing a deep connection enables you to have vulnerability in your relationship so you can love and celebrate each other for the beautiful, authentic people that you are. You can enjoy being together.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Okay, but does this really work?” Great question. EFT is currently the only evidence-based modality for couples therapy, and is considered the gold standard for couples therapy around the world. Research on EFT is overwhelmingly positive, with 70-75% of couples moving from distress to recovery and 90% experiencing an improvement in their relationship. Research shows that couples who are treated with EFT often continue to experience improvements in their relationships even after they have ended therapy.
Not sure if you should go to couples therapy? Check out our FAQs about EFT here.
Are you curious and want to see if EFT is right for you? Reach out to Simi Lichtman, Practice Owner and EFT clinician, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (732) 355-3307. She will listen to your needs and pair you with a clinician.