“It’s hard to see the light when you can’t find the tunnel,” my patient Dylan said during a recent session, questioning whether he and his girlfriend Anya would be able to find a way to bridge their differences. This post outlines my work with them, guided by the principles of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is a treatment approach for couples grounded in over 30 years of research on love and asserts that we are relational by nature and built biologically to seek connection. However, just because we are capable of connecting doesn’t mean we are able to as evidenced by our rising divorce rate. In fact, many of us struggle in knowing how to connect and in being able to repair the inevitable disconnections when they arise in our relationships. Rigorously researched, EFT is an empirically validated treatment approach in which 7 out of 10 distressed couples who undergo this type of therapy get better, giving us reason to believe that we can not only see the light but the entire landscape, providing us with a road map for creating the kind of love that lasts.1
Poets, writers, and musicians have long exalted the mystery of love, likening it to all things mystical, magical, and unexplainable. The poet Ranier Rilke in the poem 'Love Story' describes it as a state of merger and implores his lover to see “…everything that touches us…takes us together like a violin's bow…[and] draw[s] one voice out of two separate strings.” More recently Ed Sheeran in his hit single 'Thinking Out Loud' reminds us “people fall in love in mysterious ways” and “maybe it’s all part of a plan” evoking existential notions of love. These beautiful but impossible to achieve ideas have imprinted upon us the sense that love is something that happens to us, not something that we create.
For those who of us who somehow manage to mysteriously fall in love, there’s even less understanding of why people stay in love. Fairytales are no help here. They end where the process of learning to make love last begins. Country songs provide more guidance but frequently they are directed towards love after it ends. In particular, after the husband who’s been left for a more doting lover is drinking too much, with remote still in hand, wondering what went wrong.
Unbeknownst it seems to writers and poets, the last 30 years has led to a burgeoning of research in the science and the psychology of love, demystifying what it is. Love is not capricious or ephemeral. In fact, it is a highly evolved emotion that is hard wired into our brains. During moments of deep connection our brain releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It’s what helps us to continue waking up every three hours to nurse our infants and the high we feel lying close to our partners as they stroke their fingers through our hair or when we feel deeply understood by them. Such findings lend credibility to what psychologists studying attachment have known all along. We do not seek novelty in love, what we seek is emotional security, which can only occur in committed, loving relationships. With half of us divorced and that number steadily rising, maybe we ought not to follow Ed Sheeran in his suggestion that he’s “just going to keep making the same mistakes,” and instead find ways to learn from our mistakes, to deepen our connection to our partner and to create the kind of love most of us have sought in our life but has seemingly eluded us.
“Dylan’s parking,” my patient Anya says to me as I crane my neck into the waiting room searching for her boyfriend. “We drove separately today.”
I’d been working with Anya and her boyfriend, Dylan, for six weeks. They had been together for nearly two years. Both divorced, with kids, careers, families, and ex-spouses, they struggled to find time to see each other, and in the last few months found themselves fighting much more. In our first session, Anya had brought up an incident she felt captured how she felt. “It was Sunday morning. We were having sex when his daughter kept texting and asking him to take her to the soccer field to kick the ball around. Mom wouldn’t, could he? It wasn’t an emergency and it wasn’t his weekend. I wanted him to say no. He didn’t. He couldn’t focus and left abruptly. I felt confused about what had happened. I thought maybe it was me. It was early on in our relationship and I hadn’t realized then how responsible he felt for his daughter and for meeting her every desire immediately.”
Dylan had been divorced for four years. He had initated the divorce. Still guilt ridden he had trouble saying no to his daughter. “I don’t want to disappoint my daughter or do anything that would upset her,” he had said in response to Anya. “Most women I have dated cannot understand my relationship with my daughter. She’s my priority and nothing is going to get in the way of that.” He felt he had to be available to his daughter whenever she needed him and that not doing so would undermine his relationship with her. As a result, he would change plans with Anya last minute if something came with his daughter. “I need Anya to be more understanding. My daughter is 15 and she’s going to go to college soon. I want to spend whatever time she wants to spend with me, even if it’s not my weekend. I’ve been trying to make Anya more a priority, but I can’t seem to get it right with her.” While Dylan’s desire to please his daughter is of Herculean proportions, he also treats Anya with a similar devotion. Recently, after she left for work and he stayed to take a conference call, he washed her dishes, made her bed, and noticing she was out of milk ran to the store to replace it. In his mind he tries to compensate for what he can’t give Anya more of, himself, and feels criticized when despite all his effort she gets upset when he changes plans or cancels for his daughter.
Settling into the couch Anya tugs on her lips as she sometimes does when she is nervous. She begins with some hesitation, “Dylan had taken his daughter for spring break to visit his sister in Washington. He didn’t invite me because having me around makes his daughter uncomfortable. While he was away he was busy with his family and I didn’t hear from him very much. When he got back he was supposed to come straight from the airport. I was excited and ready to surprise him in lingerie but he texted me after he landed that he was going to go home first and clean up. It took him a few hours to come over so I had changed before he arrived. Not long after coming over he began texting his sister who had not been getting along with his mother. As the day progressed he seemed distracted, watched the highlights of the Masters on T.V. and continued to text his sister. As I was saying to him I wish you would turn your phone off his sister called and he picked it up. I hit the roof. I said things to him I wish I could take back. I told him to f--- off. I don’t think he felt his behavior was rude, so I wanted to provoke him. He was quiet and not responding. I was hurt and he added salt to my wound with his silence.”
We fight because attach, which we are biologically wired to do. In the animal kingdom the zebra that strays from the pack is bound to become someone’s lunch. Connection with the pack creates security and ensures survival, while disconnection can be a harbinger of death. We humans have a similar need to connect. The negative downward spiral we see in couples stems from feeling emotionally disconnected from our partner. When we feel disconnected, some of us, like Anya, protest loudly and in ways that pushes our partners away, often when we need them the most.
In the still face experiment, psychologist Dr. Edward Tronick videotaped parents playing with their infants. As the parents laugh and talk with their children, the infants respond by gurgling, cooing, and smiling in response. When researchers instruct parents to become still faced and not respond the infant quickly picks up on this and attempts to re-engage the parent by cooing and pointing, things that the parent had been responsive to in the past. With continued unresponsiveness from the parent the infants screech, scream, and display negative emotions such as frustration and anger, some eventually turned away, withdraw, and become quiet, feeling powerless to affect their parents. It’s difficult watching the infants squirm as the parent following the researchers' lead continues to be unresponsive.
I imagine most of us feel concern for the infant who is being stone walled and are empathic to their remonstrative wails directed towards trying to get their parent to re-engage. A similar pattern occurs in love relationships but when it’s our partner who is screaming at us because of the disconnection they feel we don’t feel quite as empathic. In such moments both partners are likely to feel defensive, with their armor up, unable to hear each other over the clanging of their protective covering. In some couples the pattern we see is similar to Anya and Dylan. Anya, the protesting partner, is likely to feel desperate, abandoned, and not important, leading her to respond to Dylan’s silence with anger. The withdrawing partner tends to respond like Dylan does by retreating. Hearing Anya’s frustrations as criticisms that he hasn’t been able to please her, he pulls away. It’s difficult for him to stay present when he feels attacked, as he withdraws Anya becomes more frustrated and attacking. Unlike Dylan, other partners might attack back which leads both of them to blame and criticize the other, with neither feeling understood by the other, both escalate trying to prove their point and attempting to show the other person why they are wrong. In other instances both partners may be withdrawn, with both having emotionally left the relationship a long time ago there is little left to fight about.
But there is some good news here. The problem is not you (Phew!). But neither is it your partner (Sorry!). There are no bad guys here. The problem is the negative cycle of relating that couples get stuck in.
Directing his attention towards me Dylan says, “I don’t understand what happens. Anya goes from 0 to 60 in under five seconds. One minute we’re having a great time and laughing, the next minute something comes over her, her mood shifts, and she’s gone from fun to furious.”
Imagine you have a broken arm and someone brushes past it, nailing you right where it hurts the most. It might send you shrieking in pain, even though the offense is unintentional. In relationships we also develop parts of ourselves that are raw and at times unbearably sensitive. We all have them. We develop them as a result of interactions in our current and/or past relationships. They’re the invisible wounds we accumulate, because we are human, we feel, we hurt, and we bleed. And when triggered, sometimes these wounds bleed all over our relationship. You know you’ve chafed one of these spots when you find yourself overreacting, or find your mood shifting radically and rapidly, like Anya does. Anya has a history with Dylan of him changing plans or not knowing till the last minute if and when he can meet, which has led her to feel like she is not a priority to him. She also grew up in a family in which her parents were unable to be attend to her and left a 17 year marriage in which she felt invisible to her husband. As a result, she’s hypersenstive to even minor offenses. “I don’t ask Dylan to give up time with his daughter, but when he makes plans with me I want him to keep them and when he’s with me I want him to be with me. When he spent the time we had together texting and talking to his sister, who he spent the week with, I felt invisble. Once again I was reminded I’m not important to him.”
Raw spots are mutual offenders. When ours are irritated, we act in ways that chafe our partners’. Growing up Dylan’s father wasn’t around much. He left early for work and returned late. His father died young and Dylan has always longed for a closer connection with his father. As a result, Dylan puts a lot of pressure on himself not just to be a loving, available father, but a father that puts his daughter’s needs above all else, including Anya’s and his own. In addition, Dylan felt his ex-wife was critical and verbally abusive towards him and when Anya’s raw spot of not feeling important is triggered, she says things to him that remind him of his marriage in which he felt trapped and verbally attacked. As he withdraws, feeling emotionally bludgeoned, it further chafes Anya’s raw spot that she’s not important enough to stay present for. Her choice words said to get a rise out of him like “F--- you”, lead him to feel more unappreciated, unloved, and rub against his raw spot. During heated moments he walks out leaving Anya to stew, which further enrages her. The negative spiral that leads them to fight stems from their raw spots being chafed, leading them to feel disconnected from each other, and when both of them feel emotionally abandoned and misunderstood, they begin to question why they are together in the first place.
“It’s hard to see the light when you can’t find the tunnel,” Dylan says holding his forehead in his hands.
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again,” I overheard my daughter singing with my neighbor’s three-year-old. Listening to them with older ears made me wonder why we teach our kids such depressing nursery rhymes, especially ones that don’t teach them much about resilience. But luckily you’re not an egg, and neither is your relationship, which unlike Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.
Taking a deep breath Dylan continues, “There are things in our relationship that I hold myself responsible for. Like the first time I told you I loved you and left soon after, in your words bolted, because my daughter had a game. I let you drive home after we’d been drinking because my daughter wanted me to take her to get a Brazilian blowout. I often wouldn’t know till the last minute if I could get together and change plans if Rhea needed anything. But that hasn’t happened for a few months. I’ve tried to change, but your reaction creates pressure for me to do the right thing all the time. I know you want someone who treats you like their priority and I’ve tried but I feel what I give you is never enough. I try to understand your needs and wants, so I want the same in return not someone who tells me to go ‘F’ myself because they don’t feel they are not getting my attention for a small moment in time as I deal with a delicate and timely matter. Your over reacting has not just happened once, but on several occasions, so there is an obstacle here which we are not able to be overcome.”
Anya softens initially, she’s hurt, and he acknowledged her pain, but then she crosses her arms hardening again, as he shifts from being vulnerable to more angry and accusatory. I add looking at Dylan, “You have tried very hard to please Anya but feel terribly caught between Anya and your daughter, and no matter what you do, you feel like you can’t get it right. You put a lot pressure on yourself to make her happy and you’ve tried in different ways to show her how important she is to you. But there’s a part of you that wants to give up because you feel exhausted and that no matter what you do it won’t be enough.” I notice tears roll down his cheeks and Anya reaching for his hand, seeing his vulnerability allows her to lower her guard.
She stays with his struggle, and recognizes she need to find a better way to express her anger, and that she needs to learn to lean into him with hurt, not rage. “My words ‘f--- you’ felt like nails on a coffin to Dylan,” she says quietly, “And I might need a crowbar to fix this and maybe gorilla glue to seal my mouth shut when I’m angry.” Speaking to him directly she says, “I lose track of my love for you in these moments. Who you are. How hard you’ve tried to gain my love and approval. You even read Beowulf because I like it. You’re not even a reader. I want to learn to give you more of what you need and to be more patient. I know how caught you feel between Rhea and I. And I know you’re trying. I also know how cutting and hurtful my words can be. I’m sorry.” She added she hadn’t been aware of the urgency Dylan felt about responding to his sister. Since he had been with her all week she figured it was something they had already discussed while there. She asked him to include her more in what he is doing, rather than reading his texts and responding on his own. “Communicating what was going on would have helped me to better understand the urgency you felt,” she adds pulling him close to her.
By the end of the session, Dylan is able to acknowledge his contribution to what occurred but still seems puzzled as to why Anya gets so upset with him even after all the nice things he does for her. In response I suggest, “Bringing in Anya’s trash cans and mowing her lawn are wonderful gestures and ways of showing her how much you care, but they don’t compensate for her need to have the person she loves pay attention to her, and to make her a priority.” Noticing their arms wrapped around each other I add, “When we are able to meet each other and understand each other at a deep level, that kind of connection feels like what you are probably experiencing right now. It’s like a warm blanket that comforts us on a cold, dreary night, and that kind of intimacy requires time and attention like you both gave it today.”
As a couple, identifying the negative spiral you have gotten stuck in and the raw spots that are contributing to it, allows you to understand your partners deeper emotions and vulnerabilities, and to not react to their surface emotions, like anger. In the 2015 Disney movie Cinderella, the narrator wisely encourages us to take off our armor and to remember, “the greatest risk any of us will take is to be seen for who we truly are.” Sharing our fears and hearing our lovers’ allows us to lean into each other and begin the work of creating safety in our relationship, leading us to reach for each other in a way that doesn’t lead the other to pull away or attack back. In safe relationships we are able to reach for each other in a way that allows us to stay present, engaged, and responsive, and when we are unable to do so we can repair the disconnection by tuning into each other and healing the hurt feelings.
After proposing to Jenny several times, the love of Forrest Gump’s life, and her repeatedly saying no, he finally asks her, “Why don't you love me, Jenny? I'm not a smart man but I know what love is.” We are finally catching up to what Forrest seems to have known along: Love is not mysterious. We can understand it. And repair it when we break it. When you pick up a book to read you assume the implicit risk that as you turn a page you might get a paper cut, maybe even the worst paper cut of your life. Likewise, in a relationship we might get hurt or wound our partner, but that’s not the problem. Just like a paper cut is inevitable if we read enough, hurts and wounds are inevitable if we relate enough. The problem is that we don’t do the work of healing those wounds that lead to disconnection. We have been told we just need to find someone who fits us, and preferably perfectly, then we will live happily ever after. Such ideas have done us a great disservice because all relationships romantic or otherwise require some work. Perhaps what we need to ask ourselves is not will I ever find someone who fits me, and instead roll up our sleeves and ask ourselves who do I want to do that work with, to create the kind of love that lasts long after the happily ever after.
1Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, has written numerous books including 'Hold Me Tight' and 'Love Sense'. This post is based on her findings.