Enactments – pt. 2
Enactments are key to partners establishing and deepening engagement, so it pays to know when and how to use them for maximum impact, from the first session through stage 2. To paraphrase what Chicago ward bosses used to tell their constituents on election day, ‘vote early – and vote often’.
Stage 1 Enactments
It’s your first session, and during a brief moment in an otherwise high conflict exchange, one partner says, “It’s been really hard to get stuck in the same spot over and over again.” ‘Really hard’ is generalized and vague, but it’s an opening. Catching the moment, you say, “When the conflict as been so draining and near-constant, it must have eroded some of the best parts of your relationship. How do you tell her it’s been so hard to be stuck in such an arduous rut?” “I don’t, it wouldn’t make a difference and it would still end in a fight.” You say, “Sure, it would be a stretch to open up even a little bit when things have been so hot, so you keep it the feelings inside. Can you try something a little different, and tell her directly, ‘it’s been so hard, and draining, to keep getting stuck in exactly the same awful spot and how much you want to find a way out of it?”
It’s a small step, but you’re noticing and bringing out emotion. Since it’s an early enactment, you structure it carefully, scripting more than in later stages. You’re not asking them to take the risks that you will in later stages, but you’re slowing down the interaction. Even if the listening partner says, “Well it wouldn’t be so hard if you just showed up from time to time!”, it’s ok. Take a breath, then validate and put the response in their cycle, “ I get it; you’ve been locked in this pattern for so long that it’s not only hard, but almost impossible to slow down and hear each other’s hurt. Instead, it’s the anger that comes across and it pushes you away from each other”.
Stage 2 Enactments
These have a very different flavor. Partners are now able to identify and talk from primary emotion. The goal is to help them get to a depth of vulnerability they rarely express and they need your encouragement to get there. The cues are unmistakable: the change in vocal tone, the downward glance, a shift in posture, poignant images. They’re all openings to more tender emotions – often fear or shame – and you help them drop deeper into them. They’re de-escalated and ready for bonding events. Believe in them, it’s time to gently press forward.
You notice the heavy sadness in one partner’s face as she talks about how she keeps a protective distance and say to her, “This is the place where you’ve felt so hurt, but it hasn’t felt safe to show it, is this right?” She says, “That’s right, I’ve just never felt I mattered. I’ve wanted to say, ‘I need to know you still love me’, but haven’t been able to say the words.” You let yourself feel her sadness and the tip or her fear. It’s time to heighten more, using her words and images: “To feel like you don’t matter to him and not know to say it. It must be very lonely, like you’re in your own world, cut off from him. And if you try to tell him, you might get missed, so the words stick in your throat; you could fall without him there to catch you and it would be crushing.” She starts to tear up and you give her a moment to let her emotions catch up. Time slows down.
Her partner is watching, listening; you know he’s present and engaged. Quietly, you say, “His eyes have been fixed on you. Can you turn to him now, look in his eyes for a moment, and when you’re ready, talk from your heart about this dark, overwhelming fear?” She hesitates and you wait – emotions need time to work – lending your quiet presence. Eventually, voice breaking, she says to him, “When we met, I never let myself believe it would last. I never had anyone who said I was special. I finally let myself believe in you – in us – and then you started up with someone else. I felt like a fool to have ever believed. What is it about me?” You validate her courage for taking the risk to share her most vulnerable self. “That took a lot for you to put yourself out there like that. You didn’t give up or back down.”
Her partner seems stunned, glances down at the floor and searches for words. It’s time to bring alive his experience in the moment. Evoking and heightening, you ask, “What’s going on inside for you now as she shares with you this deep, raw hurt, her face full of sadness?” He says, “I don’t really know what to say. I know I’ve hurt her, but I’m not going anywhere without her.” You note he’s talking to you; he needs your help to respond to her with support and acceptance. Continuing the enactment you ask, “Can you turn and tell her you hear and see her hurt? And how much you want to ease her pain?” Finding his footing he says, “I know I’ve hurt you and I can’t forgive myself for it. I let you down and you deserve better”. Her body relaxes and she softens a bit. Keep the enactment going, “Tell her please, what it means to you for her to let you in in such a big way”. You can keep processing the interaction because these are moments of engagement.
Enactments are essential to creating bonding events in stage 2. Talking about sadness or shame isn’t enough. Partners need to talk from a place of vulnerability. After all, the block to re-engagement isn’t feeling sadness or fear, it’s being unable to safely talk about those emotions.
One of the biggest challenges in learning EFT is to continue heightening and expanding emotions when doing enactments. Trust the process, it’s easy to stop too early and miss the depth of emotion needed to heal wounds. Couples need our attunement and persistence to create the engagement that strengthens lasting bonds. Try it. Access and heighten primary emotion, then heighten even more. Now they’re ready to take risks.
Jeff Hickey, LCSW
Director Chicago Center for EFT