The Key to De-escalation? Working Within and Between

Last month, we started EFT Advanced Core Skills series in both Minneapolis/St. Paul and Detroit and having the sessions just a week apart helped me finally clarify how to teach an essential element in helping couples de-escalate: In early sessions the therapist has to frequently and smoothly shift the focus from the cycle, to the emotional impact of the cycle, back to the cycle and so forth. It sounds simple, but requires deft balance between two different focal points. Think of a violinist, whose left hand moves quickly up and down the fingerboard, each finger precisely placed to produce distinct pitches, while the right hand holds a bow that often moves at a completely different pace. Left and right hands work together to produce the intricate beauty of a Vivaldi concerto. Not too unlike an EFT therapist’s dual focus on cycles and emotions.

In initial sessions, partners usually recognize the basics of their conflict cycle, especially how they get triggered by each other. They also usually talk about how frustrated or discouraged they’re feeling about the relationship. The harder part? Linking the two. In the recent Core Skills sessions we drilled on this theme a lot and here’s how we did it. We helped partners identify their cycle, note the emotional impact of the cycle, then as they talk about that impact we place it back in the cycle. And as we place it back in the cycle we focus anew on the emotional impact. Hear the shifting focus? As we alternately clarify the cycle and access primary emotions, couples get clearer not only on what they do, but also the emotions that both contribute to and result from their interaction. After all, while emotions fuel reactivity in the moment, that reactivity elicits more emotions and so forth. Often, the more challenging part is to help partners see the cycle while also accessing and identifying the primary emotions that help feed the cycle.

It might look like this. Hal talks about the lack of quality time he has with Brenda and how when he brings it up she usually defends and responds with her own complaint about needing support with the kids and other tasks. Brenda then describes feeling burdened by a demanding job plus most of the parenting responsibility and that she harbors resentment about not getting more help – a very typical cycle. The therapist starts by noting the between with a basic description of their cycle: When Hal asks for more one-on-one time, Brenda feels criticized and defends herself, but then follows up with a complaint of her own about being asked to give even more while still needing his support. Hal then feels blamed and believes his wish for more connection is unheard or even unimportant to Brenda.

Considering the impact of the cycle on each partner, the therapist begins to subtly shift to within. He might ask Hal, “How has it felt to wish for more contact with Brenda while doubting your importance to her?” Or he might ask Brenda, “Can you say more about that burdened, lonely feeling, when you’ve asked for, but not gotten the support you’re needing?”  Better yet, the therapist does each in turn, helping each talk in more detail about where they hurt, emphasizing experiences of feeling unimportant to or not accepted by the other.

They’re beginning to express a little of the primary emotion that’s so often hidden in conflict cycles and now it’s time to shift back to the between. Important as it is to acknowledge these primary feelings, the focus shifts to what they do with them? So the therapist asks Brenda, “What do you do with your lonely, burdened feeling? How do you talk about it with Hal?” When she says she’s given up on that because it just led to more conflict, the therapist places her unshared hurt back in the cycle. “As you’ve given up on expressing your hurt and loneliness, you show more of the resentment and Hal no longer hears you needing his support. Instead he sees what looks like a sort of wall between you.” As Brenda experiences the hurt in the moment, she’s beginning to experientially appreciate that while dealing with it by shutting it away helps her cope, it likely makes it harder for Hal to see it. And Hal gets a glimpse of the hurt side of Brenda – not just the frustration that often disguises it.

Later on, the therapist places Hal’s rejection and loneliness back in the cycle. “As Brenda feels unsupported, you start to push harder for a response, to feel like you matter. And what’s happening for you behind the pushing?” Hal says he knows he sounds critical, but in addition to the frustration starts to feel bad about himself, wondering what it says about him as a husband. The therapist reflects his self-doubt and hurt while again, placing it back in the cycle. “I guess pushing might be your way of dealing with the doubt about your importance to Brenda. It’s hard to tell her directly, so instead you push and criticize, which just increases the tension and distance between you.”  Once again the emerging primary emotion gets heard and experienced by both partners, shedding some light on the conflict cycle.

By maintaining a focus on both the cycle itself and the emotional impact of the cycle partners are gaining clarity about their conflict pattern and how they typically deal with it. They’re hearing – and more importantly, experiencing – the distinction between the vulnerable primary emotion they feel, but often don’t express, and the secondary reactions of blame and retreat they typically see in each other.  The rewarding part for me is that it not only helps me makes sense of their conflict cycle, but they’re getting it as well.

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