Tracking and Contrasting Emotion to Help Couples De-Escalate

Do you struggle with finding ways to help couples differentiate the secondary emotions and reactions – the ones we want to accept, reflect and validate – from the primary emotions – the ones we want to heighten, expand and encourage them to share? If so, read on…


The well-known graphic of a figure and ground known as Rubin’s vase is an apt metaphor for the juxtaposition of primary and secondary emotion: what we see depends on where we focus – and it’s all the more true for couples in the midst of conflict. The therapist’s task is knowing where to focus and helping the couple learn to do that in presence of strong emotion.

An essential early task in EFT is tracking the interactional cycle that maintains conflict and/or distance for couples. Partners are often largely unaware that when they experience painful primary emotions and affect states like hurt or loneliness, they often show their partner more critical or defensive reactions. In fact some clients are largely unaware themselves that under their secondary reactions of anger, criticism, etc. they are feeling more vulnerable primary emotions. It often helps therapists to conceptualize the secondary emotions and reactions as efforts to deal with primary emotions that seem too risky to share. It helps us develop and maintain empathy. But the partners also need to be able to distinguish secondary and primary emotions if they are to be successful in interrupting patterns and sharing the core emotions that point to healthy relational needs for security and acceptance.

Here are two ways the therapist can help partners gain an experiential awareness of the distinction and help them recognize how secondary emotions are often an attempt to cope with vulnerability inherent in sharing their primary emotions. Both examples relate to a fictitious couple, Janice and Al, who are four sessions into Emotionally Focused Couple therapy.

Al has just described how overwhelmed and inadequate he felt a few days ago when Janice expressed disappointment that he’d been so withdrawn lately. He acknowledges that his immediate impulse was to retreat physically or emotionally. The therapist carefully tracks the cycle with him, how it began and progressed: the trigger (her tone of voice), his perception (she’s disappointed in or angry with him), his behavioral response (to distance), his secondary reaction, (frustration, shutting down) and his underlying primary emotions (hurt and shame). The therapist reflects the process, taking special care to contrast the secondary and primary emotions:

Let me see if I understand what’s happening, Al. You heard the edge in her voice and it signaled danger, so you retreated to the basement in an effort to feel safer for the moment. On the way you even told her she needed to work on managing her anger, just like her mother. What you didn’t tell Janice was how overwhelmed and inadequate you felt at the prospect of hearing once again how you’d failed her. You tucked those feelings away and she didn’t have a chance to see your hurt, just your angry distancing. I wonder if you could stay with that hurt and self doubt here for a moment and let her see what’s happening under your retreat.”

You can see the therapist isn’t judging or even teaching Al to react differently, but rather tracking the process carefully, reflecting it to Al (and of course indirectly to Janice), connecting / contrasting the secondary and primary emotions and noting the attachment impact of the cycle.

Later in the same session, in response to Al acknowledging his self-doubt and anxiety, Janice accesses and labels her own primary emotion – her sadness about feeling so cut off from him. She then begins to express it to Al through an enactment, but in the process exits to secondary emotion, the anger she often expresses. She starts, “When I see you burdened and stressed out, I feel really concerned about you and how you’re feeling (softly). And I want you to let me in – I could help (a little more plaintively). It just gets so frustrating (voice rising and gaining an edge) that you feel you always have to go it alone. I don’t deserve to be so shut out of your life – it effects me too!”

The therapist notes the shift, reflecting first Janice’s sadness then noting the shift into anger. He might say, “Your eyes began to moisten and you sounded so sad as you described the gulf between you and Al, at the very time you’d like to be at his side and lend support, and then you shifted to anger. Did you notice it? Could you feel the shift as your indignation crowded out your hurt?”

This is an intervention that requires a strong therapeutic alliance and Janice’s trust that she isn’t being singled out for criticism. The in-the-moment recognition of how she deals with sadness by becoming angry is often a revelation to both partners. It also gives the couple and the therapist a sort of touchstone that can be returned to in future sessions when the cycle resurfaces or either partner struggles to stay with their more vulnerable emotions.

Until next time…


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