Emotions that Invite a Compassionate Response
Conflict in marriage is an unavoidable and often emotionally painful experience for couples, yet fighting can also indicate a healthy and passionate relationship. Unhealthy conflict is counterproductive and deteriorates unity between spouses; over time the emotional chasm produced can become a seemingly insurmountable challenge for a couple to traverse. Marital conflict often fails to address the underlying issue at hand for the couple, and for Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary underlying issue that drives couples to fight is insecurity regarding the couple’s attachment bond. Essentially, Dr. Johnson is saying that couples fight for all sorts of reasons on a surface level, but most often fail to recognize the source of their emotional intensity and reactivity.
As couples begin to engage in their particular pattern of conflict, what Dr. Johnson calls “their dance,” the couple will begin to react in fairly predictable and routine ways. At the center of their conflict is a shared fear over the instability of their bond, but the response to that fear may look very different for each partner. One spouse may distance from the other in order to avoid conflict and the potential toll that further hostility could have on their relationship. In response, the other spouse may pursue anxiously in order to resolve the conflict and to reestablish their bond. While seemingly opposite, these behaviors are attempts at addressing the same subtle yet powerful fear for the couple; a loss or degradation of their marital bond.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is empirically based, highly efficacious and has a low relapse percentage for couples who undergo treatment. The therapeutic model itself is collaborative and avoids pathologizing spouses or diagnosing individuals. The EFT therapist draws out the underlying fears held by the couple in a safe environment that nurtures emotional transparency and trust. When couples are open to one another about their deepest vulnerabilities, and fears, the invitation for a compassionate response from one’s spouses is established and most often attained. It is at this moment that the “source” of conflict for the couple is recognized in its triviality and the need to be right dissipates. What remains is a stronger emotional bond that leaves each spouse feeling more confident, less anxious, and more acutely aware of the emotional pain and vulnerability behind the reactions of their spouse in times of friction and confrontation.
Johnson, D. S. (2008). Hold me tight. London: Piatkus.