Working with the Unemotional in Emotionally Focused Therapy By Sue Johnson, EdD on 10/27/10 - 9:33 AM

It is pretty clear from research that focuses on how change happens in therapy, that emotional engagement is essential for significant change to occur. This is true in individual therapy (for example, research by Castonguay and by Beutler ) and it is certainly true in couple therapy (research by EFT therapists like myself). So what happens in an intervention like Emotionally Focused Couple therapy when one person emphatically denies or avoids emotion? The Boy Code insists that men are at their best when they are strong and silent. So, it is not surprising that male clients tend to deny their emotions a little more often than their female partners.

Process of change research and over 30 years of the clinical experience of numerous EFT, suggests that in fact, this does not seem to be a problem in EFT. Men who are described as “inexpressive” by their partners at the beginning of therapy seem to do very well in EFT. Now why is that?

First, it’s because as EFT therapists we have a map for emotions. For example, there are only 6-8 emotions that everyone on this planet can read on another’s face and assign a similar meaning to. The main difficult emotions that come up in couple therapy are reactive anger, sadness, shame and fear of rejection and abandonment. If you understand emotions, you can help people make coherent sense of them. Once you and your client find the order and logic in an emotion, it is much easier to deal with and work with. Emotions are the most powerful music in the dance called a love relationship and EFT therapists learn how to shape that music and use that music to guide partners into new dance steps.

Second, EFT therapists are emotion detectives. They know emotions are wired into our brains and they have simple, safe, systematic ways of helping folks access and explore them. So, Jim will say in session 8 of EFT, “I used to think I was just frustrated, angry in these fights with my wife; but now I see that mostly I am afraid. It’s a relief to get this – to understand my own feelings and to be able to ask my wife for reassurance rather than stomping around the house in a huff or zoning out and withdrawing into my loneliness.”

Third, tuning into your emotions, especially your fears and longings and shaping these into new messages to your partner WORKS. It is what securely bonded folks naturally do. It pulls our partner close to us and this connection sparks little floods of the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, in our brain. The calm contentment and a sense of belonging that oxytocin induces is the ultimate reward for our kind – little bonding mammals that we are.

When folks tell us, “I don’t have emotions”, we know that this person is working very hard and stressing out his body to suppress his feelings, so we gently explore how and why he does this. He always does it out of fear to avoid being overwhelmed, feeling helpless or ashamed, getting rejected or abandoned. The trouble is that when you shut down your emotions, you shut others out and then you are ………… all alone. No-one wants that. So if you show folks another path to take and support them, they will take it. Even people who do have to shut down as part of their jobs, firefighters, policemen, marines and surgeons respond to EFT. Even traumatized partners who swim in the turmoil of emotional storms learn to order those storms and use their emotions to tell them what they want and need and so find direction in their lives and with their partner.

The traditional route to change in psychotherapy is the haloed “corrective emotional experience”. Without this, any therapy is just an intellectual mist that evaporates once a strong emotion hits. The EFT experience is that even the most seemingly “unemotional” among us respond to corrective emotional experiences of being reassured and treasured. Who can resist this ? Who wants to?

File under: Couples Therapy