What if you had information you could trust to help you transform the most important relationship in your life? Would you invest time and resources if you were sure it would pay off? In this series, we’ll share with you 10 steps to becoming happier, healthier, and stronger together based on Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the most successful and popular approach to couple’s therapy.
In previous steps, you have (1) built an alliance strong enough to face the patterns that come between you; (2) mapped your negative cycle; and (3) explored and vulnerably shared your deeper feelings. Once you have successfully completed Steps 1-3, you can take the next step to support each other in exploration and risk-taking to raise your relationship above its negative patterns.
In this step, we shift our efforts away from trying to stop or prevent our negative cycle, toward offering understanding, compassion and repair once our cycle inevitably emerges. Efforts to manage or prevent our cycle are generally unsuccessful, because patterns arise deeply within us, outside conscious awareness. When we try to prevent our negative cycle and fail, we end up feeling more frustrated, resentful, discouraged and even hopeless. We are more likely to think there’s something wrong with ourself, our partner, or our relationship.
Instead, in this step we practice accepting that we all have an active, essential instinct to protect ourselves, and that in protecting ourselves we often unintentionally—but naturally—hurt our partners. Accepting and understanding our own protective strategies, and how they impact our partner, is the path to repair and even greater connection. It is through repair rather than prevention that we generate increased feelings of closeness, safety, and understanding. Cycles naturally become less intense and frequent when we generate these positive feelings between us.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to rising together above your negative cycle. Each time the two of you find yourselves caught in your cycle, it is another opportunity to repair and gain deeper closeness and connection:
1) Notice the cycle has taken you over. Can you step above the cycle enough to feel compassion or curiosity? If so, call it out. Let your partner know you see you are both caught in the cycle, and ask if they would like to join you in facing it together to gain deeper understanding and compassion. Wait until your partner is also feeling curious and compassionate, and is ready to join you.
- Note: You may not be ready for this step if you find yourself telling your partner he or she is in the cycle, or pointing out your partner’s side of the cycle.
Tip: Try saying something like this if it feels genuine: “I think WE might be caught in our cycle together. This is important, and I’d like to look at this together as soon as we can both be clear-headed enough to be curious.”
- Wait until you both feel centered and ready before you continue to the next step. Consider waiting until before bed that night, the next morning, or a specified later date and time.
2) Taking turns, each person acknowledges how they were protecting themselves in the cycle. One might say, “I walked away and avoided you last night.” Another might say, “I got sharp with you.” When each person owns their own side of the cycle, there is a feeling of increased safety and mutual trust.
Note: You may need to back up and wait until you feel more ready if you find yourself saying, “I reacted this way because (or after) you reacted.”
Tip: Avoid reminding your partner of ways they reacted but didn’t claim.
Tip: Own as many of your own protective reactions as you can.
Tip: Maintain an accepting presence, keeping in mind that it is natural for each of us to protect ourselves under stress, and when we protect ourself it often unintentionally hurts our partner.
Wait until you both feel ready before continuing.
3) Each partner owns and shares their feelings while caught in the cycle, including their surface emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, feeling bad) and deeper, more vulnerable emotions (e.g, sadness, loneliness, fear, shame, despair). One might say, “I felt resentful, and underneath I felt sad and alone.” Another might say, “I felt angry, and underneath I felt scared you don’t care for me.” Now you are moving closer, leaning in to better understand yourselves and each other. This can be difficult and risky, and requires both partners to remain open, curious, and accepting.
- Tip: Be careful not to press your partner to share more or more deeply. Remain open and curious if they’d like to share more, and accepting if they have shared enough for now.
Tip: If it’s genuine, let your partner know you appreciate their sharing.
Tip: If you find yourself getting caught in a negative cycle again at any time, slow down, back up to a previous step, and if necessary, wait for a more centered time. Commonly in couples emotions remain too powerful to complete this step successfully on your own at first. If this is your case, don’t hesitate to get a couple therapist to support you.
Wait until you both feel safe enough to continue to the next level of sharing.
4) Next, each partner shows awareness of how their own protective moves impact their partner, thus showing compassionate understanding and taking responsibility for their part in fueling the negative cycle. One partner might say, “I get how when I withdraw from you, that you feel I don’t care, and protest in anger because it doesn’t feel safe to share that you’re scared.” The other might say, “I get how when I get sharp with you that makes you feel I’m disappointed in you, and that you withdraw to protect yourself from how badly that feels to you.“
By successfully negotiating this conversation, both partners likely feel calmer and more connected. The rupture caused by the negative cycle may feel repaired.
- Tip: Be sure to let your partner know that their protective strategies make sense to you, given your understanding of how your protective strategies impact them.
- Tip: If you find yourself explaining, defending, or justifying your protective strategies, you are likely caught in a negative cycle. Slow down, back up, and get a couple therapist to guide you safety and successfully through this process if needed.
5) Once you’ve made it this far, you have risen above your cycle together. Next, take advantage of this space to go further to generate even more positive closeness and connection. Now, each person makes themselves available to learn more about their partner’s deeper, more vulnerable feelings. As long as it’s genuine, each partner lets the other know they’d like to know more about their deeper feelings, and creates space to listen with curiosity and openness to whatever their partner might be ready to share. In sharing, a partner might let the other “in,” to experiences in their body (e.g., it’s a tight feeling in my chest), private self-talk, or memories from the past that go with their feelings. The partner who is sharing more vulnerably is responsible for letting the listening partner know what they need to feel safe and connected in sharing. The sharing partner might ask, “Will you hold me, and let me know you get me, and still accept me?”
- Tip: As before, it’s important not to press your partner to share more or more deeply. Remain open and curious if they’d like to share more, and accepting if they have shared enough for now.
Tip: There’s nothing to do here but be “with” your partner in their sharing, and respond to your partner’s request for comfort or reassurance in ways that feel genuine.
6) Finally, share appreciation for each other, for your relationship, and for any attempts and accomplishments you’ve experienced while going through this process. In doing this together, you are moving toward rising above your negative patterns, and creating a new, more positive future. With practice, and guidance as necessary, you can get there.
Would you like more information or support? We recommend Dr. Sue Johnson’s books Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2010) and Love Sense (2014). We offer low-cost, money-back guaranteed Hold Me Tight® couple workshops, as well as regular, weekly couple counseling and intensive couple counseling services. Here is a longer listing of recommended couple therapists in Montana, couple therapists around the US and internationally, and Hold Me Tight® workshops.