I often see couples who have been through counseling before, either in their existing relationship or in previous ones. If they had a decent experience in couples counseling, their verdict is typically something like this: “It was fine; we learned some communication tools. We tried to change our behavior, but things just went back to the way they were.”
Couples like this arrive in my office because that previous relationship failed or they are back to the same patterns they were experiencing when they sought counseling before.
Many counselors focus on communication skills under the premise that improving communication between the partners will lead to fewer fights and better understanding of one another.
There is some truth to this. The Gottmans, two world-renowned psychologists and researchers, have actually shown how the presence of 4 communication patterns can be used to predict a couple’s likelihood of divorce.
But the problem is that most of us already have a lot of practice communicating. If you’ve been in school, had friends, worked for a boss, dealt with customers –basically if you’ve existed – you’ve learned some communication skills. You get a sense of what makes people defensive, what pleases others, how to comfort someone, etc.
The real issue between couples is not the communication skills – it’s the connection. The connection feels weak, either from too much distance or too much conflict, and this causes the partners tremendous pain, fear, and frustration. When we are overwhelmed by intense emotions or feel numb because we’re too distant from our partner, we don’t use the communication skills we know. When we’re furious or devastated by our partner, we don’t want to be kind, we don’t want to listen before responding, and we don’t want to think about the other person’s perspective. We are too mad, sad, or confused and we move into self-protection.
Since this is the way we work, then focusing on communication skills is putting the cart before the horse. It’s dealing with the symptoms, not the cause. The key is helping couples feel more connected and emotionally safe with one another so they will want to communicate more openly, less defensively, and with empathy.
Improving the connection between partners is the primary goal in Emotionally Focused Therapy, and this is why I believe it is the most effective method for developing stronger, more fulfilling relationships. For more information on how an EFT therapist helps couples improve their connection, click here.