Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How to increase connection with your partner

Hold Me Tight, one of the many useful books on couples therapy I’ve read, is written by Dr Sue Johnson, a leading proponent of EFCT (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy). She believes that the way to enhance, or save, a relationship is to re-establish a secure emotional attachment and preserve the bond between you, and her book offers a wealth of practical and emotional guidance on how to increase connection with your partner.

Johnson believes that we’re much more dependent on our partners these days, now that we live more in social isolation, and may not have our extended families nearby. When we feel secure in our relationship, we are less angry, more empowered, more able to be curious and open. If we begin to feel that our partner is unavailable or unresponsive, we react with fear, and in most cases we either become demanding and clingy, or we withdraw.

Seven conversations
Johnson teaches couples to have what she calls ARE (Accessibility, Responsiveness, Engagement) conversations, which are all about checking out whether your can reach your partner, and whether you can rely on them to respond to you emotionally. She identifies seven ARE conversations which can transform how a couple engage with each other. When I see a couple, I’ll be looking out for the negative cycles they get into, and Johnson’s first four conversations aim to help the couple limit these spirals. The fifth and sixth conversations focus on increasing emotional bonding, and the seventh shows couples how to sustain and build on their connection.

Limiting negative spirals
1 Demon Dialogues

Couples are encouraged to stay in the present and notice the circle of criticism they’re engaged in. The theme is probably one of the following:
Find the bad guy. They blame each other. Feeling angry and fearful, they attack before they can be attacked.
Protest polka. Couples get into a dance in which A reaches out and B steps back. Johnson points out the dance, and helps the couple to recognise it.
Freeze and flee. Both A and B step back, feeling numb and distant from the other. This usually occurs after some time has been devoted to finding the bad guy, and the protest polka.

2 Raw Spots

This refers to the wounds we feel when we’ve felt abandoned or criticised. They will often come from things that have happened to us in our past, and may be compounded by our current relationship, and crises in our lives. We need to acknowledge and soothe each other’s raw spots. We can tell a raw spot has been activated if the emotional tone of a conversation suddenly changes, and we feel like we, or our partner, may have reacted out of proportion. It’s as though an alarm goes off. Our body responds, putting us in survival mode, our intellect tries to work out what’s happening (am I safe?), and we react … If we’re angry, we may approach and fight, if we’re ashamed, we withdraw and hide, if we’re afraid, we flee or freeze or attack, and if we’re sad, we grieve and let go. Johnson encourages us to find and acknowledge the source of our raw spots, and to be open with our partner about our vulnerabilities.

3 Rocky Moment

This is about realising that your partner’s negative reactions, especially during conflict, may well be a desperate attempt to deal with their attachment fears. Johnson urges couples to de-escalate conflict to create emotional safety together. She suggests we stop the right/wrong game, and begin sentences with We rather than I/You. It’s important for us to stop blaming the other, to take responsibility for our own feelings and to ask our partner about theirs.

4 Hold Me Tight

What am I most afraid of?
Try to order, distil and share your experience so that it’s not so scary.
What do I most need from you?
Tell your partner. Be honest. Be able to know that you long for connection, and that you fear losing your partner. You want reassurance and comfort, and that’s okay.
Emotional connection reduces stress hormones like cortisol, and Johnson believes that each time a couple creates a moment of real connection, the bond between them grows.

Increased emotional bonding
5 Forgiving Injuries

Being hurt by those we rely on to protect us makes the trauma particularly hard to handle.
If one partner feels abandoned, they may try to ignore or bury the injury, but it doesn’t go away. Johnson stresses that these injuries have to be confronted and processed together through a healing conversation designed to promote forgiveness and reintroduce trust.
If A has hurt B, B expresses the pain they’ve felt, and A acknowledges the pain and their part in it. A expresses regret and remorse for the hurt caused. B asks for what they need to get over the hurt and pain. Together A and B create a new story that captures the injuring event, and describes how they confronted the trauma together and healed it.

6 Bonding – Sex and Touch

Sex is often the first casualty if a relationship is faltering. It’s worth noting that touch both arouses and soothes – it’s about both sex and attachment. The couple may be having sealed-off sex, which is all about the act, performance, prowess and has little feeling. They may be having solace sex, which is based on anxiety, a desperate attempt to feel close. Johnson helps couples to get to synchrony sex, when they’re in physical and emotional harmony, able to ask for what they want, both sexually and in the relationship in general. They can soothe and comfort one another.

Going forward
7 Keeping Love Alive

Johnson advocates regular ARE conversations. Couples need to agree how to get out of the dangerous areas that lead to demon dialogues, and to celebrate moments of connection when they occur. She suggests they create rituals around parting and being reunited, and share their dreams with one another, while forming a new model of being together. It’s helpful to separate attachment issues from practical problems that need to be resolved so that the practical stuff can be
discussed without attachment needs getting in the way.

It seems to me that Hold Me Tight offers a sound structure to help couples find, and keep, emotional connection. I use some of Johnson’s ideas in my couples work, and I have seen how they can help. With a bit of understanding and insight, we can ensure that our relationships mutually nurture and nourish us, rather than causing us pain. Her quote from Leonard Cohen says it all:

Dance me to your beauty
with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic
till I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch
and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love

Thursday, 4 April 2013

What is the meaning of life?

Well ... it's a big question, and here it's answered by a wise nine-year-old, via mindyourmind.ca, which is a place where youths and emerging adults can access information and resources. I thought it would follow on nicely from my last post on mindfulness, and I hope you enjoy it. I particularly liked this youngster's thoughtful, open-minded approach, and his ability to acknowledge that he might be wrong.