We’ve all been there… we’ve eased one partner down into some sadness or hurt and they bravely take the risk and share it with their partner, and… the partner can’t take it in. As EFT Therapists, we know to expect this—it is Stage 1 after all—we know we need to expect blocks to our enactments, to expect the negative cycle to kick up, to expect the unexpected. We know not to expect healing enactments in Stage 1 (we may facilitate lovely moments, but we know not to EXPECT them).
BUT we also know that if our couple could just take in/understand each other’s pain/hurt/sadness, they would start to shift this negative cycle between them, they would start to heal. And so sometimes we have the impulse to nudge the listening partner, to say something along the lines of “Can’t you see your partner’s pain? Right now, on this couch, he is crying and trying to tell you about his sadness, can’t you feel it?” It’s as if we think Maybe if I just point out the tears streaming down his face (because I guess she must have missed them!) a lightbulb would go off for her and change this moment. It’s as if we hope with our nudge she might say, “Ahh, yes, thank you, NOW I see the tears. Now I feel his pain.” After all, that pain is so clear to us! Why can’t she take it in?
But that’s the point. That’s the cycle. It isn’t clear to the partner. They can’t take it in. And our job in that moment is not to convince them of their partner’s side of the cycle. Our job is to get curious, to now to unpack and make sense of what is happening on this side of the couch. What emotions came alive for her as her partner turned to her? What did she hear/see/feel from her partner just now? What did she tell herself about those things? What (if any) alarms were going off for her? You could break her experience down into parts, i.e. part of you felt this, part of you felt that (more on “parts” in an upcoming post).
So fight that common and well-intentioned impulse to say some version of “Can’t you see your partner’s pain?” Because it will be like pouring lighter fluid on the negative cycle. Instead, lean in, get curious, and ask the partner to help you understand what is happening for them in this moment.
Read more about enactments in EFT in The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection (Johnson, S.M. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection. New York: Bruner / Routledge. – Second Edition of 1996 book.)
Becoming an Emotionally Focused Therapist: The Workbook (S.M. Johnson, Brent Bradley, J Furrow, A Lee, G Palmer, D Tilley & S Woolley (2005) Becoming an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist : The Work Book. N.Y. Brunner Routledge.)