You’ve all probably had a couple that has come into your office with a significant issue that for any number of reasons feels outside the realm of EFT. Maybe you’ve asked, or wanted to ask, your supervisor about how to work with this issue, as in: how do I work with a couple where one partner has depression? Or when the couple has a child with a significant illness? Or when one partner has low sexual desire? Or when the couple is divided about finances? And you may have heard the answer: Put it in the cycle. And you think, Oh okay, yes, that makes sense. And then you scratched your head. Hmmmm…. Wait a minute… what does that really mean? And how do you do that?
You are not alone. Big issues like depression, sexual differences, or couples that present with a lot of tangled content issues can make us nervous, and often in our nervousness, we start to doubt the cycle, thinking the cycle isn’t going to help us with this one. And then, when we doubt the cycle, we lose our footing and our focus and it is a whole lot easier to get lost in content. OR we don’t simply doubt the cycle, we abandon it altogether, thinking this is bigger than our trusty cycle, and we start problem-solving, or we try to get the couple to compromise, or we lose the reigns completely and the couple in front of us gets heated and increasingly stuck in their tattered and destructive back-and-forth.
But hang on, you’ve got this. You do have an anchor, you have a map, and it is the cycle. These issues are not bigger than the cycle, they are not outside of the realm of the cycle, they are an immediate and hot example of the couple’s negative dance.
So start with what you know to be true–the knowledge that it is normal for partners to have different perspectives and ways of approaching things and that these differences can seem especially elephantine during a challenge or crisis. This isn’t news to you, although it may be for the couple. The problem isn’t that they have differences or challenges, the problem is that they can’t come together around these differences. They can’t negotiate them together–and negotiate is a good word here, meaning they can’t talk to each other, hear each other, understand each other, and also meaning that they can’t get through, traverse this issue together. The issue is that these differences cause distance and tension instead of closeness and understanding. Some couples can manage this same issue when it comes up in their relationship. The couple in front of you is stuck. That’s where you want to plug in. Ask yourself, what gets in the way of this couple negotiating this issue together?
Then, for added confidence, remind yourself of Sue Johnson’s words: In EFT, “the therapist is a process consultant.” (Johnson, Susan M., 2004.)
Ah, yes. You do have a map. A map that isn’t about who is right or problem-solving or cognitive strategies, but about process and yes, about being stuck in the cycle. It’s about how each partner’s vulnerable, primary emotions about this important issue, their partner, themselves, and/or the relationship aren’t getting shared. It is about what is getting shared instead (protection/reactive behavior) and how that is received and understood on each side. It is about how the two people in front of you try to handle/manage this issue–and all the feelings that come up around this issue– and how that plays out in the relationship.
So back to the original question about how do you put “it” in the cycle? You start with the assumption that this couple isn’t able to come together, heart to heart, vulnerable to vulnerable, around this issue. You start with acknowledging that the content is important, the issue is significant, and also with knowing that your role is not to solve the problem or to achieve a compromise, your role is to help this couple experience sharing from, and hearing with, their open and vulnerable hearts.
So you could start with, how do they talk about this issue? You could ask them the same question you asked yourself a little while ago, “what makes it hard to come together or hear each other around this issue?” And now you are off and running on unpacking the cycle and where they get stuck. You want to feel into and explore all the pieces of what comes up for each partner around this issue, and if and how they share all of these feelings with their partner. And then, if and how each partner receives all these pieces.
There are many ways to start to put this issue into the cycle; here are just a few:
“So I hear you, this is so incredibly hard for both of you. Can you help me with what happens at home when you try to talk about this together
“I feel how stuck you both are right now, and I’m sure you each have a lot of feelings around this. Can we start with what comes up for you as you bring this up right now?”
“I know these conversations are hard for you guys, and when things are hard for us, we tend to protect ourselves. I wonder, how do you protect yourself in these moments?”
“I am starting to understand how big this issue feels for each of you. Can we start with, who usually brings up this issue at home?”
“When you think about bringing it up at home, how do you feel?”
“How do you think that feeling comes out when you approach your partner or as you bring the issue up?”
“What is the first thing that happens for you (other partner) as your partner brings this up at home?”
“What other feelings come up for you as the conversation gets going?”
“Do you share all of your feelings about this issue?”
“How do you share these feelings?”
“Are there some feelings you don’t share?”
“Do you have a sense for what makes it hard to share those feelings?”
“What comes up for you right now as you think about sharing those other feelings?”
“How do you make sense of your partner’s reaction in these moments?”
“What is your internal narrative about yourself and/or your partner in these moments?”
“At home, can you stay in conversation around this issue?”
“What makes it difficult to do that?”
Really, as I am listing these questions, you can see that they are the same questions that you might start with for any beginning EFT session. And I guess that is the point. Even with couples that come in with a seemingly intractable issue, an issue that seems to be larger than the cycle, from an EFT perspective, the most healing will come from helping the couple to see and experience that it is the negative cycle that is keeping them stuck and distant when they want closeness and comfort and understanding. In the end, they may still disagree and the big issue they are struggling with may still loom large for them, but if you can help them be vulnerable and intimate with each other, and hence feel understood and loved, they will be better able to traverse it together.