The approach used at the Sydney Couples Counselling Centre is emotionally focused therapy, developed by Dr Sue Johnson. It is based on the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with another person, which is no different from our need to sleep, eat, and find shelter. However, when we enter into conflict, we can fall into a cycle. No one is responsible for this cycle but rather they impact each other and the response of the one is the trigger for the other responding in the way they do. While every couple's cycle is a little different, there are 3 common patterns:
- Dial Up - Dial Down. One person may feel their partner is not there for them or is not engaging with them and so 'dials up' by becoming a little louder or being somewhat critical. It is done to try and regain the connection with their partner and make themselves seen and heard. The partner may find this uncomfortable or unpleasant and 'dial down' by withdrawing or shutting down, in an attempt to reduce the discomfort or protect the relationship from further harm. This in turn leads the other to feel their partner is drifting even further away from them and so dials up more, which in turn makes the other dial down further.
- Attack - Attack. Both partners are caught up in what can seem like a battle, with each person responding to the last attack with an attack of their own in a spiralling escalation of conflict.
- Withdraw - Withdraw. In this pattern, partners may not be fighting but the lack of engagement is the real threat. The feeling here can be one of drifting apart or like there is a big gulf between the partners.
While couples can fall into these patterns, they can also learn to get out of them. Emotionally focused therapy teaches a new way to relate to our partner. It teaches us to not only reduce the conflict but to also re-establish a close and intimate connection. The first stage of this therapy (cleverly referred to as 'Stage 1') focuses on stopping the cycle, as it makes the relationship feel unsafe, which in turn, makes us need to be protective and vigilant. The next stage (Stage 2) works at developing a new more collaborative way to resolve our differences - one that actually resolves them and that doesn't lead us into that awful old destructive cycle. Finally, we spend a little time ensuring that these changes continue long into the future, able to manage stress or hurdles that are faced (Stage 3).
DOES IT WORK?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that over 30 years of research has shown that emotionally focused therapy is the most effective approach for couples that are experiencing difficulties.
Studies have found that after completing the therapy, 70-75% of couples were no longer distressed and 90% had improved. This applied to everyone, no matter the level of severity of their problems when they started therapy. Even couples with the most severe of problems improved as much as those who had low levels of conflict!
More on emotionally focused therapy
Find out more on emotionally focused therapy by watching a video from Dr Sue Johnson, the creator of this therapy. She developed it in the 1980s when she started working with couples using the only evidence-based approach of the time - behaviour therapy for couples. Discontent with the results she was getting from this approach, she started video-taping her sessions and then watching the thousands of hours of tapes to try and understand what was at the core of her clients' conflict and distress. One day it clicked - these couples are fighting for survival. Nature has made us depend on our partner for survival and when this connection becomes lost or threatened we react - either shutting down to prevent further harm to ourselves and the relationship or pursuing the other person to try and re-establish this connection.