You want connection with your partner. You want to be seen and cared for but somehow you feel misunderstood and lonely. No matter how hard you try, you feel trapped in this pattern of resentment and anger. Or, you feel blamed and hurt and the only way to cope is to hide and withdraw. You are exhausted from trying to fix the problem, and you don’t know how to end this pattern. You would like to keep that intimacy and connection that initially brought you together.
When partners become overwhelmed, it becomes hard to meet each other’s needs. In survival mode, it is hard to understand or be understood. Bids for attention can be misunderstood as cues of danger. Coping mechanisms that once helped can become patterns of fight, flight or freeze in the relationship; this can show up as blame or shutdown. In the safety of counselling, we can unpack what is causing this anguish and explore how both past and present exchanges may contribute to your stuck patterns.
For different partners, sex can have different meanings:
Sex leads to connection: “I need sex to feel connected emotionally with you.” Desire is more spontaneous.
Connection leads to sex: “I need to be emotionally connected before we can have sex.” Desire is more responsive.
When a couple struggles with sexual desire, it’s often not because there’s not enough ‘accelerator’ - the things that turn us on. Instead, it’s because there are too many ‘brakes,’ i.e., stress, trauma, body image and relationship issues. Differences in sexual desires can create a stuck pattern similar to the emotional cycle. Emotions and sex are connected, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is the ideal model to explore how this connection plays out in romantic relationships.
Instead of being stuck as an unwitting creator and victim of negative cycles, new patterns of reaching and responding can be created. Instead of isolation, angry pursuit or defensive withdrawal, secure bonds can be cultivated. Guided by empirically-based EFT, safety can be restored in your relationship to build more trust and connection. By learning how to share and what to listen for, partners can become more accessible, responsive and engaged.
What can we expect from therapy? Couples can expect to go through the Three Stages of Growth in EFT:
STAGE 1 - DE-ESCALATION
Increased awareness of emotional responses to stressors in the relationship
Identify negative patterns that keep the relationship in a cycle – “Our cycle showed up last night: I showed anger, you didn’t know what to do, so you pulled back. I felt alone and got more mad.” (See The More - The More Cycle below)
Unpack underlying emotions and experiences – “I show anger but I’m sad and scared inside. Or, I shut down because underneath I’m scared and don’t know how to get it right.”
Reframe problems from an attachment lens and emotional experiences - “I shut down last night because I was alone and scared and didn’t know how to reach you.”
STAGE 2 - RESTRUCTURING
Accept the good reasons of partner’s protective move and understand the costs of one’s own protection to the relationship – “I used to think… now I see that was how you cared for yourself and us.”
Share vulnerabilities, fears, and models of self – “I am flawed. I’m afraid you can’t accept me.”
Get acceptance and compassion from partner – “I accept you; I want you for who you are.”
Express needs from a place of vulnerability and ask for needs to be met – “I need your support and reassurance. I will make mistakes; can you see me and be there for me?”
Couples can be emotionally available, responsive, and engaged – “We don’t get stuck in our cycle anymore because now I know how to be there for you.”
STAGE 3 - CONSOLIDATION
Form new solutions to old problems – “I can still go to him when I feel scared. We can keep that closeness now. We can…”
Consolidate new ways of seeing self and partner in new cycle – “I can accept myself; I can accept you. You can go do what you need to do; it’s not a sign that you are not there for me anymore.”
"THE MORE - THE MORE" CYCLE
Go through the videos and paragraphs in order
We are always looking for the cloth: we want to be Seen and Soothed (validated, accepted, understood, loved); we want to feel Safe and Secure. And when we don’t get it from our partner, it is hard to take. In the nail video below, she is angry because she is looking for the cloth – she wants to be Seen and Soothed by her partner.
NB: Gender pronouns can be switched; they can go either way.
In the nail video above, when he tries to be there for her by giving advice, explanation or a new perspective, all she is getting is the wire. She doesn’t feel comforted or understood. She gets angry. Anger is her way to be Seen and Soothed. Anger is how she asks for the cloth.
But as one partner asks for the cloth, the other experiences the wire.
He hears a negative message of blame, judgement or criticism – that he’s getting it wrong or is not enough. He can’t accept her ask nor give her the cloth because he’s stuck with confusion and frustration. This frustration can become resentment.
He doesn’t see the nail, so he doesn’t know how to help other than minimize the problem or focus on the positive, which only makes her more angry because she doesn’t feel acknowledged or seen. This angers her which makes him withdraw to keep a safe distance and not make it worse. Because the more he tries, the more it lands as a wire on her. And the more she feels alone, the more angry she needs to be in order to be seen. Then the more he gets the wire because he’s never enough and the more resentful he gets because his efforts are not appreciated. This “The-more/The-more” cycle continues endlessly creating a helpless and hopeless pattern of frustration, anger and resentment for both partners.
When caught in this “The more/The more” cycle, there is constant rupture and little repair in the relationship. Both partners are living in a state of threat and defence. There is no space for rest and safety – the smallest non-verbal exchanges can become “danger cues” further intensifying this toxic cycle, making it harder to trust. In this next video, note how the absence of a non-verbal cue can be threatening.
Here are some short digestible podcasts that may be of interest:
In these two links, Emily Nagoski talks about Responsive and Spontaneous Desires and the ways in which our minds and bodies react to stressful situations -- the "accelerators" and "brakes."
If you’ve been anxious about sex, are struggling to connect to a long-term partner, or just want to understand yourself better, this episode offers lots of calm, informed, empathetic advice on how you can find your way.
A lot of what we ‘know’ about sex as a society is based on outdated research and cultural assumptions. Listen to Dr. Lori Brotto talk about her new book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness and explain some of our many misconceptions about sex, and introduce ways we can use mindfulness practices to feel more connected to ourselves — and to our partners — during sexual encounters.
By the end of this episode, you’ll learn concrete practices you can use to really tune into sex and make it better – regardless of your age or gender – and discover that pleasure is always there for you, if you can be there for it.
Still face – a look on our partner's face that spells d i s c o n n e c t i o n. Based on the seminal work by Ed Tronick, This podcast looks at what this might mean when we see still face when we're making love to our partner. We have to get curious about what is going on for the partner giving the still face. Could be their face actually is showing their performance anxiety, or going inward with their focus to try and get aroused. Maybe they don't realized that they've given their partner a message that they've disappeared. For the partner observing, we understand it can be unnerving. Maybe it feels rejecting or maybe this partner worries that it's a reflection on their bedroom skills. Listen as Laurie and George suggest ways to get curious and open up a conversation about still face.
Having your desire synced with your partner's may sound ideal, but rare in practice. Find out how to get back in the game when you are not in the mood.
Are you tired of having the same fight over and over? Would you like to discuss things without triggering your partner. Can you imagine that underneath your partner’s defense lies a hurt and even below that a need? George tries to help make it simple, in a nutshell there are three parts to how we react in a conflict – our protection, our hurt, and our need. Together, Laurie and George make sense of defensiveness and role play a different way to reach each other.
Borrowing concepts from the attachment theory, we dive into how sex and emotions intertwine by exploring the role of the Pursuer and Withdrawer…
While we don’t always fall neatly into a cycle, there is always a cycle, some level of interdependence. This interdependence can shift as patterns and is not concrete. A Pursuer can become a Withdrawer, or you might find that you were a Pursuer in an old relationship and a Withdrawer in your current relationship. The patterns are not your personality; they are a response to the complexity of sexual and emotional connections.
Understanding yourself and your partner requires intention but a balanced connection is worth the effort.