Models of mending


When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. Madeleine L’Engle

We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy. Walter Anderson

These three models come from my 40 years of research into intimate relationships. They are based on scientific evidence of their effectiveness rather than fanciful theories about relationships.

Short circuiting a couple’s impulse to oppose each other is a simple powerful tool.

It can take as many months to rebuild as years it took to create the mess.

Some folk have just carried relationship habits from their family of origin, straight on into marriage without review. Typically, that’s how mum and dad dealt with their differences. Or their opposite.

That’s a lot of months to undo.

And too many of us start building a family already charged up, like a storm set to go off with just the right set of differences.

Some relationships in trouble are stuck in guarded small talk, like they know they are in the middle of a mine field. Walking on egg shells?

Instead of avoiding the minefield, a kind, direct, respectful and compassionate honesty sometimes invites the other in. Allows each to breathe IN their partner’s experience rather than blowing it away.

This may pull for a compassion that for the first time makes sense of what had previously appeared alien. This is similar to the principles of tough love.

Maybe we have a choice to divorce the old wounds rather than divorce our partner?

Model 1 – Susan Johnson’s Emotion Focused Couple’s Therapy

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) developed by Johnson and Greenberg is founded in attachment theory. This is the model I work from. EFT is simple:

Forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection. EFT focuses on creating and strengthening this emotional bond by identifying and transforming the key moments that foster an adult loving relationship.

The core of Johnson’s application of attachment theory can be summarized as expanding Accessibility, Engagement and Responsiveness (A.R.E.) This questionnaire from her book ‘Hold Me Tight’ will begin to make that clear:

From your viewpoint, is your partner accessible to you?

  • I can get my partner’s attention easily. True or False?
  • My partner is easy to connect with emotionally. True or False?
  • My partner shows me I come first with him/her. True or False?
  • I am feeling lonely or shut out in this relationship. True or False?
  • I can share my deepest feelings with my partner. He/she will listen. True or False?

From your viewpoint, is your partner responsive to you?

  • If I need connection and comfort, he/she will be there for me. True or False?
  • My partner responds to signals that I need him/her to come close. True or False?
  • I find I can lean on my partner when I am anxious or unsure. True or False?
  • Even when we fight or disagree, I know that I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together. True or False?
  • If I need reassurance about how important I am to my partner, I can get it. True or False?

Are you positively emotionally engaged with each other?

  • I feel very comfortable being close to, trusting my partner. True or False?
  • I can confide in my partner about almost anything. True or False?
  • I feel confident, even when we are apart, that we are connected to each other. True or False?
  • I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts, and fears. True or False?
  • I feel safe enough to take emotional risks with my partner. True or False?

Understanding these three areas of applied attachment behavior, lead to the seven conversations described in her book that build a safe harbor for a lifetime of love.

The seven conversation are summarized here as:

  1. Recognizing Demon Dialogues
    In this first conversation, couples identify negative and destructive remarks in order to get to the root of the problem and figure out what each other is really trying to say.
  2. Finding the Raw Spots
    Here, each partner learns to look beyond immediate, impulsive reactions to figure out what raw spots are being hit.
  3. Revisiting a Rocky Moment
    This conversation provides a platform for de-escalating conflict and repairing rifts in a relationship and building emotional safety.
  4. Hold Me Tight
    The heart of the program: this conversation moves partners into being more accessible, emotionally responsive, and deeply engaged with each other.
  5. Forgiving Injuries
    Injuries may be forgiven but they never disappear. Instead, they need to become integrated into couples conversations as demonstrations of renewal and connection. Knowing how to find and offer forgiveness empowers couples to strengthen their bond.
  6. Bonding Through Sex and Touch
    Here, couples find how emotional connection creates great sex, and good sex creates deeper emotional connection.
  7. Keeping Your Love Alive
    This last conversation is built on the understanding that love is a continual process of losing and finding emotional connection; it asks couples to be deliberate and mindful about maintaining connection.

Emotions bring the past alive. The past validates present day fears, blocks and styles of relating, which then fuels conflict. If there is to be long-lasting change, emotions are engaged and activated in the creation of new relationship events.

The interactions of distressed couples are characterized by negative cycles where, for example, one partner pursues while the other withdraws. The therapist helps the couples reach for the underlying emotions that keep them stuck in those rigid positions and negative interaction cycles.

When attachment security is uncertain, a partner will pursue, fight, and even bully a spouse into responding to attachment cues, even if this has a negative general impact on the relationship. Sue Johnson

Using the notion of transforming emotion with emotion, the EFT-C therapist guides each partner to expressing emotions that pull for compassion and connection. EFT-C promotes soothing and helps clients deal with unstated and therefore unmet attachment needs.

Model 2 – Integrative Behavioural Couple Therapy (IBCT)

ICBT is an acceptance based couple’s therapy.

Fights stem not primarily from personal differences, poor communication skills or weak problem solving techniques, but mainly from a perception of loss of esteem.

Each mate must feel valued and honored by the other to feel safe and secure. Any behavior that threatens one’s worthiness evokes hurt and anger leading to self- justification, defensiveness, and sometimes attacks for self-redemption. The threat of being unfavorably viewed by one’s lover is so profound that it must be instantly rectified. Not mattering is an instinctual crisis of survival.

The methods one uses to urgently restore his/her esteem in the eyes of the beloved arise from a primitive reactivity that bypasses the logical mind. At that instant the individual is devoid of the capacity of seeing the other as a separate, precious beloved being. The partner is perceived as an enemy who seeks to destroy the hurt one. The speed of this response is so great that people often say, “I got so mad I could not see straight”. Indeed! This is how pairs, who truly love each other sometimes blur the boundaries between love and hate.

  • Realize that your mate’s perception of you is the most important opinion of all.
  • Appreciate that losing your mate’s esteem feels annihilating, thus must be immediately restored.
  • Understand that when your partner reacts in a harsh or extreme way to something you said or did, he/she may perceive being devalued by you.
  • Abstain from attempting to explain, justify or reason with your mate at the moment of his/her fighting gesture. Instead, realize that your beloved feels profoundly hurt by a perceived discount of his/her value and feel empathy for his/her pain.
  • Do not attempt to placate, withdraw your comment, apologize or attack back. Your spouse is in an acute crisis of lost esteem and is not open to an interactive exchange.
  • Respond with an affirming, positive and empathic (not patronizing) statement that can help your partner feel valued anew.
  • When you are the one experiencing the temporary panic of worthlessness restrain your reaction until your cognitive functions resume.
  • Make it a habit to have an ongoing culture of mutual appreciation, admiration and empathy to maintain the emotional security derived from knowing that you are both cherished and loved.

A primary conflictual theme may be: Mary feels unloved and Joseph feels suffocated. Mary may become distressed by a wide variety of Joseph’s behavior that triggers her feelings of being unloved: coming home late, spending time with his same-sex friends, watching ball games on TV. And Joseph may feel suffocated by Mary’s demands (Or were they really “requests”?) for more time together.

Rather than negotiate each of these behaviours, IBCT identifies the repetitive pattern, the “primary conflictual theme,” and teaches Mary and Joe how to resolve their suffocation/feeling unloved conflict.

Agreement on the primary conflictual theme helps to develop a “collaborative set,” an agreement that the problem is the way each partner relates to the other. The problem is not the behaviour of just one partner.

Instead of teaching couples how to avoid or solve arguments, as traditional counselling techniques do, the integrative therapy aims to make arguments less hurtful by helping partners accept their differences. It is based on a recent finding that it is not whether a couple fights but how they fight that can destroy a relationship.

The approach of integrative therapy is that rather than force change, partners should start by accepting each other’s differences and appreciating their individual sensitivities. Instead of backing partners into a corner by insisting on changes, this kind of understanding often leads to uncoerced changes that are more lasting and more in tune with each partner’s core personality and behaviours.

The main idea behind acceptance therapy is that acceptance of another person’s traits and behaviours often leads to compassion, and when partners learn to use compassion in dealing with one another, they tend to become more willing to let go of conflict and even change the troubling behaviour.

The psychologists suggest that partners in conflict work on accepting, even embracing, each other’s irritating behaviours and characteristics. ”To accept means to tolerate what you regard as an unpleasant behaviour, to understand its deeper meaning [and] see it in a larger context.

Model 3 – John & Julie Gottman

After 30 years of research into marriage John Gottman (who began his career as a mathematician) has shown that healthy couples almost never listen and echo each other’s feelings naturally.

Whether miserable or radiantly happy, couples said what they thought about an issue, and “they got angry or sad, but their partner’s response was never anything like what we were training people to do in the listener/speaker exercise, not even close”. Gottman

Bids for connection are the fundamental building blocks.

In a nutshell here is their model for a stable marriage.

  • Move Gridlock to Dialogue – teaching the couple to use basic compromising skills, avoiding crazy buttons that instantly escalate the argument (“You are just like your mother!”), and using video review of the couples’ arguments in the office are all important. However, since over 60% of marital problems are not solved, but managed, start talking about ways to manage these issues in the future, just like you manage a chronic illness like diabetes. The conflict is not about the topic they are discussing; rather, the real problem is some underlying or symbolic meaning, tied to a dream or fantasy of their future, that they feel they simply can not compromise on without invalidating their dreams.
  • Teach recovery after a fight – Gottman has found in his research that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced. You may not be able to teach them to avoid fighting anyway, and reflective listening skills (“What I hear you saying is…”) likely won’t help since no one uses them in a fight. Instead, the best bet is to teach them how to recover after a fight.
  • Teach six basic social skills recognizing (and avoiding) the 4 Horsemen: softening startups; accepting influence (especially for men); soothing physiological arousal (relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once they are upset, it may take over 20 minutes for the body to slow itself down to calm levels); recognizing (and responding to) repair attempts; compromise.
  • Effective repair is easier to accomplish when there are Rituals of Connection, or standard and every-day ways the couple connects and feels bonded to each other. This means decreasing negativity during and after fights, as negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.
  • Fade out the therapist – Gottman starts with 90 minute sessions, then eventually moves to once every two weeks, then month, and finally to “therapy checkups” to help the couple function on their own without the therapist, and avoid relapsing into previous problems.
  • Women are more likely to begin with Harsh Startups – an abrupt and negative introduction of an issue, while men are more likely to become Flooded and Stonewall, and to rehearse stress-inducing thoughts. Some (such as Rampage) criticize Gottman for not realizing that gender differences in most relationships make women less powerful, and thus more likely to begin an argument more harshly as a way to communicate “I can’t take it any more”; however, such criticisms often ignore why gender differences that leave men feeling they have to “Buckle down and take it” when arguments become emotionally overwhelming or even abusive to them. Quoted from this site where there is more.