Ok EFT people, brace yourselves. Whenever I talk about Terry Real, the bad boy of modern couples therapy, my EFT colleagues look at me aghast. “But he’s harmful and shaming!!” and maybe even worse, “He uses a behavioral approach!!!” Yes, yes, I know. I’m not running away with him, guys, I just want to talk about his style. And also why over and over I see that EFT is the best approach for me.
One commandment of EFT is that we don’t weigh in. We don’t tell our couples who’s right, who is doing the wrong thing, who needs to change and how they need to change. This commandment can challenge me to the brink of my sanity, when I desperately want to just cut through all the gentle, slow, tracking and validating and say, “Argh! Stop telling her to lose weight!” or “My God, of course he needs to be able to spend time with his kids!”
Terry Real does weigh in, in a very big way (you can read a client's perspective and interview with him here). And this is where Terry Real becomes my fantasy unicorn. I can go into full daydream mode of coming in with the sword of truth and cutting through all the nonsense and telling my couples what is True and to Stop It. Mmmmmm, doesn’t that feel good, just for a moment?
Of course, then I come back to my path, and I remember that 1) there is no Truth, and 2) swords hurt. It’s been so educating and surprising to me that over and over I hear my couples tell me they stopped going to a previous (non-EFT) therapist because that therapist weighed in and got blunt with one of the couple. And amazingly, speaking to the power of attachment, the more validated partner doesn’t like it either. They don’t like seeing their partner skewered, even by a relatively benign comment. They want the room to be safe for them, too, even when they’re hopping mad.
As EFT has been sinking into my bones, it has created an irreversible empathy for my clients. Of course that wife is yelling and lecturing, she is absolutely terrified of losing her partner. Of course he is hiding in the garage, he has no idea what to do to soothe his angry partner, and he feels terrible about himself. With my clients from traumatic childhoods, it makes sense as well. Not only do they have hair-triggers around being abandoned or having their partner become the least bit unpredictable or unstable, they often haven’t had anyone help them cope with these monumentally intense emotions.
Also, when I have, in moments of desperation, reached for a behavioral instruction for one partner I immediately get a pie in my face. As soon as I say, “could you try to tell her why you’re leaving the room in the moment?” I am putting a huge log on the fire of their cycle. He won’t be able to do it at home when he’s getting flooded, and she’ll get more ammunition for how he’s failing. Even thinking about those moments right now makes me want to hide in shame. (side note, learning sucks)
I truly have seen a difference that the softer, more empathetically I validate, the more I can calm down my couples. They aren’t acting this way because they want to be jerks, they’re acting this way because they truly are in their primal panic. And the EFT way does take time. It takes multiple sessions of validating and tracking for the couple to start to believe their partner doesn’t want to harm them. It takes time for people to start looking at themselves and owning what they’re doing that contributes to the cycle.
I got the chance to volunteer at an EFT Externship last week with the great Lorrie Brubacher as the trainer. She did a live session with a couple who had a challenging pursuer. It was amazing to hear in my small groups how very few had empathy for the pursuer. One student asked, “At what point are you going to tell her she’s being hostile and she has to stop?” And I could feel how different I am, just a year out of my own Externship, because I could see how desperate, and how lonely this pursuer had become. It’s much more automatic to want to shut down someone who sounds harmful, and force their face into a mirror to see themselves. It is a new kind of thinking to reframe everything with attachment significance, and really move into validating the anger.
I wish I could tell you that with this empathy awareness I handled all of this perfectly in session every time, of course I don’t. But I have witnessed the incredible power of empathy using EFT, and don’t want to go back. So don't worry, I’m staying married to Sue Johnson for life. But every now and then I might still indulge in a tiny therapist fantasy about Terry Real.