Betrayal and The Protective Part

I’ve been getting more clarity around the protective part of clients I see, and wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts. Those of you familiar with Internal Family Systems (IFS) will immediately know what I’m talking about. You can learn more about IFS here

IFS explains parts in more detail, which I won’t go much into here, but for today’s purpose it helps to know we all have a protective part, and it protects us from our wounded part getting hurt again. Often times wounded parts, or “exiles”, are born in childhood, and are quite young and frightened inside of us. I see this a lot in clients who have trauma triggers in their current relationship, but the trauma is from their family of origin.

What I’m becoming more aware of, though, is a wounded part born out of adult betrayal and a unique protective part that emerges. I’ve had several couples where there has been a massive betrayal/attachment wound. And there seems to be two main ingredients that create a very unique protective part:

1)  A betrayal that cut to the very core of the person, that involved Partner B making a series of decisions that made Partner A feel profoundly unsafe. I think all betrayals are going to cause a ton of awful emotions for Partner A, but these are ones in which Partner A felt that their safety and wellbeing, financial stability, something core to their safety was intentionally put at risk by their partner.

2)  The client feels they betrayed themselves by not being more aware of what was happening. The client lost their ability to trust themselves. This may be because they weren’t aware of something huge happening, or because they had an inkling and didn’t stop it. Sometimes clients will say something like, “if I were to trust and then get hurt again, I honestly don’t think I could forgive myself, I couldn’t even live with myself.”

When these two combine, it’s like the protective part almost completely blocks soothing from the other partner. This protective part says, “You were too stupid to protect yourself before, now I won’t budge an inch.” And of course, it’s completely devastating and exhausting for their partner. Battling any protective part, as a therapist or loved one, feels impossible. 

I am still feeling out how to work with this part, but I’ve found two ways that are helping me get a little wiggle room. The first is to honor the protective part. This sounds like validation, but it’s more specific. I’ll say something like, “I want to honor this protective part that’s coming up right now. It’s understandable it’s here. Like you said, you are so angry at yourself for not catching this sooner. So this protective part is here now, saying, I won’t let you not catch this again, I won’t let you be asleep again.”

The second way is to ask where their true self, or other part is. Is it behind this protective part? Can they feel that other part? And feel out what it’s longing for. All the while, I never push that too much. If the protective part senses I’m trying to get it to drop it’s defenses, it will roar back to life. So I’m always trying to dance between the two. 

My final thought with this is that I don’t know if it’s safe for the client to trust again. So I don’t ever want to push or lead a client to trust if their system is truly sensing that they may be betrayed again. I want to be on the leading edge, with the purpose of the client really feeling out if they want to trust again.

Wedging Through The Shame

One of the most valuable pieces I’m taking away from the Kathryn Rheem and Jennifer Olden Video Café is how to work with shame, and the negative view-of-self.

We all know how slippery these moments are to work with in session. Once a client touches into their shame, or how bad they see themselves, it’s like they fall through a trap door into quick sand. Their affect changes, their presence in the room changes, their ability to continue with the session often changes. In EFT, we heighten emotion, but we don’t heighten shame. Even knowing that, it can be hard to know how to track or even reflect that shame without heightening it. 

Kathryn talked about how the therapist becomes a wedge between the shame and the client. We are working to create some air and some space between the client and what they think they are, since they are so fused together in shame. There are two key ways she talked about doing this, that I have found SO helpful in my sessions since then.

1)  Instead of reflecting what that person believes about themselves, you reflect that this is their WORST FEAR about themselves.

2)  The therapist works to externalizethe shame by using visuals and parts language.

This is how I conceptualize how I could sound different in session using these tools:

Not so helpful: Reflecting the belief and inadvertently heightening shame

Client: I’m damaged, I’m corrupt in some way, I’m sorry.
Therapist: When you see her get upset, you see yourself as damaged, as not worthy of this person who loves you so much?
Client: Right, why would she want me? I’m going to mess this up somehow.
Therapist: Even though she is trying to tell you otherwise, it’s so hard to see yourself as worthy.
Client: Yep. Might as well give up.
Therapist internally: AHHHH nooooo!!! I’m losing you, we’re sinking down further and further!

More helpful: Reflecting the fear and externalizing the shame

Client: I’m damaged, I’m corrupt in some way, I’m sorry.
Therapist: This is your worst fear, this fear of I am damaged or corrupt in some way?
Client: Yeah, that I’m hopeless, bad for her.
Therapist: Ahhh, that fear sounds so powerful when it grips you like that. When you see her get upset, that fear comes alive inside of you, maybe I am damaged in some way? What does that fear feel like when it comes in?
Client: Like a ton of bricks on my chest, like I can’t move out from under it.
Therapist: So one part of you gets pinned down, under this ton of self-worth bricks, fearing you aren’t worthy, and is there another part in there, a part that somehow is able to stay in this relationship despite all these self-worth bricks?

No matter what tool we use, shame is tricky. I don’t think there’s a magic phrase that suddenly solves this issue for a client, and sometimes I do lose the client to the shame quick sand and we lose traction in the session. But working with the idea of naming it as the clients worst fear, and externalizing visually, help me feel like I have some things to hold on to when these tough moments come up in session.

K. Rheem and J. Olden (2018) EFT Video Café, Stage 2.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment and Affair Recovery

I’ve been reading my way through Lorrie Brubacher’s incredible book, Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and read a piece about trauma and attachment. She is describing what the fearful avoidant attachment style is like:

Fearful avoidance: simultaneously pursuing and fearing closeness

Imagine you are alone, lost on a dark street in a strange city, where you know no one, except your travel companion from whom you have mysteriously become separated. You do not speak the local language and your phone is without power. You have wandered up and down several streets, searching for your companion, and you are becoming increasingly anxious. Suddenly, ahead of you, you see the familiar jacket, breathe a sign of relief, and call out. He turns around and you discover it is not your companion, but the menacing face of a person carrying a weapon. You turn and run down a back alley, heart pounding, palms sweating. Continuing on, once again you see the familiar hat your companion was wearing, and you pick up the pace and call out, hopefully and desperately. The minute the person turns towards you, you recognize not your companion, but the grim reaper, and you turn again, this time running several blocks before you dare stop. Over and over again, the one you hope to count on becomes a face of death and threat! … There is an overall sense of needing someone, yet trusting no one. (p. 62, 63).


While this passage was about people in general, while I was reading it I thought – holy cow, this is what is happening for my affair recovery clients as adults.

Because in EFT we are always on the leading edge of attachment with our clients, and wanting to progress and help them rebuild their bond, I can sometimes move too fast into expecting the client to be able to go to their partner and seek reassurance when they feel anxious and triggered about the affair. I know that while they are the source of their pain, they are also the only source of their healing and re-bonding. Consciously, I know that the trust has been ruptured, and that this person has become a stranger to them, but sub-consciously I can be encouraging them to turn to their partner when they get triggered.

Reading this passage from Lorrie’s book, I realized that I have not been fully, fully appreciating how the trauma of the affair is going to affect their ability to be soothed by their partner. I see this happen in the room, when a partner is so hurt, and their partner comes to put their hand on them and lean in, and then the wounded partner pushes them away. Then the partner who tried to comfort feels rejected and defeated and pulls back. 

In the past, I would have still validated both partners (“It’s so hard to trust they want to help you with this” and “It’s so hard to want to soothe your partner and feel pushed away,”). But I would have stayed more neutral, tracking the cycle over and over. What I find sometimes, though, is that we can stay in this cycle loop for months and are unable to step out of it, especially if the affair has caused a really big attachment wound. All the while the wounded partner is not healing, and sometimes getting more dysregulated, because their brains are truly on fire and they don’t know where to go for the soothing.

In a non-affair cycle, I think each person is, for the most part, coming to the cycle equally, and so the work would be for both to slowly gain awareness that the more he accuses/demands/pushes away, the more she shuts down/gives up/moves away. However, now that I am sitting with how this trauma may have affected even this person’s attachment method, and that they truly don’t know if this person they have trusted is safe to go to for soothing, but also needs desperately to be soothed by them, I am feeling a little less neutral about it.  I can’t imagine this healing if the offending partner continues to allow themselves to get pushed away and give up during this come close/go away dance. I also wonder if the wounded partner is going to be able to self-regulate and adjust their behavior with just awareness of their cycle, since they are so dysregulated.

I know that there are so many constellations of affairs that we see. There are ones where the leaning out partner has been hurt for years, and doesn’t even know if they want to be here any more, and has an affair. There are couples where I think the bigger attachment wound is one partner’s treatment of them before the other even considered having an affair. There are couples where the bond remains fairly strong between the couple, even with the affair, and they can regulate more easily. And so on, and so on. But for couples where there was a decent amount of love and trust, and then one partner has a significant, lengthy affair, I wonder if it will be possible for them to heal if the offending partner keeps throwing their hands up and saying, “I give up, they don’t want me close,” and if it’s fair to expect the wounded partner to be able to self-regulate to the point where they are not coming at their partner with anger and accusation for a while.

Is it really realistic to ask a wounded partner, in the flare of trauma, to say to the person they don’t know if they can trust, “I am feeling anxious and triggered right now, and need some reassurance that you love me,” ?

I am always clear with my affair partners that verbal, physical, or sexual abuse or coercion in affair recovery is not ok. But I wonder if I need to lean a little more on the offending partner to be a stable pillar for their hurt partner while they go through the come close/go away dance.

Regardless of what method you choose, it is always helpful for me to really allow myself to come into contact with how terrible a client feels, and not be so on the leading edge of attachment that I ignore what might make that coherent reach incredibly difficult in a moment of pain.


Brubacher, L. (2018) Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Key Ingredients of Change. Karnac Books, Ltd. London, England

Working With Trauma, Part 2

I’m picking up from last week’s post on working with trauma, which you can read here. Last week we looked at how trauma can show up as a partner getting highly triggered by a partner’s seemingly harmless behavior, and how we as the therapist can take our time with that trigger. This week I want to talk about something I think is even more important that we stay aware of, which is when a partner has a competing attachment source they can’t let go of.

I think we’re used to seeing things as competing attachment sources when they look like addiction. We can understand how alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, even eating can take the place of an attachment source. And they have the one-two punch of giving the brain a chemical hit, so it’s not only the behavior that is addicting but also the brain really really rewards us for doing them.

But there are behaviors that are more subtle, yet I think they are in the same category of a competing attachment source. (This is not based in any research, this is just my own sense of what I’m seeing with my clients, so don’t set this in stone, just be curious with me). What I see in these more subtle behaviors that makes me think they have similar trauma/attachment roots is that clients feel like a matter of life and death to give them up.

On the outside, these behaviors don’t really look like something the partner would fight hard to keep. For one it might be that they spend several nights a week out with friends. For another it might be that they enjoy playful/kink-oriented sex. For another it might be that they craft for hours on the weekend. It comes up as an issue when clients have found themselves with partners that don’t embrace their specific proclivities or support what they want to do with their down time, and thus conflict ensues. What I see, sometimes, is that even once the cycle has de-escalated, and the other partner has really dipped into their primary emotions, and shared in a meaningful way that they miss their partner and would prefer them see their friends just one night a week, or want to have sex but not playfully or with any kink, or would prefer them craft for just one hour on a Sunday instead of five hours that their partner immediately puts a wall up, and says no. 

When I hit these moments in sessions, in my head it can feel like a record scratch, an abrupt stop to the music. I’m thinking, hold on, their partner just did all the right things! They weren’t blaming, they were speaking from their attachment place, they asked for something reasonable. These moments are where I try to stop and realize we are looking at something that has become a very important source of attachment and self-soothing for the partner. On the outside, it can look like these behaviors/hobbies aren’t that important, and something the client should easily be able to adjust to spend more quality time with their partner. But on the inside, this may have become a very central way the person soothes themselves. Often we do hear clients say, “Of course! All I’ve wanted is to spend more time with you, I just thought you were mad at me all the time.” But for these special clients, I think we need to look deeper to understand what they are holding onto tightly.

Imagine if your parents were unreliable, neglectful, or harmful, but your friend group was there for you. Imagine that unlike anyone else, these friends love you, support you, and have your back no matter what. All of a sudden, we’re not having a discussion about if you prefer your friends over your spouse, but a discussion of giving up time with the only secure attachment you’ve ever really had for time with your spouse, who you may not actually want to risk trusting.

Imagine if you spent much of your time being in a house with a lot of chaos, noise, and abuse. Your brain was likely soaked in cortisol and adrenaline for much of the time (Gottman, 2014). Imagine the one place your brain got to relax, and not experience flooding, was when you were doing crafts. For whatever reason, your family left you alone when you were crafting. Now, this is the central way you know to calm yourself down and protect yourself from chaos. When you partner asks you to spend more time with them and your kids, it’s now a question of how on earth would your brain get the same soothing and relief without time spent crafting.

Imagine if you grew up in a dirty, neglectful, harsh household. Imagine that there were really no joy or play growing up. But once you discovered sex, and kink, you found that this was a place you could give yourself permission to experience joy and play, not to mention positive physical touch at all. Imagine that you had positive experiences with the people you were having sex with, and this became a central way you knew how to feel release and happiness. The idea of standard sex, and sex without play, suddenly is a question of how on earth you could experience those feelings of joy and release at all.

This is why I think we suddenly see a client adamantly refuse to consider giving something up we otherwise don’t see as particularly compelling. Because their brains are immediately reacting to the idea of giving up a central tool for soothing and/or attachment. It’s like if you all of a sudden told me I couldn’t exercise or call my mom if I stayed with my partner. What on the outside might look silly, or even selfish to not give up, on the inside feels like you’re asking someone to give up how they know to be ok in the world, in order to be with this other person.

What I am seeing is if I go really slow around these parts, and am very respectful and validating of what these behaviors may mean to someone, it can be very relieving for clients to their to know I don’t see them as selfish or petty. And what helps me do this is to try and really imagine how someone became a soothing or attachment tool for the client. Something Julie Gottman (2014) mentioned in the Level 2 training on the PTSD section helped me understand how past trauma manifests in marriage relationships. She said that once someone moves from dating, to a "family" status with their partner (this can mean marriage or kids), a lot of PTSD can rear up unexpectedly. Because "family" to that person meant pain, mistrust, and non-safety. So now they are in a new family, but the concept of family is still not safe in general. The person in front of them may truly be a safer and more soothing attachment source than friends, kink, or crafting, but the idea that this is possible may feel totally foreign and frightening.


Gottman, J., Gottman, J.S. (2014) Level 2 Clinical Training, Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute

Working With Trauma, Part 1

Of all the things I love about EFT, one of the things I love most is that it gives us a perfect framework to understand trauma. EFT gives me two components to help me with this. First, we don’t label someone as being unreasonable. This helps the clients in the room feel accepted, of course, but it also gives us time as the therapist to try and really understand what’s happening with behavior we might see as confusing. I think that time is essential in not jumping to conclusions or telling someone they have to change. I’m confused all the time by client’s behaviors. Why is it so important to one that their partner helps with dusting every day, and to another that their partner gets their haircut regularly? So it helps that EFT first comes in and tries to just observe and reflect, because it gives me the time to really consider what might be happening for someone.

The second component that EFT helps me with so much in these moments is that EFT is attachment-based. I have a therapist colleague who is brilliant at what she does, and isn’t on the EFT train like I am. During a recent discussion she said, “Wesley, everything isn’t attachment!” But I think, yeah, everything IS attachment. I see attachment in everything. And attachment is what explains the confusing behaviors.

One of the more challenging things we can run into is when we see a partner unable or unwilling to give up a behavior that is clearly destructive to their relationship. Right now, I’m starting to see this in two different categories. One is in how someone makes meaning of their partner’s actions, and the second is in competing attachment sources.

How We Make Meaning From Trauma

If we look at Sue’s brilliant book on trauma (I could seriously read this once a month and learn something new), she outlines the way we can make meaning of our partner’s actions in a destructive way perfectly in the case of Joan and David (p 146). David becomes highly critical about Joan’s weight and appearance. This is emphasized in the situation where Joan wears a yellow nightgown that David can’t stand. David is constantly scanning the environment and his trigger is if Joan doesn’t look nice. His perception is that if she doesn’t look nice, it’s a sign she doesn’t care about him enough (p 137). Even though David’s behavior looks pretty awful, EFT helps us understand that it comes from a wounded place inside him, so we don’t immediately condemn him for it.

We can even call on some Internal Family Systems work here (Schwartz, 2001), and understand that David’s protective part is very dominant in him, which would be understandable from someone who comes from trauma. His Protective part is shielding his Exile, his wounded part, who likely is very young and someone does believe that Joan doesn’t love him on days where she looks casual. I can only imagine how this is created, but I bet if you have a very depressed mom who never gets out of a ratty nightgown, doesn’t shower much, and never got up and made you a lunch or gave a crap about how your school day was, that seeing your partner dressed in ratty clothes sends those alarm bells blaring effective immediately. His brain easily could have formed the link that someone looking bad is not taking care of themselves, and of course as children we desperately need our parents to take care of themselves so they can take care of us.

Does this mean that we condone David’s hurtful behavior? No, definitely not. And Sue uses strong language in how she worked with Joan helping her describe how she felt, even naming David’s behavior as emotional abuse (p 139). But I don’t know another model that could help us understand David’s behavior in the context of trauma the way EFT can, and then stay with the couple in an affirming way.

Being reminded of this helps me slow down, and try to ask myself some questions the next time I see someone with stronger than average reactions to certain behaviors. I think we’re all pretty good at doing this with certain behaviors, like:

- getting activated around housework and helping enough
- getting activated around seeing their partner be extroverted at a party
- getting activated if their partner is more of the disciplinarian but still within reasonable limits

But there are some behaviors I notice that I immediately shut down about and want to blame the more pursuing partner for, like:

- getting activated about their partner’s weight
- getting activated by being deprived sex multiple times a day
- getting activated by their children doing normal children behavior

So Sue’s words help me remember to slow down and be curious about the trauma roots with those behaviors, instead of rolling my eyes and saying, “oh brother, this person is totally unreasonable.”

Next week I’ll continue this segment with how trauma shows up with competing attachment sources.

Johnson, S. (2002) Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy With Trauma Survivors. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Schwartz, D. (2001) Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications