Monday, November 3, 2008

Untangling Fight Cycles

Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Unfortunately, many conflicts between partners do not lead to resolution but rather to further pain and suffering and, ultimately, even marriage breakdown. Some couples think conflict is bad– some say they never fight. Maybe you’re thinking that you and your partner don’t fight. Maybe you don’t, but I’m sure you have differences. Although differences are healthy, it’s the way that they’re handled that is critical to the well-being of your relationship. Conflict can be productive or destructive. Conflict is destructive only when it creates ongoing tensions and emotional distress. Bad conflict can lead to physical and emotional injury and partners losing trust in each other. The more entrenched the conflict, the less chance we have of finding emotional intimacy

If you find your differences leading to conflict, you need to know that conflict can be productive! It can help us define ourselves. It can be productive when it helps us air problems, when we can develop tools for resolving it peacefully and creatively with our partners and arriving at workable solutions. It can lead to mutual growth and understanding in the relationship. It can help us to Recapture our Magic!

For Tips on Untangling Conflict Cycles and Unraveling Convoluted Communication to Recapture Your Magic, call me, Dr. Audrey, at 602 762 7117 for a complimentary telephone session.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


In the service of not judging and labeling our clients.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, written by a psychiatrist, which I found most disturbing. It was about the husband his client it seems that the client's husband of nearly 30 years told her that he felt stalled and not self-actualized—so “he began his search for self knowledge in the arms of another woman”—it wasn’t that he didn’t love her – he just didn’t find the relationship exciting. The author goes on to describe his client’s husband as a “narcissistic jerk.”

We live in an age in which crass epithets are in vogue. More importantly, it’s also fashionable to mock others and bandy about the N (narcissist) word in a careless and incorrect fashion. The therapist and writer of the article makes an automatic assumption that a married man’s (or it could have been a woman) affair was a search for novelty and thrill. He then proceeds to note that the more he learned about his client’s husband, the more he saw that the husband had always been a “self centered guy” – “a garden variety case of a middle aged narcissist.”

I believe we therapists have to be careful not to make judgments about our clients – in so doing, implicitly putting ourselves on a pedestal – Of course, we make judgments (appraisals) every day. Should I buy this dress or that, this brand of almond butter? Is this person someone who I want to spend time with? What is my opinion of that tai chi class that I took last semester? What is my philosophy of life and love? It’s part of being human to engage in the process of evaluation—a process that we must ultimately engage in, in order to survive and thrive.

Those kinds of judgments are different from judgments like the earlier one – he’s just a “self centered guy.” Freedom of thought and expression are cornerstones of our culture. But if I engage in the process of labeling my clients or their spouses with insults like “narcissistic jerk”, how will this affect the way that I perceive them and relate to them? How will it affect the coaching process if I am full of opinions, judgments or even contempt? Will I be able to support them and help them to make the positive changes that they want to make?

Although I am not a fan of the term “midlife crisis”, the author’s disclaimer that this is not a midlife crisis but just a case of ‘garden variety narcissism’ is a poor alternative – it introduces a personality description/characteristic which implicitly tends to blame an individual for developing such a condition. And “jerk” is simply contempt – publicly aired, patronizing contempt, from a psychiatrist, at that.

Renunciation of narcissism in favor of love was a goal of Freud’s treatment. Heinz Kohut, the famous psychologist who came after Freud, developed the Self Psychology model. Kohut broke with Freud’s tradition, suggesting that narcissism is neither obnoxious nor pathological. Suggesting that narcissism can be positive and needs to be integrated into our personalities, he and others following altered American psychoanalysis – as well as the world views of many of us.

Among other descriptors, Narcissists have been described as requiring excessive admiration

or needing to feel special, adored, loved, appreciated, or admired. This brings up the question of how we define “excessive” – another judgmental word -- But if we translate this to needing a lot of or even wanting a lot of admiration and love, then the punctuation changes. This to me fits in with the idea of a positive kind of narcissism which could be integrated into our personalities – and indeed into the relationship of this couple – in fact, it could even be accepted and addressed – Perhaps a very different outcome could have been realized if the husband had turned to his wife and said something which I have encouraged my clients to say to their mates,

“I would like to feel more loved, appreciated and admired by you.” And if the client could love herself a little bit more, then this might lead to more appreciation by her husband.

(This is the first in a 3 part series -- stay tuned!)

Sunday, December 30, 2007


In keeping with Maria Wojtczak’s work on ‘finding our passion’, I have been thinking about 6 pillars of the authentic self. The first I refer to as

drawing up on on capacities of the “real” self that pull you through setbacks and enable you to keep moving ahead toward the goals that you have set for yourself –the capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply with liveliness, Joy, excitement and spontaneity.

A women that I worked with recently reminded me of many of the plucky, courageous and creative individuals I have met at SJN --she had handled many obstacles at a major turning point in her life – despite much opposition from her parents, her boyfriend’s pressuring her and threatening to leave if she didn’t move in with him and her advisor leaving the university a year before she was finished her thesis.

Abigail was able to draw upon key capacities of her self that pulled her through these setbacks and enabled her to move ahead toward the goals that she had set for herself. She knew that choosing a career that was not in line with her father’s wishes was a wise decision and best for her; the “real” self provides the experience of emotions both good and bad, comfortable or not-so-comfortable. These are an essential part of life which the real self does not create barriers against or go into hiding from. It accepts the wide range of feelings and is not afraid to express them. Abigail had learned early in life that self-activation would bring positive responses from her environment.

This is the first part of an article that I will be posting on my website -- "James and Carla's" story is based on my experience with real life couples -- the names and a few details are always different to protect confidentiality:


It was a second marriage for James and Carla. It was urgent that they make it work. It had been a whirlwind romance beginning with a fantasy—It started with candlelight dinners with wine, walks along the canal, hand in hand, critiques over films, gazing into each other’s eyes over cappuccino at Starbucks. At the time it seemed like it would never end. But now it was slipping away. The fight always started the same way and somehow lately it had seemed to escalate. This morning Carla had screamed out a torrent of accusations at James and he had done his usual part by slamming the door to his office. In the last six months things had seriously deteriorated.

Carla and James knew the “rules” – they knew about the 5-1 magic ratio -- that partners need five positive interactions for each negative one. They had read that intimate relationships are vital to growth and development. They agreed with the research that positive close relationships help inoculate partners against the stresses of life. Other couples seemed loving and happy. So what was happening to them?

James and Carla’s experience is not unique – it mimics that of so many couples. It begins with a fantasy like the candlelit dinners -- But slowly the fabric becomes eroded. The bickering begins – the nagging and blaming and criticizing – the inevitable struggle for control, the fights. Marital researcher John Gottman has identified four attitudes that can lead to relationship distress and even dissolution. He calls them the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling...... (to be continued)

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Way back in ’84 – up in Vancouve at the University of British Columbia– it was somewhat of a novelty to ‘put marriages under the microscope.’ At that time we looked at the anatomy of the fight cycles that couples get into (you may recognize repetitive patterns in your own relationship) and helped them get under those cycles to the soft underbelly – to access the pain and vulnerable feelings under their angry reactions – the next step was for partners express those feelings to each other and ultimately feel more understood and accepted by each other..

At the time, the world of therapy was not as evolved -- many psychologists had experienced roadblocks when trying to teach people how to talk to each other differently using communication or behavior change models.

Emotionally Focused Couples’ Therapy (EFT). was in its infancy when we decided to test its effectiveness; the powerful positive results we found were amazing.

Now, researchers in New England – as reported in Psychosomatic Medicine in July and the New York Times on October 2nd, are once again putting the marital spat under the microscope to see if the way you fight with your spouse can affect your health.

This time men and women were asked if they bottled up (known as “self-silencing”) their feelings during a marital spat. Who do you think did more bottling? -- yes, quite right – 32 per cent of men vs. 23 percent of the women. But more surprising, women who didn’t speak their minds during the fights were more than four times as likely to die during the 10 year study period as women who always told their husbands how they felt. In contrast, men who kept quiet during fights didn’t experience any measurable effects on their health. For men it was a calculated but harmless decision but for women it took a physical toll. For a woman, suppressing feelings during conflict with her husband is doing something very negative to her physiology.

In the recent research, the emotional tone that men and women take during arguments with their partner also took a toll on their health. In video sessions, couples were given stressful topics to discuss like money or household chores. If her husband’s arguing style was hostile, this had a big negative effect on a woman’s heart health. Arguing style affected men differently. For a man, heart risk increased if disagreements with his wife involved a battle for control. An example of a controlling comment made by a partner might be, “you really should just listen to me on this.”

Conflict in a marriage is inevitable. In fact, conflict can be productive when it gives partners a chance to air concerns, clarify issues and arrive at workable solutions. It can help partners define themselves and their ideas. The question is, can you do it in a way that gets your concerns addressed but without doing emotional damage at the same time? Dr. Smith from the New England study puts says truthfully, “That’s not an easy mark to hit for some couples.”

The question of not doing emotional damage is an important one, one which has been asked by EFT. And that is where the benefits of EFT shine through.

Intuitively and historically, in perfect synchronicity with the New England research, our group of researchers understood the need for emotional experiencing to occur in therapy – for partners to probe into their vulnerabilities and express their feelings to their partners.

Based on the new “Marital Spat” study you might well be asking – “is it only women that need to be open about their feelings -- what part do men play in this?”

Arguments about measured effects on health aside, it’s common sense that emotional well-being is a desired outcome for both men and women. Bonds between partners are forged as they share experience, basic human emotions like sadness or joy, fear of not being validated, low esteem, longings for intimacy and attachment. Emotionally focused Therapy (EFT) focuses on ruptures in these emotional bonds between individuals and how to correct them.

The work begins as we identify together ways in which partners have developed negative interaction patterns. These patterns are thought to be created by individuals’ expressions of secondary emotions, often anger. The primary emotions mentioned above are “covered up” by such secondary emotions. This happens because individuals may be unaware of or are fearful of expressing these more basic primary vulnerable feelings to their partners. So one of the important tasks of our work is to help partners “uncover” these sad, vulnerable or fearful feelings.

I encourage partners to speak from that soft emotional core of those feelings – Millie and Mike were one such couple who had suffered a rupture in their relationship – Millie felt unsupported --like she couldn’t trust Mike-- and Mike felt pushed away by Millie.

A slice of their conversation went like this, Millie: “When I was dressing to go out, I was excited and looking forward to our evening and to feeling admired by you. Then I was looking in the mirror and I saw you in the background looking at me with a critical, disapproving look on your face and ……. suddenly I felt sick and queasy and shivery all over – I just wanted to run and hide under the covers.”

Helping Mike to hear these words without feeling attacked, to accept Millie’s feelings,

to respond with support – and then, perhaps, to offer his own perceptions, experiences and feelings was the next step.

(This case study will be discussed in more detail on my website, – coming soon).

We found that couples who experienced a 10 week series of EFT felt closer, less conflicted and distressed and were able to develop a shared perspective and mutual goals.

Of course, the success of this work is contingent on the empathic “bond” or alliance between therapist and clients. Often this empathic connection becomes a model or

template guiding couples to learn more successful and satisfying ways to relate to each other.

In the next installment, I will be discussing the process of EFT in more depth as well as other exciting processes in couples’ work. I’ll also address the therapeutic alliance which is critical to all effective, change inducing, ground-breaking therapy.

Any questions? I can be contacted at and I would love to hear from you