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