When I meet with couples in therapy, I often hear one or both partners say, “I don’t want to hurt him/her by saying how I really feel.” Or they might say, “I want things to be better between us, but I can’t risk getting hurt again, so it’s easier to just not bring it up.”
When difficult emotions come up in a relationship, many times our first instinct is to try and protect ourselves (which might show up as withdrawing, blaming, attacking, or anything in between) or to protect our partner from getting hurt (which might show up as distancing, not speaking up, holding resentment, placating, or lying). We don’t like to hurt, and we don’t like to see our significant others hurt. While the tendency to protect makes a lot of sense as a knee-jerk reaction, especially when there has been a history of pain in a relationship, it often ends up damaging the strength of the connection between two partners. Protective behaviors might work for avoiding difficult emotions or conversations in the short run, but they also tend to create distance where there could be a connection.
When couples come to therapy with this pattern of protecting one person or the other, I encourage them to think instead about what would protect the relationship. What would create a stronger bond between them–not addressing strong emotions out of fear of hurting or being hurt by each other, or choosing to trust each other by having a hard conversation? Are they more likely to grow closer by sharing their fears with each other, or by dealing with them alone? Usually, the much harder choice (the one that involves having a difficult conversation) is also the choice that will lead to greater strength in the relationship.
Protecting the relationship by engaging in difficult conversations with the intent to connect will ultimately provide a sense of safety and security for both partners. As their connection grows, they find that they trust the strength of their relationship more and more, even when difficult emotions arise. The relationship becomes their safe place, and they feel more secure when being open and honest with each other than they do when trying to protect themselves or the other person from a distance. These principles of seeking connection, sharing emotions and needs, and finding safety in the relationship are key elements of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT, or EFT). The research consistently demonstrates that EFT can be helpful in increasing relationship satisfaction and couple attachment (or a sense of closeness and safety), both during the course of therapy and after therapy has ended (Beasley & Ager, 2019; Wiebe, et al., 2016).
One of the reasons I love being a couples therapist is because I get to witness the process of change and healing that can occur as partners start to take action to protect their relationship instead of their own fears. This process is definitely not easy, and as a therapist, I never try to paint the process of couples therapy as a walk in the park. The work of changing long-standing, hurtful patterns in a relationship can be challenging, but lasting healing in relationships is possible.
Beasley, C. C., & Ager, R. (2019). Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: A Systematic Review of its Effectiveness Over the Past 19 Years.” Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 16(2), 144-159.
Wiebe, S. A., Johnson, S. M., Lafontaine, M.-F., Burgess Moser, M., Dalgleish, T. L., & Tasca, G. A. (2016). Two‐Year Follow‐up Outcomes in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: An Investigation of Relationship Satisfaction and Attachment Trajectories. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(2), 227–224. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12206
If you or someone you know would benefit from short term support in strengthening their relationship, call us for a free consultation with Jessica or one of the other therapists in our office (801-432-0883). We are happy to meet with you in person or by phone for a free 15-minute consultation.