MARITAL FIXES A NEWISH THERAPY HOLDS PROMISE FOR TROUBLED UNIONS
Shortly after Jim and Michelle were married 13 years ago, Jim had an affair. Five years and two kids later, overcome with guilt, he confessed to his wife. Since then, relations between the two have been cool—something two rounds of marriage therapy did little to change. “She felt alone and isolated,” says Jim, a 54-year-old medical health worker who lives with publicity manager Michelle, 45, and their children in a suburb of Ottawa (they requested their real names not be used). “I felt frustrated. Our children were feeling the effects of the unhappiness too.” In March, 2000, on the advice of another marriage therapist, the couple made one last attempt at finding a way to live together happily. “We had to decide whether this was going to go on,” Jim says, “whether we were going to change together or apart.”
This time, Jim and Michelle ventured into slightly different territory, choosing a marriage counsellor who practices Emotionally Focussed Therapy, a relatively short-term program based on the idea that we grow older but we don’t necessarily grow up. EFT was the brainchild of two Canadians during the early 1980s, and since then the American Psychological Association has recognized EFT—with a success rate purportedly in the 70-to 75- per-cent range—as one of only two effective marriage therapies. The other, cognitive therapy, has been practised for about 25 years by psychotherapists (the work of one, Dorothy Ratusny, is documented in a 13-part series called Love is Not Enough, which began airing on The Life Network on Jan. 7).
Of the 36 per cent of Canadian married couples expected to divorce (and countless other common-law pairs—straight and gay—who will come to an end) a sizable number will resort to counselling. More and more of them are turning to EFT. At the heart of it is something called Attachment Theory, a post-Freudian thesis put forth by British psychiatrist John Bowlby. Because of his vast experience studying children whod been separated from their mothers, Bowlby was commissioned by the World Health Organization after the Second World War to report on the psychological development of children orphaned during the conflict. To Bowlby it was simple: children needed to have at least one parent they trusted and to whom they felt securely attached. Twenty years ago two psychologists, Susan Johnson and Les Greenberg (now a psychology professor at York University in Toronto) applied Bowlby s theories to couples.
“Attachment Theory gives you a frame to understand a pattern and the emotions that are underneath,” explains Johnson, now a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute. “If you have a perspective on love and you understand the patterns you get into and you can deal with these attachment-related strong emotions and you know how to create strong attachments, that’s by far and away the best way to repair a relationship.”
EFT therapists—and there are now thousands of them across the United States and Canada, and hundreds more in Europe, Australia and New Zealand—try to help people break common, ultimately destructive cycles in relationships. “Couples start to be able to understand the pattern they’re caught in that is holding their relationship hostage,” says Johnson. “It’s a huge relief to finally understand what’s going on. A relationship is a very powerful drama, and it’s easy to get lost in it.”
For Jim, initially, an easily identifiable problem in the marriage was his wife’s nagging about housecleaning. Through therapy, Jim realized that he wasn’t responding negatively to his wife simply because he didn’t want to help her; instead, the nagging brought his mother to mind. “All the emotions rose up and my dependency needs came out—all the needs I was denying and didn’t want to face.” Simply understanding that his reaction to his wife’s complaints had less to do with his wife than it did with a previous relationship was enough to help Jim lighten up. He also started to comprehend what behaviour made his wife feel isolated and depressed and what she needed. “That’s why I started changing my behaviour around the house,” Jim says. “I did try to do more things, and to let her know how much I appreciated her efforts.”
The foundation of Jim and Michelle’s marriage still isn’t on solid ground, but since they started EFT, the relationship has changed for the better. “We’re warmer with each other,” Jim says. And now that Michelle understands how Jim’s past affected his behaviour towards her, she has become more tolerant. “I married this woman and the memories come back now of why I married this woman,” he says. “They were blocked by all this shit that was there before.”
Julia and David (not their real names) were childhood friends, then married 36 years ago and raised two children in Ontario. Despite all the time together, they were unable to resolve problems that stemmed from growing up in abusive families. Like Jim and Michelle, Julia and David had been through other types of counselling. But they credit EFT with helping them understand the emotional circuitry behind the buttons they always seemed to be pushing in each other. “When you grow up in an abusive family, it’s just mostly anger,” explains Julia, noting that the rage sparked by certain of David’s comments could estrange the couple for days. “And we discovered that anger is pain, and once you’re aware of that then you can have empathy for each other.”
Unlike EFT, cognitive therapy provides a technique for changing basic thought patterns. “One of the main concepts is that your thought creates your feelings and your feelings create your behaviour and reactions,” explains Ratusny, who has a practice in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill. “If you think, ‘What a beautiful day. The sun is out,’ you’ll probably feel happy.” Cognitive therapy has proven to be a useful method in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Ratusny and others say that if couples continue to use the tools they learn during treatment, the therapy can be a highly effective solution to marital problems as well. “A lot of time miscommunication is really misperceptions,” she says. “We think he or she meant that and were going to react to that, but they didn’t mean that at all.”
Part of the treatment involves having one person actively listen to the other and then paraphrase what he or she thinks they heard. “It allows them to be aware that what they heard and what the other person was saying are often two different things,” explains Ratusny. Another part of the therapy invariably involves examining each partner’s vulnerabilities. “We choose partners in some respects to help us resolve past issues in our family of origin,” Ratusny says.
To Johnson and other EFT therapists, however, neither delving into the past nor learning tools for better communication get at the heart of couple problems. “Insight into the past is nice, but by the time relationships get distressed, the powerful patterns of interaction are right here and now,” she says. And when we’re caught up in emotion and old patterns, “we can’t use the skills we’ve got.” To illustrate her point, Johnson admits that she is a nervous flyer. “If you watch me on the plane, you’d never believe I was a therapist,” she says. “Exactly when you need the skills the most, you can’t use them.”
What therapists across the board agree on, though, is that if both partners are committed to working on their problems during therapy and at home, and if both want to improve their relationship, the chances for success are good. But, cautions Ratusny, “people still want the magic pill, and there is none. Relationships are not static. They require effort and energy and attention all the time.”*
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