By Joseph Losi, Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist and relationship coach
© Joseph Losi, 2022, www.josephlosi.com
Communication that positively connects us to others is central to healthy, fulfilling relationships of all kinds. Humans are inherently social animals, and our prime drive is to bond with others. If we are not safe in our relationships, especially with our most important people, we experience all manner of mental and physical distress.
So, how do we create those bonded connections with others? I have combined the basic tenets of Emotionally Focused Therapy with the powerful communication tools found in Michael Sorensen’s book “I Hear You,” to arrive at the ABC’s of healthy relationship, a mnemonic for a set of strategies that can greatly enhance personal and professional relationships. I often refer to them as “The Triple A, Double B, Single C.” Try these out in your relationships and see what shifts!
The Triple A
Assume nothing. Walk into a conversation without assuming you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. We cannot read one another’s mind, even when we know each other well.
Attune to all emotions. Attuning means acknowledging. If your person plays a C Sharp, play it right back to them. If you hear ”I’m feeling sad right now,” attuning might look like “Yeah. You’re sad. I can feel that.” If someone is angry, “Yes, I can see how angry you are.”
Misattunement occurs when a person’s feelings are not heard, seen, and acknowledged. It can look like “Really? Why are you sad about that?” or “Don’t feel bad!!” Or refocusing the topic onto someone else’s experience:: “I knew this person once who would get really angry when xyz happened.” Misattunement is invalidating and creates a sense that we’re alone or “missed.”
Affirm all thoughts: Acknowledge a person’s thoughts. If you hear “I really don’t believe you are being honest with me!” respond with: “Okay, I hear you. You don’t believe I’m being honest.” Avoid invalidating a person’s beliefs or thoughts with something like ”You are nuts, I am telling you the truth.” Taking this defensive path can lead to an escalating cycle of “see me, hear me, see me, hear me” and no one feeling heard, seen, or good.
A note about using the Triple A: You don’t have to believe what is being shared with you. Hold your retort, give the other person the benefit of the doubt and continue to use Triple A with tentative openness and curiosity and acceptance.
The Double B
Breathe to slow down. In relationship it’s easy for our triggers to be hit. Just a few words might make us feel defensive, agitated, perhaps angry, our minds go offline. While working through the Triple A, if you feel triggered, breathe into your body to slow yourself down.
Just a few breaths can help you get your rational mind back on line. If it takes longer, take longer. “Hey I need to stop talking for a little while now. Let’s pick this up in an hour.” Indicate that you do want to pick up the conversation to avoid creating a sense of abandonment.
Be curious. Being curious is a powerful way of signaling we care and want to get to know and understand the other person. If your partner shares sadness, be curious: ”I can feel you’re sad….can you tell me what’s going on?” Or if your colleague expresses anger or frustration—at you or a situation: “I can tell you’re frustrated…Help me understand a bit more about your frustration,” or even, “What would you like to have happen that would be different?”
The Single C
It is likely that you will be toggling back and forth from AAA to BB and back again, all the time resting on single C.
Cease offering Solutions. Hold onto your brilliant solution until invited to give one. How many times have you shared how you’re feeling about a challenging situation and the first response is “Have you tried XYZ?” or “I think you should do XYZ.” We’ve all been there, and we’ve all defaulted to offering solutions. When we fail to acknowledge how someone is thinking or feeling and go right to solutions, we can make them feel not smart, not good enough, like they’re not doing the right thing. And, simply not heard, especially when our solutions are way off the mark. After a few good rounds of Triple A and Double B, one might offer: ”That sounds pretty rough, are you open to hearing a suggestion for what I would do in that situation?”
When we adhere to The Triple A, Double B, Single C, we open the doors to connection by creating space for and honoring all that a person thinks and feels. This builds trust, and we might just find ourselves moving with greater ease and closeness in our relationships.
Additional Tips When Using the Triple A, Double B, Single C:
- If you need to step away from a conversation to gather yourself, avoid ruminating and do something that engages the body: wash the dishes, stretch, take a walk around the block.
- It’s okay to go to bed with tension or an unresolved issue, as you’ll likely be in a better space to practice the ABCs of relationship. The noble belief that “we can’t go to sleep mad at each other” is misguided. Sleep is powerfully restorative, and we often figure out things in our sleep.
- Remember that time is on our side. Most relationship stuff never has to be figured out immediately.
- Remember that we’ll rarely be in 100% agreement all the time within our relationships. We don’t have to live in perfect harmony, we simply have to slow down and accept that some issues just won’t get 100% agreement—and that’s okay.
- We really can’t change other people—all we can change is ourselves and how we respond. When we let others be who they are and where they’re at, we give ourselves room to do the same.
What I have come to realize after a decade of practice, as a psychotherapist, is that the fundamental skills needed to be a solid father are not that different from the skills needed to be a good therapist. Learning how to raise up “good men,” and learning how to become a good psychotherapist have deeply informed each other. They have brought me front and center with the need as a father and as a therapist to simply BE with difficult challenging human emotion. To simply be present and emotionally available for my clients, and my sons.
My father simply could not be in that space. His default mechanism was to dominate—something many of us fathers have learned. I still hear my father’s words, “You want something to cry about, you want me to get my belt off?” I think I peed my pants. Seriously. I still feel part of my father, embedded deep in me, struggling to stay in control – of me and of others. It’s a legacy I am letting go of.
Defaulting into domination is something that I have been attempting to un-learn and to un-wire for at least 2 decades. That re-wiring has been the biggest challenge of hopefully becoming a good father and hopefully a good therapist: I’m working hard to be present for and listen to my sons and my clients. My sons, now in their 20’s, are strong enough to speak honestly with me, “Dad, stop telling us how to act, and just BE that way yourself.” And I can hear those words without being reactive, without dominating, and end our conversation with hugs. I’m chalking that up as progress.
Love listens, it has no need to control
It does not fix
It listens with patience, with compassion, with curiosity, strength and courage
It knows its own limits and knows when to hold, it holds, and let’s be…
Love listens and knows that taking control steals from its loved ones the ability to self sooth
Love knows the ability to not run from pain, from shame, from fear and hurt
It listens and holds until truly called forth
Love listens and knows its own limits
And when those limits are reached to quietly and compassionately sit and hold, to let be…
It knows it can share its own fear, its own pain
It knows that fixing a loved one steals from the loved one
Steals the loved one’s sense of self
A sense of self so needed to grow, to sense, to feel, to thrive
To grow and become strong, free from the pain of not knowing, not knowing…am I safe, am I wanted?
To calm and breathe and settle into one’s own knowing that they too can love, to listen, and hold…
To love and listen and breathe and not control…to let be…
To let be into a love that needs not to control…
Excerpts from “Have Smart Phones Destroyed A Generation?” Jean M Twenge
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.In earlier eras, kids worked in great numbers, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar.
But iGen teens aren’t working (or managing their own money) as much. In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.
Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.Y
ou might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.
Prying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air. But more seems to be at stake in urging teens to use their phone responsibly, and there are benefits to be gained even if all we instill in our children is the importance of moderation. Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”
Here is the entire article:
“When you slow down one can truly begin to recognize that others or things are not the true source of our distress. Our reaction to others, particularly intimate others, or things is the source of our distress. But, and this is a significant but, others, again particularly others who are in close relationship with us, can be a tremendous aid in helping us to heal the distress we feel by staying “with” us, non reactive and empathic toward us when we are in our “upset.” When you think about it this is what “good” mothers and “good” fathers are able to do with their children.” Many behaviroal therapies miss this very important relational aspect of healing and label only the “upset” person as the person who needs to change.
“I am really beginning again to feel him with me.”
Captured in that simple, heartfelt comment from Jamie is the essence of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT.
Yet not four months earlier, they were on the brink of divorce. She had asked him to move out, he had an “emotional affair” with a co-worker, and they described a “chasm” between them.
Unlike couples therapies based on just modifying a couple’s outward behaviors, EFT doggedly ignores a behavioral approach asking you to do certain routines with your partner.
The effect ends up staying on the surface… as deeper emotions and needs bubble below, unmet.
How often have you heard the rote advice to practice “caring” moments? Or that you set up date nights, or attempt to institute a policy of kissing one another upon parting or greetings?
While there is nothing wrong with these, they don’t mend a chasm widening beneath the surface between you. They don’t heal the hurts or unmet emotional needs. They don’t stop either of you from feeling deeply alone and feeling with each other.
So what can get below the surface?
Here’s the way:
EFT focuses on securing deep, emotional connection through the process of healing “attachment injuries” (sustained both in childhood and in adult relationships). It uses the power of emotion and emotion’s ability to build trust, trigger trust-building behaviors, and create more lasting secure connections between you.
It’s about experiencing what’s really there and healing it. And no amount of “caring moments” will do that without delving into each other’s deeper emotions and needs, healing the unspoken injuries and unmet needs lying below the surface.
The science behind EFT uncovered the fundamental needs and fears always at the root of all of that emotion broiling beneath the surface. It is the science of deep connection that forms the love bond, predictably and dependably. That rift between you isn’t because you aren’t kissing each other goodbye.
The rift goes deeper… but it isn’t a mystery anymore.
A Chasm Growing Between Them
Jamie told me that she was truly beginning to “feel” her husband really “with” her.
4 months earlier she tearfully told me, with her husband of 25 years present, that she and Robert were seriously considering divorce. At the time, he had already moved out. She had asked him to do so.
Jamie told me that Robert had been having an “emotional affair,” with a co-worker of his…
Not an unusual thing for us to see.
Jamie had accidentally discovered that Robert and Laura had (for the past few months) been exchanging dozens of texts daily. With Jamie present, Robert defensively owned that fact. He also owned that he had spent time with Laura under false pretenses.
He was firm on his assertion that nothing physical had occurred between him and Laura. I choose to trust him on that. Jamie did also.
With the seeds of initial trust between myself and the couple growing, we began to examine a pattern of emotions and resulting behaviors that I saw as setting the stage for the emotional infidelity.
We worked together to identify a cycle of hidden primary emotions and resulting pursuing and withdrawing behaviors that had opened a widening gulf between Jamie and Robert. That widening gulf, dubbed “the chasm,” proved to them in very visceral ways that the intimacy they once felt for each other had evaporated.
The Science of Connection… and Why it Breaks Down
Humans, men and women of all sexual identities and orientations, all exhibit a fundamental biologically driven desire to connect and bond with one another.
(For a great read on this topic see the book “Social, Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect,” by Matthew Lieberman, PhD)
This basic drive is a fundamental force in helping us know that another human is safe for us to be with. We are constantly scanning our environment for signs of danger. (This is the evolutionary reason why are so drawn to pay close attention to bad news.)
When we find a danger signal, which we constantly do, our emotional sensing system instantaneously does one of three things, we prepare to fight, flee, or at times, we freeze.
Based on our elegant emotional scanning system in our brain, mostly centered in our amygdala, we in 1/100 of a second have an emotional response which organizes one of these three behaviors. Once these base-level, bio-emotional reactions respond to stimulus in our environment, our social and cultural forces also kick in. Masculine traits tend to become reactive, assertive and perhaps aggressive. Feminine traits tend to observe and want to engage in less confrontational ways.
Individually, our reactions are more complex.
Respecting this complexity, EFT slows a couple down to intimately learn the individual moves each member of the couple will make when faced with distressing triggers. Sue Johnson the primary creator of EFT, call these moves, “our dance.”
The EFT approach looks for patterns of behavior with an eye to finding:
- The reactive emotions that are triggered
- The hidden primary emotions below the surface
- And the behaviors that result between you
It also works to uncover the fundamental attachment needs and longings of each member of the couple. These lie at the foundation of your relationship “dance,” affecting your love bonds and sense of connection, the way you react to each other, and are the source of healing the widening rift between you.
It has been my experience in working with couples for the last 7 years that there are two most universal ones:
- Attachment longings for safety and security
- Attachment needs to be seen, appreciated, and accepted with an intimate partner
Diving Into the Chasm Between Them, and Uncovering the Truth
With Jamie and Robert, it became very apparent they were trapped in a cycle – Jamie as the pursuer and Robert in a pretty classic male avoidant or withdrawing role.
(For more on the cycles couples get stuck in, how to identify which you’re in, and how to get out – see our article and quiz about The Spin Cycle » )
This pattern held for a good portion of the early years of their 25 yr. old relationship. By the time they got to me, their cycle had morphed into a quiet, “burned out,” protective pattern of both withdrawing.
Jamie, for very good reasons, no longer believed that her emotions were going to be validated by Robert. She did what many of us do when our emotions aren’t being seen, she simply gave up trying to make them seen or felt.
Giving up in her attempt to be validated by her husband fit very nicely with her learned role of being the “good girl” in her family. The daughter that, in contrast to her rebellious older sister, always did the “right” thing so as to not stir up more trouble for her parents.
After the rush of Robert’s early attention, she just got her head down and did what she thought “good” wives did. She took care of the business of running a home with two children. To do so she gave up a promising professional career.
Attachment theory identifies Jamie as “insecurely attached–anxious.”
“People with an anxious attachment style actively seek closeness and are afraid of losing it, and have a harder time trusting and knowing their partner will be there for them,”writes attachment blogger, Nora Saraman. (For your attachment style, take this quiz.)
True to her attachment style, Jamie tried for many years to have her emotions validated by her husband.
After many years of trying resulted largely in invalidation she gave up and withdrew herself. Robert’s inability to be validating of her, and vulnerable with himself, perfectly mated with her insecure anxious attachment style.
Together they co-created the the “chasm” between them…
This emotional disconnection nicely set the table for the emotional infidelity. Almost all infidelities are a clear sign of a profound missing in relationship. She and her husband were trapped in their cycle.
Feeling almost entirely defeated, she knew they needed help.
He agreed and they reached out for help.
The Fixer Getting in the Way
Robert, is an organizer. A proficient “get it done” guy. He is a hardware engineer in the hi tech world. 1st born of five, leader of his sibling set, a surrogate father, Robert has never found a problem he could not fix.
Until his 25 year old marriage was falling apart…
As his connection to Jamie grew more faint, he kept on deploying his socially learned skill of identifying the problem and attempting to effect a solution, which he believed meant changing/fixing Jamie. Certainly, Jamie knew things weren’t right. But in the “felt knowledge,” locked in by “the chasm,” her anxious insecure attachment ensured that her primary emotions of feeling alone, sad, betrayed and abandoned were not being heard.
Jamie tried voicing her feelings, but these often came out as complaining.
Frustrated, she vented anger onto Robert in short bursts. She would then give up.Over time she went straight to withdraw when all she got from Robert were solutions to “fix” her lack of happiness in their marriage. He tried hard to come up with solutions to help his wife.
He offered suggestions to…
- Go to certain classes
- Practice better time-management
- Take anti-depressants
- Take up yoga
Not unexpectedly, they didn’t work.
His suggestions all located the problem squarely in Jamie.
They provided very little room for what Jamie really wanted. She simply wanted to have her husband “with her,” when she was sad. To accept her for what she was feeling, to validate her emotions, and most importantly to share something of his own emotional state.
Robert’s attachment style:
Again let’s listen to relationship blogger Nora Saraman:
“Men with avoidant attachment styles may not notice the confusing nonverbal signaling they are actively sending that prevents safe trusted connection from happening with women who want and need their nurture and support.”
Partners of insecure avoidant men generally become more and more emotionally imbalanced towards them in response. This is what happened for Jamie and Robert.
Working with the EFT methods, Robert began to hear that his wife was actually more sad than frustrated, angry or withdrawing. The softer voice of sadness allowed Robert to become more engaged with her. Feeling safer to re-engage with her, he offered his own feelings of defeat, rejection and shame. This important shift in the way they were perceiving each other began our step toward moving out of “the chasm” of mutual withdrawal.
The approach in EFT couple’s therapy with an emotionally withdrawn couple like Robert and Jamie is to:
- Identify their cycle, which is made up of their revealed reactive secondary emotions and unrevealed primary emotions – largely fear and/or shame. When hidden these powerful primary emotions result in disconnective behaviors. Rejection for Robert and abandonment for Jamie. These reactive emotions and behaviors were effectively hiding their unrealized attachment longings for safe, secure, reliable connection. Unmet needs for secure connections when hit produce trigger points that ignite negative cycles.
- Slow down the escalatory behaviors in their negative cycle to reveal their hidden primary emotions of sadness (Jamie) and shame (Robert).
- With de-escalation achieved, several passes through heartfelt apology and forgiveness for the emotional affair could be given and received.
- With the negative cycle de-escalated and attachment injury of the emotional affair largely healed, we moved on to experiencing new bonding moments between Jamie and Robert. In these moments they could begin to openly share their fears, be accepted in these expressions, and also ask for what have always longed and yearned for in their lives – safe, secure attachment.
- When bonding moments experienced in session became possible with the couple in real life, Jamie and Robert began to really “feel together again,” after a long period of distance, disconnection, despair and preparation for divorce. As Sue Johnson, the primary creator of EFT says, “every moment of disconnection became a new opportunity for bonding,” They were effectively falling in love again.
Through the final 3 sessions of EFT (# 12 -14), I listened thankfully, as the couple described the growing ease with which they were turning once disruptive moments into connective moments.
“I really am now believing that I am being heard now. I am feeling that he trusts me to tell him how I feel. That my feelings are ok. Now, I trust him to be really listening to me.”
“In a number of ways,” Robert said, “I am not working as hard now in our relationship. I know that I don’t have to figure out what is wrong and somehow come up with a brilliant solution.”
“I am coming to know that a good part of her emotion is not really all about me, or something I did. I’m involved, but her emotions are hers. If I don’t get all defensive, I can listen to them. They will pass, and because I didn’t get all defensive it does feel like she trusts me more.”
Jamie quietly nodded in agreement.
Turning the Chasm into Bonding Moments to Create New & Stronger Love Bonds
After 25 years this couple who had raised two successful children, had solid financial freedom, had good standing in their community and looked pretty solid from most exterior angles, was right on the verge of divorce.
Recall that Robert had been asked to move out, which he did. Familial, social and cultural forces had trained them to avoid paying close attention to their primary emotions. These forces joined and shaped their inability to express vulnerability, or acceptance. Together these learned ways of being in relationship blocked intimate sharing of primary emotions. Not able to tell Robert of her sadness, Jamie was essentially abandoned with feelings of dismissal, sadness, betrayal, and loneliness.
When Jamie held onto her dismissal and sadness via withdrawal and the understandable lack of trust that developed, she also unwittingly contributed to their negative cycle. This cycle completed by Robert’s inability to intimately share feelings of rejection, shame, defeat. His own perceived failure to change how his wife was feeling almost broke this relationship in two.
Together with the help of EFT and their therapist, they were able to:
- Identify their pattern
- Uncover the emotions hidden by their negative pattern
- And vulnerably share their connective primary emotions
As a result, they re-established the trust almost completely vacant when they first presented for EFT couple therapy.
Without new trust, Jamie wouldn’t have been able to say…
“I am really beginning again to feel him with me.”
Without tuning to hidden primary emotions, new trusted intimacy would not have emerged. It is quite likely their relationship would have ended in divorce. Understanding their pattern and revealing fearful emotion broke the negative tendency of their “chasm.” The door opened to them falling in love again… perhaps this 2nd time with much greater authenticity.
Joseph A. Losi, MA, LMFT
Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist
Co-Facilitator of “Hold Me Tight Seattle,”an Emotionally Focused Couples Workshop to jumpstart the EFT process in your relationship, with the skills to take home with you in your real life.