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Moving Past Blame In Couples Therapy

Written by Reuven Rosen, LMSW

Often, when couples come to me, they tell me that they hope to solve their marital discord by learning effective communication skills. I think that secretly, at least one of the partners is hoping that I will validate their outlook as the correct one and secretly, at least one of the partners is anxious that I am going to side against them and say that they are causing all of the problems. So, my first task as the therapist is to dispel these myths and explain to the couple that I am not going to be teaching skills, and I am not going to be deciding who is right. Rather, as a couples therapist who looks through the lens of Emotionally Focused Therapy, I can be viewed more as a process consultant.

What does a process consultant do? As the term implies, the consultant observes the process, sees where it gets sluggish, works to understand what is causing the breakdown and then helps to make it smoother. Once viewing their communication through an EFT lens, couples quickly realize that their arguments often follow predictable patterns in which each partner reacts and responds within a repetitive role . This “aha” moment occurs and the couple is then empowered to create new interactive styles which lead to greater connection.

In her book, Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, outlines three of the common patterns which couples find themselves engaging in. These three “Demon Dialogues” as she calls them are:

  • “Find the Bad Guy” – This is like a ping-pong game where couples go back and forth trying to prove how the other person is causing the problem. Neither one ends up convincing the other , and both partners are left feeling frustrated and unheard

  • “Protest Polka” – One partner initiates an interaction in a negative way (through anger, sarcasm, attacking…) and the other partner withdraws and does not engage. This response angers the initiating partner which causes the other person to withdraw even more.

  • “Freeze and Flee” - Both partners choose to withdraw and ignore issues that are building. This results in suppression of feelings and loss of connection.

During an EFT session, couples are guided to recognize the roles they fall into during arguments and understand why they may feel most comfortable in those roles. They then work together to break out of their old cycle and experience communicating in a healthier, more effective way.


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