By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
Imagine listening in on a small part of an argument Sharon and Jake are having with one another:
Sharon: “How many times do I have to tell you to clean up your dishes after you eat. You are so irresponsible. Why don’t you grow up! I’m not your mother.”
Jake: “Don’t be such a nag! You’re always getting on my case for one reason or another. Why do you have to be so critical? You don’t think about all the things I do do for you.”
I could go on extensively with this dysfunctional (ineffective, nonconstructive) somewhat typical “dialogue,” but we already have plenty of material (information) to analyze, think about, and learn from. First, notice that neither one of them is actually saying what they are feeling. (This might not be immediately apparent.) Their negative feelings are implied, but not stated directly.
We can assume that they are probably communicating their negative feelings towards one another mainly through their tones of voice, facial expressions, bodily movements, etc. That is, their negative (aversive) feelings towards one another are communicated nonverbally and paralinguistically (especially, through the verbal accompaniments of their voices — also called prosody). They probably are not considering the possibility that some of what they are currently feeling and perceiving is colored (influenced, distorted), transferred, and replicated (duplicated, repeated) from significant relationships in their pasts.
In their interchange they never say things like: “I feel angry (frustrated, resentful, fed up, furious, etc.”) They probably can’t easily identify, label, and express their feelings while they are having them. We could say that they are not as yet emotionally literate. They do not as yet have some of the skills necessary to effectively and constructively communicate with one another. They probably get stuck in the same dysfunctional (nonconstructive, unhealthy) arguments over and over again.
Instead of talking in such a way where problems might be talked out constructively, and resolutions found, they blame, shame, mock, put down, belittle, scold, and non-constructively criticize one another. Clearly, they need a lot of help. But how much help will they actually get from the couple therapist they see?
A great majority of couple therapists focus on clients’ thinking, reasoning, and behavior. Not infrequently, their clients’ feelings (emotions) are downplayed, passed over, or not even perceived. So what happens, again not infrequently, is that the partners go for couples therapy for a while, don’t feel they are making much progress, and then stop going to sessions.
In addition, they often leave therapy without talking out their dissatisfactions with their therapist. They do not give their therapist the opportunity, time, and necessary feedback in which to make modifications to their therapy so as to be able to help them get more out of it. So, they are just as dysfunctional in communicating with their therapist as they are with one another.
Further, a great majority of couple therapists do not deal (or deal much) on an unconscious level. As a result, even if feelings are focused on, the clients do not get to the deeper root causes of the feelings they are currently having problems and difficulties with. And here I am referring not to just conscious memories clients have of the past — whether in their current relationship or in their childhoods. In my view, these conscious memories are just the tip of the iceberg.
Most feelings (and thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, perceptions, bodily experiences, etc.) occur on a non-conscious or unconscious level. If one focuses just on the conscious surface of each individual’s mind, or the couple’s dialogue, one will miss out on most of what is occurring within each individual’s mind and between the partners in the couple. Put another way, in terms of information processing, by restricting one’s attention and focus only to what is going on consciously, one will not be able to access or make use of all the potential, valuable information about the couple’s problems that is hidden, buried, or unformed deep down within them. Research from brain science (neuroscience) confirms the view of the primary importance of focusing on feelings and non-conscious events in the mind.
It is my perspective that solid progress is much more likely to occur in couple therapy when feelings and emotions are put in the forefront (not in the background) of the therapeutic work. I believe that couple therapists who emphasize feelings over cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, etc.) and behaviors (actions) will be in a much better position to be able to help their suffering, distressed, and frustrated clients. Dysfunctional, interactional patterns (the repetitive, often escalating [closer to being out of control]) discussions that take place between partners, need to be disrupted. Partners need to be given effective and more psychologically mature alternatives to their failed attempts to make things better between them. Real hope is possible to significantly improve relationships when quality, emotionally focused, depth therapy is provided.
There are many different models (approaches, theories) therapists use in their practices of doing couple therapy. One way of thinking about, organizing, and comparing these models is to place them into broad categories. Theoretical models/ approaches include the following: Behavioral, Humanistic, Existential, Psychodynamic/ Psychoanalytic, Transgenerational, Social Constructionist, Systemic, and Integrative. There are different ways of placing the large variety of these approaches into different categories.
Clients usually do not know (nor are they particularly interested in knowing about) the technicalities involved here. They are more interested (which is quite understandable) in what works for them — what helps them solve problems between them, and what helps them communicate and feel better about one another, and themselves. They are also interested in what they think about, and how comfortable and compatible they feel with, their therapist.
In conclusion, I am presenting the point of view that focusing on feelings and emotions in couple therapy is of central importance. Helping partners to think and communicate more rationally and logically is very important, but helping partners to manage, moderate, and regulate their emotions is of primary importance. When most people get drawn into, and swept up in a highly charged emotional battle with one another, their capacities to make use of their thinking skills (mediated or overseen predominantly in the left brain [hemisphere]) become impaired. We need to give a priority to helping couples master their emotions so that they won’t be taken over and hijacked by them. In neuroscience (brain science) terms, we need to be more focused on the functioning of the right brain (or hemisphere) (which predominantly mediates or processes emotions) than the left. Focusing of feelings (or affect) is a key to deriving (getting, finding, discovering) meaning and significance to what is being communicated between people in a committed relationship.