Accessing Emotion in Withdrawn Partners

“How do I access emotion in a withdrawn partner?” 

This common challenge throws many E.F.T. therapists off-balance.  The model says that evoking vulnerable emotion is key.  With stoic denial of feelings, intellectualizing & defensive reactions, we seem to have one hand tied behind our backs.  Here are a few tips garnered from E.F.T.’ersand experience to help access emotion that seems absent:

1)  Guide the Withdrawer in to an Experience:  In attachment neurology, dismissive and avoidant strategies necessitate that I down-regulate my emotions.  The goal seems to be for me to have a hurt-free, pain-free and sadness-free life.  If I am pushing my own emotional experience aside or compartmentalizing it, questions like, “How do you feel about…” don’t resonate.  So it behooves us, as Jim Furrow, EFT Trainer says, “to guide withdrawers in to an experience.”  We look for images, words, what’s not being said, to craft a moment in the session that may be pregnant with untapped emotion.

TH:  So Kate, you are saying that when you come home, you are often in trouble with Jill, yes?

Kate:  Yes, almost always lately…

TH:  In trouble, in this dance you are in with her, you become, how did you say it?

Kate:  The disappointment (said with flat affect)

TH:  You sit a few feet away from her right now, if you look at her (Kate does briefly), there is the woman you are disappointing…yes, in your dance.

Kate:  ah-ha…(looks away from Kate to therapist)

TH:  You the disappointment, in trouble again, maybe in trouble right now even?

Kate:  You can see it, she’s so stern.  Of course, she’s upset now, because I’m not changing fast enough.

TH:  This is what happens in the negative dance between you both.  Right now…disappointment (repeating trigger word), right now, you are the disappointment…you are in trouble (repeating Trigger)…(therapist pauses).

Kate has brief flash of sadness or pain across her eyes.

TH:  Can you help me understand now, what’s happening being the disappointment, in trouble again in this cycle with Jill?

Kate:  Of course, I don’t like it, it is not what I want…I guess…(silent pause)…I don’t know.  It’s no big deal, I just shut it down really.

TH:  You don’t know, you don’t know, but you do know you don’t like being a disappointment to Jill.  You shut it down.

Kate:  No (she’s looking intensely at the therapist), no, I guess not…don’t think about it really, just try to…

TH:  What, you don’t focus on this?  You don’t stop to feel this do you?  You just shut it down in the dance (pause), shut down on the outside, but in your eyes, there’s something else Kate?  yes…(slow, in R.I.S.S.S.C. mode)?

Kate:  I don’t…it…it hurts…I don’t like to talk about this.

TH: It hurts being a disappointment…hurts right now, yes?

Kate tears up: I hurts, it hurts, for a long time I guess.

Jill looks confused, agitated:  This is new, this doesn’t make sense to me, if she hurts so much…

Therapist (catch the bullet):  Jill, I know, this is new, and doesn’t make sense, can you stay with me a bit, hold on and we’ll come back to that.  I think something important is happening for your partner, for Kate (back to Kate).  Right Kate, you are hurting, I see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice.

Kate (more tears):  Yes, I don’t like, I don’t like hurting.

Therapist:  hurting in your dance with Jill

Kate:  Hurting in this dance with you (she looks at Jill).

The therapist utilizes empathetic reflections, a validating presence, a focus on the cycle for scaffolding and the evocative reflection of emotional micro-cues to guide this withdrawn partner in to her experience.

2)  Stay Near Tears and Fears:  If a withdrawer accesses some primary emotion, they will often move away from it. Some exits are necessary or they will feel cornered or trapped, so a gentle, “Bill, you were tearing up a moment ago and now you sound frustrated.”  Validate the frustration, and then, “When I said to you, it’s lonely perhaps, for you too, the tears came?”  Bill agrees and then, “Can we go back there, to those tears, to that lonely place that you keep to yourself?”  This also communicates that we are able to tolerate and be with their primary affect.

3)  Acknowledge effort and intent:  Effort and intent are often very important to withdrawers.  They are guarded, behind a protective shield, trying to be connected without risk in a sense.  Therapists who learn to notice positive intent and effort while tolerating the pursuer’s complaints that effort and intent are not enough, begin creating a safe place for the withdrawn partner’s experience.   Partner’s want their good character to be seen and often withdrawn partner’s can experience E.F.T. in Stage One as blaming or shaming if we are not careful to provide reframes, put behaviors in the cycle and acknowledge effort and good intent.

4)  Access Pursuer’s Longing:  Sometimes, a pursuer’s longing for connection stated vulnerably can be a doorway in to a withdrawer’s experience.  We’ll hear things like, “I want that too,” and we get the first hints that the withdrawn partner longs for something more than just getting out of trouble or not triggering conflict.

5)  Explore the attachment significance of a withdrawer’s behavior in the negative dance:  Sometimes we can grow frustrated with the flat expressions, dismissal of close connection, and protests that the blaming pursuer is just too needy, too emotional, or needs to learn to take care of their own needs.  To look beneath and find the attachment significance, “you come to these meetings and work so hard in your career, all these things you do, you are telling me you do for her?”  We go in to this and expand the partner’s connection to the partner by exploring the behavioral door.  What they do to contribute to the family, financially, behaviorally, and in other ways that may not show vulnerability but imply connection?  Acknowledging this and going a bit deeper, we often find an opening to the hurt/pain of not being appreciated, the shame of being a disappointment and the sadness of feeling alone in the dance too.

6)  Defensive, Hostile Withdrawal as Protective:  A key reframe or perhaps closer to the truth frame is see angry, hostile withdrawal as protective.  We can lean in to the anger and defensiveness.  We can listen for the word protect, for synonyms, for images and stories that imply or state directly, “I am trying to protect myself and our relationship by (withdrawing, not sharing, not opening up, etc).”  For many therapists, it is easier at times to see the underlying yearning for closer connection, for a response, in the anger of a harsh pursuer.  Learning to find the protective nature of hostile/defensive withdrawing helps us bring the cycle more depth, fosters more acceptance, and gives us a way to validate the withdrawing partner’s moves and emotional vulnerability.

7)  Access the Withdrawer Within:  Emotional pursuing therapists often struggle to make sense of emotional withdrawal (and vice versa).  Going within to find times in our life when we have withdrawn, shut down, retreated from a relationship can be invaluable.  In those experiences, we find empathy and compassion for this position in the painful negative demand-withdrawal, Protest Polka (Johnson, Hold Me Tight®), or negative cycle.

These are just a few tips to help generate thought about accessing emotion, we welcome your ideas and questions about this.