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Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples: Healing and Creating Connections

All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures. – Dr. John Bowlby

Have we really cracked the code on love and romantic bonding? Perhaps. Scientists, poets, and lovers have long grappled with the question: “What makes romantic love work?” Through the work of Dr. Sue Johnson and the development of Emotionally Focused Therapy, it looks like we have an answer.

Through decades of research on the importance of emotional bonding and what it is like to feel disconnected, isolated, and alone, relationship researchers are starting to unravel the mystery of love and adult romantic bonding and how to mend loving ties. The truth is, we are all hard-wired to connect to one another. This drive to connect is infinitely stronger in family and romantic relationships. To be emotionally isolated is harsh on our brains. Loving connections offer us a safe haven to go to where we can maintain our emotional balance, deal with stress, and respond more lovingly to our romantic partners. Essentially, when those connections are secure and strong, love is safe; love flourishes.

Unfortunately, disconnections between couples do happen and frustration, sadness, and anger are all too common in marital relationships. When those secure and loving bonds are threatened, emotional “primal panic” and a cycle of negative interactions ensues. These wounds can be difficult to repair for couples when left to their own abilities, and therapy is often the last step before looking to end the relationship. Unfortunately, many well-meaning therapists utilize their individual-based, time-tested techniques and attempt to apply them to relational interactions, which usually has little effect in restoring their loving bonds. In addition, many therapeutic techniques focus on helping partners change behaviors or thoughts, or teaching them communication skills. The common result from these approaches and techniques is that they usually struggle to gain traction, and the couple leaves therapy with less hope than before.

But there is hope. Within the last 25 years, a substantial amount of research has emerged that gives hope to couples on the brink and helps them tune in to their underlying emotions, identify their negative patterns of interaction, repair their attachment, and eventually create new patterns of bonding and positive interactions. This model is Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Grounded in the theory of attachment, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an experiential, short term, structured, and tested model of therapy designed to help couples identify their negative communication patterns, interrupt this pattern, and create more positive, bonding, and secure emotional patterns. EFT does not see individuals as “sick” or unskilled, but rather “stuck in habitual ways of dealing with emotions with others in key moments.” As the title reflects, priority is given to emotion as a key organizer of inner experiences. EFT looks within the emotional experience of the couples and how they navigate their emotional connectedness. Dr. Sue Johnson has said, “The EFT therapist has a map. A map to relationships and how they work. A map to how they go wrong. And map to what is needed to put them right.”

A substantial body of research has shown promising results of the effectiveness of EFT. Research studies find that 70-75 percent of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers and hospital clinics, and many different cultural groups throughout the world. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness.

In my work with couples, EFT has resonated with them on many levels. No longer are couples focused on fights and long-standing disagreements about specific content or trying to change the other person. When couples go through the process of EFT, perpetual problems are framed as negative disconnections that are about protests by each partner for a more loving connection and emotional safety. EFT takes the blame out of conflict and resentment and moves to fighting together against a common enemy—the negative pattern. As couples progress through the stages and steps of EFT and begin to accesses deeper emotions that underlie their struggle for connection, a new interaction emerges as individual partners see and experience each other differently. When partners experience each other as more accessible, responsive, and engaged, old wounds and negative patterns are healed, and love and emotional safety thrives.

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

Written by Dr. Jeremy Boden

Welcome American Fork couples therapist Tiffany Winegar, MS, LAMFT

 

New to the American Fork Center for Couples and Families team, Tiffany Winegar is taking new clients! She specializes in couples therapy, family therapy, anxiety/depression, self-esteem/self-actualization, perfectionism and teen/adolescent girls. Tiffany received her Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) from Brigham Young University, one of the top MFT programs in the world. Prior to, and during her masters program, Tiffany was mentored by world-renowned social relationships psychologist, Dr. Julianne-Holt Lunstand and worked as a member of her research team studying social relationships and health. In addition to her work with Dr. Holt-Lunstad, Tiffany has been involved in additional research in the field of health psychology including the study of stress and emotional regulation. She is passionate about applying the principles from her clinical training and research to improve the lives and relationships of her clients. Tiffany is a member of AAMFT (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy) and NCFR (National Council on Family Relations). Tiffany grew up in Southern California and now resides in Draper, UT with her husband and two boys.

Roads to Ruin, Bridges to Recovery

 

Lisa started drinking when she was 16, just casually with her friends. After her parents’ messy divorce, she started to overdo it. Later, in college, things started to get out of hand, and soon she was on a downward spiral of excessive drinking. She knew it was destroying her life, but she couldn’t stop.

Mark first saw pornography when he was 13, but he didn’t make a pattern of looking for it until he was 16. Mark wasn’t close to his parents, and felt like a loner at school, and when he felt bored or stressed he found pornography made him feel a lot better. Years later, he was fired from his job for looking at pornography at work. Soon after, his wife started talking about separation.

Looking for a Fix

It can be hard to understand why people continue with an addictive behavior, even when it threatens to destroy their life. What we often don’t understand is that things like alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography can sometimes feel like the only options people have to deal with the mess in their lives.

When our need feels desperate, the pressure to find a solution can be overpowering. Think of what it would be like to crawl through the desert for days, mouth as dry as sandpaper, only to come across a pitcher of cold water, with a sign that says “do not touch.” Would you be able to restrain yourself? This gives you some idea of what an addict feels when their brain is pushing them towards meeting a need, or in other words, getting a ‘fix’.

Our brain is wired to solve problems for us. It builds bridges between problems (hunger) and solutions (eating). If we are lucky, we have felt the incredible comfort that can come from someone who loves you and is there for you in your time of need, and so when we feel lonely or sad, it makes sense to turn to one of these people—our brain has built a bridge. But what if this isn’t an option in our mind? Maybe, like Lisa, our family doesn’t feel safe, or like Mark, we don’t have many friends. Where can we build a bridge to?

Fortunately, the brain is a great problem solver, and it will find a solution somewhere else. Unfortunately, under pressure, sometimes it will find a solution that leads down the path of an addictive behavior. Our brain will remember how great that thing felt, and how useful that could be right now. Each time we indulge the impulse, the bridge grows a little stronger, until after a while it feels like the only possible option, and becomes relatively automatic.

Building New Bridges

The good news is, this understanding can open up some big possibilities for recovery. Instead of focusing on just stopping the behavior (which is often frustrating and ineffective) we can instead focus on what the underlying problem is that the addiction is responding to. Then we can find an alternative solution that lines up better with the way we want to live, and gives us the comfort or support we really need. Often, this is best achieved by developing a supportive relationship, and learning to go there for comfort and support.

For example, Mark came to a full awareness of the impact of his addiction, and wanted to make changes. He was so used to hiding his issues and feelings and using pornography to deal with them, that it was hard to open up and be honest—with himself, his therapist, and his wife. But as he learned to go to his wife when he needed comfort and support, they both found that their marriage soon improved to a point where they felt closer than ever.

After crashing out at school, Lisa was referred by her school counselor to an AA meeting. There, she met with people who understood the pull of alcohol, who didn’t judge her, but instead supported her to overcome her addiction. She started to repair relationships with family and friends, and this, along with the support of her group and sponsor, gave her the motivation to get her life back on track.

Addiction affects everyone, everywhere. Often, the best thing we can do to overcome it is to develop caring and supportive relationships that address the underlying need, and help the addict know that they are loved and they are not alone. Recovery can be scary and difficult at first, but it becomes easier as you walk a new path of openness and connection to the people and things that are truly important to you.

Written by Sam Ryland, LCSW

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Turning Holiday Stress Into Holiday Joy

happy family mother and baby little child playing in the winter for the Christmas holidays

It was getting dangerously close to Christmas. I had all but finished my shopping for the season when I realized that I had one more gift to buy. I knew I couldn’t order it online because it wouldn’t arrive on time, so my thoughts turned to how to navigate the stores with other last-minute shoppers. I dreaded the prospect of full parking lots, busy aisles and long check-out lines, and lamented not finishing my gift buying earlier. There was no choice, however; I had to go. I don’t know what it is about shopping that close to Christmas, but the atmosphere seemed to be charged with holiday stress rather than holiday joy. When I arrived at the store, shoppers were rushing in and out, elbowing me out of the way—almost battering me with the gifts they had so lovingly chosen for their family. The drive over to this part of town didn’t help either. It was almost as if driving a mini-van was license for some to weave through traffic like the Apocalypse was here, and that the only thing standing between them and their empty cupboards at home was the last loaf of bread being sold at the store. This is where I started to get stressed and thought to myself, “Isn’t this supposed to be the best time of the year?” On that day, it didn’t feel like it.

How many of us experience an increased level of stress or even anxiety during the holidays? There are many reasons this could be the case: Trying to balance success at work and fitting in an abundance of errands, buying the “perfect” gift, lack of money/resources, more time with family or reminders of family losses (death or absence of a loved one).

The holidays, for some, equates more to holiday stress than holiday joy. Stress often leads to anxiety, a natural response to uncomfortable situations. Anxiety isn’t necessarily bad; it can cause us to act in ways that solve our problems. If experienced in excess or handled in an unhealthy manner, though, anxiety has the potential to cause mental health issues as well as ruin experiences that could bring us joy.

Given that holiday stress has the potential to turn into serious anxiety, and that anxiety is the most common mental health issue adults face (according to SAMHSA), we need to not let holiday stress turn into a holiday anxiety disorder!

The question, then, is how do we do this? How do we not let holiday worries and tasks become more than we can bear? Focusing on holiday rituals can help. Rituals are similar to traditions, in that they are actions or behavior we routinely participate in that have meaning to us. In his article “The Value of Rituals in Family Life,” Evan Imber-Black (2012) pinpoints five purposes behind family rituals. These can help us refocus our celebrations, and perhaps aid in letting go of unnecessary seasonal stress.

Relating – We create rituals during the holiday season to connect with others. It is easy to forget that the most important part of the holidays is being with the ones we love. Plan simple activities or gatherings that allow you and your loved ones to be together. Years after the wrapping paper has been thrown away, children often remember what you did together as a family more than what was under the tree. A ritual my family had when I was younger was cutting down our own Christmas tree. I am sure my siblings don’t remember every Christmas gift they received, but they do remember the year the Christmas tree we were cutting down fell on and trapped our youngest brother. This ritual has created humorous and loving memories for our family over the years.

Changing – Holiday rituals can highlight or ease us into changes in our family. As children grow older, we might celebrate this by having them participate in different and meaningful ways during the festivities. Perhaps give them tasks you normally took on, like organizing a game or making a treat. When children turn into young adults, some serve LDS missions. To mark this transition in life, ask them to prepare a traditional holiday meal from where they served. This allows them to participate and share a significant part of their life as they grow older.

Healing – During the holidays, we often remember those who have passed away or who are not present. It can also invoke memories of better times or more comfortable circumstances. This can be a stressful and painful experience. Creating rituals to honor and remember those who are gone can be healing and freeing. One family watches a home video of their son and shares memories about him as they sit together. This allows them to celebrate his memory and gives him a place in their family rituals. This family is able to heal and feels free to live even though their son is gone.

Believing – All too often, the meanings behind the holidays we celebrate are forgotten as we become focused on tasks, decorations, and planned events. In order to decrease anxiety and stress, make an effort to remember why you choose to celebrate this holiday. Deliberate attention on creating rituals that honor our beliefs helps us to refocus on what is most important.  Perhaps it will help simplify our celebrations, ease the task load, and teach younger family members the reason we celebrate.

Celebrating –  The holidays we choose to celebrate show what we value and who we are. They connect us with family members and others in the community. Choose to celebrate in ways that address the previously mentioned areas—creating relationships, changing, healing, and believing. If you are in a bicultural or interfaith family, discuss together how to share rituals that are important to each person so that all can feel included and connected in celebrating. If we say to ourselves after the holidays are over, “I thought that was supposed to be more fun,” then we might want to re-evaluate how we celebrate this time of year.

While it is impossible to turn off the traffic, crowds and even some of the busyness, it is possible to find holiday joy in a potentially stressful season. The tasks on our to-do lists can be part of family fun, but if they take away joy and create imposing anxiety instead, perhaps we could examine the purpose of our holidays. Let go of holiday stress and embrace healthy, simple and meaningful rituals.

Written by Triston Morgan, PhD LMFT

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Cure with Compassion: Relief for Every Day Perfectionists

Perfectionism is a common form of suffering today, and manifests in several ways. According to researchers of perfection, these manifestations include holding very high standards for

Young man cuts English lawn with a nail scissors

ourselves, and judging ourselves harshly for perceived failure. They also include holding very high standards for others and judging their failure, or believing that others are judging us for standards we are not living up to. Although some people experience perfectionism differently than others, and in different contexts, the end result of each of these judgements is shame. Shame gives rise to depression, stress, anxiety, and strained relationships.

The antidote to perfectionism entails practicing compassion. We practice compassion when we hold high standards for ourselves and use these high standards as aspirations to reach for, rather than a mark of personal worth. Rather than shaming ourselves when we fail, we accept our best efforts, and try again the next day. We do the same for others when we allow them to have their own standards, and trust that they are trying their best. We also practice compassion when we do not allow ourselves to take on the judgement of others, but rather allow others their own opinions. Judging others harshly hurts everyone involved, and is incredibly difficult to do accurately.

All of this takes practice. Working through perfectionism is not easy, but is possible. It requires self-awareness and honesty. We can ask, “Do I set unrealistic expectations for myself?” If the answer is yes, perhaps trying to set more realistic goals may help. Allow yourself to be a human being with real limitations and weaknesses. Also remember that setbacks are normal. Life consists of lesson after lesson. Learning from our mistakes creates peace, and helps us feel ready to do things differently next time. For those struggling with other people not meeting their personal expectations, try asking yourself, “Are these expectations realistic for this person?” or “Is it my place to have this expectation?” Setting standards for others often leads to frustration for everyone involved. We can only change ourselves, and holding goals and standards for others only leads to resentment when they can’t or won’t measure up.

For those who feel they can never live up to the expectations of family, friends, or even strangers, learning to let go helps. Exercising compassion for who you are while doing your best will bring you peace. Using self-talk that reminds you that you are okay and cannot lose value based on what anyone thinks, may offer some relief. It can be hard to let go of what others think. The truth is, we are all on our own journey, and need to make decisions for ourselves. When personal choices do not win approval, finding common ground and accepting how personal decisions may affect others is helpful.

Try to find a way to feel compassion for the very real, very human people in your life. Everyone, the perfectionist included, is fully worthy of love, acceptance, and happiness. Try to understand, the stress perfectionism causes takes a toll on the perfectionist as well. Practicing self-reflection about the fundamental worth of ourselves and others can bring joy through learning with those we love, becoming better versions of ourselves together. This growth tends to unfold when we accept our weaknesses and take responsibility for how we affect others, even when it is difficult. Health is found in balance, in the ebb and flow of life, not in still waters.

Written by:

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Play Therapy: What is it, and How Will it Help My Child?

 

When adults come to therapy, they can adequately express themselves

using their words and having discussions with their therapist; however, when children come to therapy this may not be the case. Many children do not have the words to express what there are experiencing at home, at school, with friends, etc. Further, children may not be aware of what they are feeling because they do not yet understand what different emotions feel like. Therefore, they would need an outlet which allows them to talk without using words, and without being restricted by a lack of cognitive development. Play therapy helps eliminate these barriers that children face when they come to therapy.

Play therapy allows children to express themselves with the use of toys and actions. It occurs in a safe and caring environment where the child is allowed to play freely with minimal limitations (e.g. safety precautions). Sometimes a therapist may prompt the child’s play during a session; however, most therapists allow children to play with the toys they want, how they want. Play therapy should not make a child feel that they are in therapy or that they are being analyzed. Sessions can last anywhere from 30-50 minutes, depending on the child. A play therapy session can include just the child, the child and their parents, or the entire family, depending on the situation that brings the child in for therapy.

One question to consider when seeking a play therapist for your child is, “Does my child feel comfortable with the therapist?” Because the child will need to express himself/herself through play, it is important for your child to feel safe and comfortable with the therapist. If your child does not feel safe, then play therapy will not be effective.

For parents, this random play may appear to be pointless, because it is “something that children can do at home.” But, when play is done in a therapeutic setting, it will allow the child to process through their experiences and then begin to heal. One explanation for this is that children unconsciously (or consciously) act out whatever they are experiencing in their life, and when a therapist is present, they can reflect back to the child things that they notice (e.g. it seems like the doll doesn’t have any friends to play with, that’s lonely). This reflection helps give the child words to express their experiences, as well as helping the child feel understood and validated.

Play therapy allows adults access to a child’s world. Using toys and actions the therapist can communicate with the child wherever the child is at in their cognitive development. Further, it allows the therapist to help facilitate the healing process by understanding the child and responding back in the way the child needs. Children need to feel validated and heard as much as adults do; play therapy is one way to do this. Children deserve to have a life where they are not burdened by life’s problems, and play therapy is one way to help unburden your child.

Written by – Lexi Lee, MS, LAMFT

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Strength in Weakness: Connecting as a Couple When Life is Hard

 

Hispanic Couple Viewing Potential New Home

A couple I once worked with in therapy some time ago—let’s call them Kevin and Gloria—seemed to have a lot going for them: Kevin had a good job and Gloria was active in her community, and they were raising four healthy kids. They reported, however, that as family pressures had built up they had felt a growing distance from each other, and each time they tried to talk about their individual or family challenges, criticism and defensiveness soon followed, and one or both of them would get hurt or angry while nothing was resolved.

Through therapy, they learned how to create a safe space for each other to open up and go a bit deeper. A big breakthrough came when Kevin started sharing about intense criticism he had felt as a child. He talked about his fear of his own children going through the same thing. This helped explain why he felt so strongly about a particular issue. Gloria then shared her own experiences as a mother, comparing herself to other mothers, and her fear of failing to live up to expectations. This helped Kevin better understand the challenges Gloria faced every day.

Although they still disagreed on many issues (and probably always will), they deeply understood each other. They felt a desire to support each other, and suddenly some of the issues didn’t seem so big anymore. Each expressed a feeling of relief, like a weight being lifted off of their shoulders, and more confidence in their relationship.

One of the main goals of relationship therapy is to help couples (1) open up and (2) learn to be ok about the messy details of their own and each other’s lives. Trying to be perfect, individually or as a couple, can add a lot of pressure, which can turn a couple against each other and create a cycle of fighting and withdrawing that hurts the relationship. If, in the middle of all of this mess, both partners can learn to really listen to each other and just be there for each other, things will get much better. To do this, we need to listen, and open up.

Listen

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about something you are struggling with, only to have them ignore what you said and start rattling off all of the pressures they are facing? How useful was that? But how often does this happen to partners under stress! It can be hard to listen to your partner’s troubles when your mind is so full of your own, but when two people are both trying to be heard, it means neither of them are listening.

Listen to your partner. Set aside, for a moment, your own issues and give them as much space as they need. You will disagree with some of what they say, I can almost guarantee it, but this isn’t the time for resolution or debate, this is the time to show your partner you care and that you want to understand them. After all, the best research we have says that 70% of all relationship differences are never resolved anyway, so let’s stop beating our heads against the wall, and start listening with the intent to understand. The goal is just to listen, not to resolve.

Opening Up

Opening up is more than just sharing our complaints and opinions. Sometimes we will need to do a bit of self-exploration first. Maybe when your partner arrived home late without texting and you were angry, underneath that was the memory of your own father arriving home late or not at all, and the hurt you felt associated with that. The anger will push your partner away, but the painful memory may help him or her connect with you and want to support you.

There may be many other secrets or hidden thoughts, feelings or memories you hold back from your partner out of embarrassment or fear of rejection. However, consider the power of feeling loved for who you are, even though there are some parts of you you’re not especially happy about. When we stop holding back the messy parts of ourselves, we are showing trust for our partner’s capacity to love us unconditionally.

Made Strong Through Weakness

Strong relationships aren’t created by perfect people—they become strong when we are willing to drag all of our imperfections out into the open and say, “Here I am, in all of my mess, can you still love me and stick with me?” This is the glue that holds a relationship together, even in the hard times: needing someone, and feeling needed at the same time.

Written by:

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness

Secrets to Being a Happy Mom

 

I have a love/hate relationship with blogs, Instagram and Facebook. They’re great because they keep me connected with people I care about, but not so great when they intensify my perfectionist tendencies. On rough days, I often catch myself comparing myself to other moms—I scroll through their photos and think to myself, How on earth is she keeping the house clean with four kids? or I don’t get how she looks good all the time whereas I can’t find time to brush my hair,or How is it that her kids all look like they came out of a Janie and Jack catalogue?Logic goes out the window as I become fixated on what I perceive the world views as the “perfect mother” and I slowly feel myself becoming unhappy.

As a therapist, this unhappiness sets off an internal alarm saying that I need to stop and process what’s happening. In moments of weakness, we often doubt ourselves. We lose confidence and forget about our unique capabilities and needs. We get caught up in what we perceive the world thinks our needs and capabilities should be. We believe we have to be perfect, and when we fall short of that unachievable standard we experience shame. The truth is obvious, but can be difficult to accept: we will never be perfect and that’s okay.

There are several things mothers can do to work through this damaging mindset:

1) Stop the comparisons. It’s easy to compare yourself to others, but it is important to note that we all come from different circumstances. Our upbringings, personalities, and hardships are different. Not only is comparing ourselves to others a bad idea that often leads to shame and despair, but     we fundamentally lack the context to make an accurate comparison.

2) Adjust expectations. Take a deep breath and relax. Re-evaluate and figure out what is realistic and what isn’t. Before becoming a mom, I spent many years studying and working with families professionally. I had wonderful imaginations of how I would be as a mother. Then, when I became one, I discovered the bar was set so high I couldn’t even see it. It was overwhelming, so I had to compromise. 15-20 minutes a day of one-on-one quality time with my kids is fine. It’s okay if I go out once a week with my kids instead of 4 or 5 times a week. Those things are still accomplishments. Re-assessing what is realistic and planning to do less was a welcome relief; I discovered that I actually accomplish more because I’m in control.

3) Be kinder to yourself. It’s okay to have a moment when you are frustrated with your kids. Allow yourself to be imperfect and accept it with open arms. Fight the natural inclination to feel shame when you slip up—you’re only human.

4) Own your mistakes. Be an example to your kids of what it looks like to make mistakes and bounce back from them. Your kids don’t need a perfect mom, they need a happy mom who teaches them how to deal with reality. Show them that making mistakes is a part of life—this is a profound lesson that will serve them well. Living this lesson will empower you, too.

Perfectionism is a trap that can catch even the best of us, but when we recognize we’re stuck, we can take steps to get out. We’ll never be perfect, but with work we can be perfectly happy with that.

Written by:

Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine