ERP 369: Develop The Skills For Secure Attachment In Relationship — An Interview With EJ & Tarah Kerwin

By Posted in - Podcast April 25th, 2023 0 Comments

Developing secure attachment skills in a relationship is crucial for creating a strong and lasting bond with your partner. In this fast-paced world, it can be easy to neglect your relationship and fail to prioritize the emotional safety that comes with a secure attachment. However, neglecting your relationship can have long-term consequences and negatively impact both you and your partner.

In this episode, Dr. Jessica Higgins, EJ, and Tarah Kerwin discuss the skills needed to develop secure attachments in relationships. They provide actionable steps to help you strengthen your attachment style and create a more loving and fulfilling partnership.

Whether you’re single, dating, or in a long-term relationship, listen to this episode to discover how you can develop secure attachment skills in your relationships.

EJ and Tarah Kerwin are the hosts of The Relationship Renovation Podcast. They are two licensed therapists, a married couple raising a blended family with four children, and owners of a couples counseling center in Tucson, AZ. They have created a couples counseling program that has supported thousands of couples in creating more secure, loving, and intimate relationships.

In this Episode

6:31 The birth of the couples counseling center.

11:43 Creating emotional safety and support: Understanding secure attachment in couples therapy.

17:07 Recognizing negative core beliefs and learning from conflict.

23:33 Creating emotional safety in heterosexual relationships: Understanding triggers, developing compassion, and managing conflict.

27:56 Improving relationships through self-reflection and shared responsibility.

34:30 The importance of holding hope and creating a secure, loving, and more deeply intimate connection with one’s partner.39:15 Building safe and strong relationships through somatic work.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Learn about the different attachment styles, including anxious, avoidant, and secure, to better understand yourself and your partner’s behavior in the relationship.
  • Practice emotional regulation skills, such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness, to manage emotions in a healthy and constructive way.
  • Improve communication by practicing active listening, expressing emotions and needs clearly, and validating your partner’s emotions.
  • Build safety in the relationship by practicing vulnerability, being reliable, and showing empathy and care.
  • Incorporate somatic work, such as breathwork and movement, to develop a deeper connection with your body and emotions.
  • Consider seeking professional help from a licensed therapist or counselor to work on improving your relationship and developing secure attachment skills.

Mentioned

Relationship Renovation Counselling Centre

Relationship Renovation at Home Program

Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 291: How “Love Is Not Enough” – An Interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with EJ & Tarah Kerwin

Websites: relationshiprenovation.com

Facebook: relationshiprenovationcounseling

TikTok: tiktok.com/@relationshiprenovation

YouTube: youtube.com/channel/UCfb8I3evBi7aZcVnmvN_yPw

Instagram: instagram.com/relationship_renovation

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

EJ and Tarah, thank you for joining us today.

Oh, you bet! Thank you for having us on.

Thank you, we are very happy to be here.

Yeah. I loved just even talking with you both a little bit before starting this conversation and interview here, your love for attachment. Before we get into today’s topic, I would love to hear from both of you about what got you into supporting couples and relationship.

So we’ve both been clinicians. I’ve been a clinician for almost 20 years, Marriage and Family Therapist, and EJ was Licensed Professional Counselor. Of course, we met at our job, we were both working with clients who struggled with eating disorders. We started dating, really great communication, loved each other. EJ had two kids from his previous marriage, they were pretty young when we got engaged and got married. So a year and a half after we started dating, we got married, we went on our honeymoon, came back pregnant with twins. So in a year and a half, I had gone from zero to four kids, and this kind of blended family. Let me just emphasize that the twins had colic, both of them. So I was nursing every hour, I was not sleeping for five days at a time. EJ and I, we had to go by the minivan. There were many times I got in that minivan, and I said, “I am out of here. I did not sign up for this.” I had no idea what overwhelmed meant during that transition. 

Again, this moment is very clear. I was on this little run with the twins jogging stroller, because the only time they would really be quiet is if they were jiggling a little in their stroller. I called EJ and I said, “EJ, we have to start a couples counseling center. This is not okay. If we’re struggling like this, and we have a lot of the tools and we know a lot of theory, and we’ve always had a good relationship. If this transition is this hard for us, we have to support our community.” And we did. Within a year, we opened up our couples counseling center, and that was seven years ago. Now there are 15 of us here, rocking it with couples, and helping them just heal and build transition skills and understand each other better. That’s our story for me in a nutshell of, like, we took our own train wreck of what was happening in our relationship, and tried to make it a diamond.

I think it just really took us both by surprise. Because we were so in love, and we had such a great connection. I remember, prior to Tarah and I getting together, where I literally made a list of what I was looking for in a partner, and she just nailed it in every single component of it. Then, literally two years later, it felt like, literally daily, the wheels were coming off the bus. Like Tarah said, it was just like, if we’re struggling through this with the information we have, and we’re older getting into a relationship. If we’re struggling, we’ve got to take this personal experience and translate it into supporting others. 

The other thing that we connected with really early on, because both of us had been working in the eating disorder realm for a while, was we knew that if you do the same type of work over and over and over, you just get really good at it. So we wanted to apply that same thing to couples. We know that a lot of therapists see a few couples, and the bulk of their work is individual work. So we were like, if we really want to get good at this, if we want to help others get good at this, we’ve got to focus on this; we’ve got to do this day after day after day. So what it led to, I think, is we do really wonderful work with couples. Then in our podcast, we have really great information with a breadth of knowledge coming out of all that work to support couples. 

Well, I agree. This is probably true for any industry, that if one is focused, they’d be able to develop an expertise and a mastery. So I really appreciate what you’re saying, EJ. Tarah, you’re saying something that I so resonate with in my own experience, that I felt pretty well-equipped to negotiate relationship. I had a Master’s at this point in psychology and undergrad in psychology, and then grew up in a family where a lot of the communication practices and principles were really utilized and emphasized. I thought that if you put all of the ingredients into the mix of chemistry and really feeling the same goals, and then you have these psychology and relational principles, I felt really well-equipped. I had a whole confrontation with that, that it wasn’t enough at all. So I so appreciate what the both of you are offering, and just willing to share your own journey, and really listening to what you needed, and being able to provide that for others.

Thank you. I know, I think back. The twins are nine now, and I just think back in that first year and where we are today, and all of the couples we’ve supported, and just the work EJ and I continue to do in our relationship on a daily basis. Who would have thought in that time of suffering, when I’m literally in this minivan sobbing, that nine years later, it would become this miracle and this drive to do what we do right now. So I just feel so grateful every day.

Wonderful! Well, I know today’s conversation is on the theme of attachments, one of my very favorite couples frameworks, as we look at assisting people and understanding what’s at play. I know that there’s a lot that’s out there in the world, and I think the understanding around this has been growing in the last 15 plus years. But I would love to hear your voice around this. When you talk about secure attachment, is there anything you want to say about what you’re referring to and what you both mean around this?

“I think on the most simple level, when we talk to a couple about secure attachment, it’s the ability to give and receive love freely.”

That all of the baggage, the barriers, the blocks that are established, especially early in childhood and early adulthood, that we become aware of those barriers, and then with our partner, move towards this secure attachment, where we’re aware of those obstacles, and we’re supportive of one another in working through them.

Yes. For me, the term of the words emotional safety is very powerful for me when I discuss secure attachment and secure connection within a coupleship. Because emotional safety to me is like, I can have these strong feelings, or my partner can have these strong feelings; they can be uncomfortable, they can be comfortable, whatever it is. But that our nervous system together is like, that’s okay, we can regulate this. I can regulate this on my own, but my partner is here to support me to also have my back. 

“What usually happens when couples don’t understand this is, one partner will have an uncomfortable or a big emotion, and then the other person, because they don’t know what it’s triggering their own stuff, they defend themselves against it.”

Instead of saying, “Wow, I can see you’re going through a really difficult moment right now. How can I support you?” So I always give these little examples of what emotional safety looks like. It’s surprising, because I would say 80 plus percent of our couples have never been able to say, “Yes, I’ve had emotional safety.” Whether it was growing up within their family of origin, or the two of them together over 10, 20, 30 years, they have never been able to have emotional safety in their relationship. They’re just in this constant defend, blame, guilt, resentment, whatever it is. So we just really help them slow it down. We always take them through attachment theory in the first few sessions, because again, couples will come in, they’ve dealt with infidelity, they’re dealing with horrible communication. They want to talk about it, they want to fix it. We say, listen, there’s kind of a process to this. In order to really understand how you guys got here, we really have to look at your attachment history. So we spend a lot of time, and couples love it. They love it, they don’t even realize what they’re bringing in or what’s happening in those moments. I know that was like a really long explanation. 

No, it’s super important. I also find, so the way that I work is they focus on one partner and then I focus on the other, and it’s usually one session. But it can be so illuminating what they experienced around comfort, around feeling responded to or not responded to, how that was negotiated. That’s a tremendous amount of learning, and that informs their tendencies typically. So to be able to give us some insight and spotlight to that, I think just even that in and of itself can be a huge change agent.

I think the biggest thing we see right away when we take them through that, what we do is a genogram, which is a breakdown of the building blocks of where you came from, all the way back to your grandparents down, and then a timeline up until when you met your partner. The biggest thing that we noticed is just an uptick in empathy and compassion for the partner. Because oftentimes, by the time they get to couples counseling, there’s a real deficit there. That they see their partner as almost the enemy, that they’re in this place of whatever the behaviors of their partner are that they find disruptive. They’re just so angry, so upset, so hurt. Then all of a sudden, they see their partner in a much more rich way, and their heart opens up a little bit. Maybe they don’t have the solutions yet to the problems that led them into counseling. But at least there’s a softening, and to us, that’s really the beginning of the work.

Totally. There can be a reframe, to your point, around certain tendencies or ways in which people protect themselves, what’s happening on the inside, that that is what they’ve been seeing on the outside, is usually like, “Oh, you don’t care, or you just want to change me,” or whatever the dance is. But it’s so helpful to have that perspective.

So there are many moments I get goosebumps when I’m sitting in sessions with a couple, and I see healing happening, and shifting and increased awareness, and identification of negative core beliefs that actually happened in those times that you can’t quite get to consciously in those moments. When couples are able to understand at a deeper level, what’s happening during conflict. For example, I’ll just use EJ and I. We would get into conflict. I would just be like, “Why are you making me feel this way? How could you not understand This?” I did my own work, and usually, in most conflicts, I have this negative core belief of I’m insignificant. But I didn’t know that. So I’m just pushing past that and being like, “Stop making me feel that way. Stop making me feel that way!” But when I got to understand where I’m insignificant comes from, because how often do we look at our life from a timeline perspective, from birth until now? I was able to go back and recognize so many moments in my life, where I’m insignificant. Yes, EJ is triggering them. But he is not the one that caused it; my negative core belief goes back early, early on. 

When EJ recognized it wasn’t just him making me feel that way, he was like, “Oh my, it’s not just my fault.” I think that’s very empowering for couples, again, we’re taking them through this whole attachment. They recognize, “Oh my, she or he has been like this for a really long time, it wasn’t just my fault.” Then there’s that opening, to have that compassion and empathy. Those are the moments where couples really start to shift and develop this new narrative for themselves. Again, it’s freedom for me. 

“When we’re not hijacked by our attachment issue, then we can understand them to always be there. But we have freedom to be who we need to be, and then our partner understands that. Hence, secure functioning.”

Yeah. This goes back to what you were saying, EJ, similarly, that when we can have more visibility to what’s operating, and perhaps where this got learned, or how this got developed, we can recognize that tenderness or that insecurity or longing or discontent, or woundedness even, and have a little more contact with that, I’m hearing you say.

Yeah, absolutely. One of the sayings, we have it out in our lobby, is “Your partner can be your greatest teacher, can you be patient for the lesson?” 

“That’s a big shift, I think, for couples when they realize that this hurt that is being triggered by their partner, really what it’s doing is it’s activating their deepest suffering.”

Because it’s your partner, who at one point things were very simple at the beginning of your relationship, that your partner is hitting this deep, deep pain. Instead of seeing like, well their behavior is yucky and horrible and all this, instead of it, seeing like, they’re sort of highlighting this area where if I really want to evolve in this life, I have to address this. If I have that awareness, and then my partner is also like, I’ll help you in that. Because it’s not my responsibility to never trigger Tarah, but it is my responsibility to understand when she is triggered, and adapt in that moment, versus becoming reactive and being like, why are you acting so unreasonably right now?

Well, and this comes back to what you were speaking to, Tarah, that the safety, hopefully in these sessions that we’re referring to, that we’re helping assist in slowing things down, helping them recognize and establish a safe environment, so that we can be more revealing, and show these inside parts that maybe we weren’t even aware of. I can tell you, I’ll raise my hand here with my husband. Even though I know all of these things, it’s still so hard and difficult to say the thing I’m ashamed about. It’s less difficult now that we’ve been together for 17 plus years. But still, being in the practice, I can still recognize, it doesn’t feel fun, it doesn’t feel good. It’s not the impulse to share the thing that is deep down super vulnerable. Luckily, we build enough safety so that I feel more encouraged, and I obviously know what’s on the other side of that, and greater intimacy. But the safety is huge in being able to find each other in these moments that often get off track.

Absolutely, and I love the experience that you share. The vulnerability EJ and I share on our podcast or in sessions, couples love to know they’re not alone. They come in thinking they’re uniquely broken, and when we normalize the shit of how difficult it could be in relationship, they’re like, you guys fight too? We’re like: Oh, absolutely.

20 minutes ago.

But we have the skills, it’s about learning the skills. Because a lot of times we weren’t taught how to regulate ourselves, we weren’t nurtured or cared for in a way that felt safe. So we have to say, this is about building skills, but we can learn them. I’m not supposed to know how to respond in a kind, loving way when EJ is mad at me. 

“I’m trained, my brain has evolved to defend myself, because that’s threatening. But that we can learn the skills to build emotional safety and secure functioning. It takes a minute, it doesn’t happen overnight. But just knowing that you’re both in it together, and it’s going to be a clunky process.”

That so many couples have come out on the other side saying: “Oh my gosh, you were right. Thank you for, whatever, your support through this.” Because it’s all on them that they did that work.

I think that safety thing is such an important thing to unpack too. Because especially in heterosexual relationships with men, when men hear their partner say, I don’t feel safe, it boggles their mind! Because they go right to the extreme. They’re like, “Well, I don’t do this, and there’s never been any physical violence in our relationship, and I don’t curse and yell.” So they get really resistant and defensive. So it’s important that you give them a context of like, that’s a different thing. This emotional safety is about this ability to open up and be vulnerable in these moments. But then also, the whole education basis around our fight-flight-freeze response, that even though they are physically safe, their existence is not threatened in those moments, it feels inside like it is. It feels like I’m dying right now in this repetitive argument.

This seems super helpful to the work that you both do in unpacking and really looking at the genealogy, the family history, understanding the early environment. That if the nervous system is recognizing cues that are similar to things that have been painful, or even traumatic, the body and the nervous system is going to respond. So even if one is feeling so regulated, like I had a couple last night and he grew up in a family where there was never a question of love and connection and bondedness. But he had three brothers, or he’s one of three, and they all would raise their voice and argue and verbally go back and forth and argue, and sometimes fight, not physically but verbally. But they would always repair, they understood what they were doing, and it was never a sense of threat. This was not the case for his wife. So to have that understanding of what cues and how that’s being experienced, I think this is really helpful, especially when people might not get that sense of like, “What are we talking about here with safety? I’ve never done anything to intentionally hurt you, or I’ve never hit you, or these type of things.”

I would say very early on, again, couples come in usually in crisis, where it’s like either this or divorce or separation. I wish more couples would come in to be like: Oh, we’re great, but we’d love to learn more. That’s rare. We would really like to have that happen more. But one of the things we develop early on for couples is, you guys are here, and we really want to set you guys up for success. So one of the things we offer early on is a code word. Like, when you guys start to get into this pattern, this dynamic, it’s pretty repetitive. You know what it feels like. You know what it is. You can probably identify the thoughts right when it’s about to happen. That you each say a code word. If you know you’re not your best self in this moment and you’re just getting hijacked, you say your code word. 

We have this little protocol that they go through, the RAIN technique Tara Brach talks about a lot in her podcasts and her books, where you Recognize, you Allow, you Investigate, you Nurture. So that in these moments, you’re not triggering; you’re not re-traumatizing or reinforcing what’s happening between the two of you, which has been reinforced before you came in. Just having that code word, that space to kind of be like, what is happening right now. Then you come back when you’re feeling better and you say, “Hey, let me tell you, when you looked at me that way, here’s what I was thinking, here’s what I was feeling. Here’s how I acted, I started yelling at you. But I went and I took this timeout, and I did a reflection, maybe it was 10 minutes, maybe it was an hour, it doesn’t matter. I realized that that just made me feel really insignificant, and there’s so many times in my life where I felt that.” Then EJ responds totally differently, like, “Wow, honey! Thank you for sharing, I had no idea. Thank you for letting me know.” We just learn better about how we trigger each other. Because again, like EJ said, we’re not going to stop triggering each other. But we keep getting better and better and better at understanding our person’s trigger, and how they might be suffering in those moments. 

So early on, we develop that code word and protocol practice to help them just get into their window of tolerance. Again, so your nervous system and that wiring can stop that old pain and bring in some new ways of experiencing conflict with your partner.

I think also, what we’re really striving to do, in the beginning of working with people, is that we’re trying to get them to reverse their instinct. Because their instinct is to look at the external stimulus, whatever their partner is doing, seeing that as the source or the genesis of their discomfort, and then trying to get that other person to stop it. Just stop doing that, and then everything would be okay. Instead, it’s like, we have to automatically go to a mirror. What’s happening for me? How can I understand this better? Then if I can understand it better, there’s a decent chance that I’ll also be able to communicate it in a kind, loving, open-hearted way to my partner, which then hopefully, they’ll react to in a more positive way. That’s not our instinct.

No, we want to point to the thing that hurts. I mean, that’s the natural impulse is to call it out, and of course, we’re going to want attention around that, as you’re both referring to. It’s so much more helpful, because it’s a huge distraction. Like you said, it’s likely if the person is on the receiving end, and feeling blamed or described in a way that doesn’t feel accurate, they’re going to want to defend against that. So you’re both speaking to the practice and the work around giving yourself an opportunity to just regulate, get into that window of tolerance, kind of getting one’s footing, and then being able to have this inquiry to really look at it. I love, Tarah, your just acknowledgement of, like, where did I go in my mind, what was I feeling emotionally? These are really good things to reflect on, and then we can come back into relationship and share. “Here’s where I was. Here’s what happened. Here’s the vulnerable or the reveal.” So it’s, again, not attempting to describe the other or change the other, to your point, EJ. 

I also want to just emphasize that this feels so important. Because I think a lot of times people hear safety in the personal growth space, and they think I’m responsible to help my partner feel safe. I think there’s a nuance to this, which you’re both hitting on, which is, when we’re in our own experience and growing ourselves individually, we’re responsible for ourselves. That if we’re in service of cultivating a dynamic that’s healthy, we want to reveal to our partners so they can see us. Yes, that’s vulnerable. Then the natural impulse, typically when there’s enough stability in the dynamic that the person cares and wants to help. So EJ, I was hearing you say, if I listen to Tarah talk about what she’s experiencing, I want to help and I want to know her. I’ll say for myself with my husband, again, with the length of time that we’ve been together, I still am so curious, and I learn things, and I’m like, “Oh, okay, I get it now!” The more that I know, the more that I want to help. But I don’t feel responsible, and I know that he’s his own person, that he has his own responsibility in that. So I’m just curious, is that what I’m hearing you speak to? It’s like two-pronged.

Absolutely, I’m so glad you shared that. Because a lot of times, couples will come in, and maybe one has identified that or whatever, but it’s like, that’s a You problem. We really try to help. Yes, because a lot of the work we do is individual for the sake of a couple when we’re in session. So a lot of the work we do is helping you guys understand that if EJ is depressed, it’s happening to our relationship. It’s not just happening to EJ, it’s not just EJ’s responsibility to take care of his sadness. Because I’m invested into this relationship, that depression is ours together. I think when we really help reframe that’s a You problem, to actually this is an Us problem. It’s like, oh! Because we’re so taught in our society, like take care of yourself, be independent, blah blah blah. So we kind of get lost in the whole. You’ve got to do that work, I think you need the individual. I don’t think that I’m the problem. Just really helping educate on like, when you’re a couple, that you have these agreements. That you don’t necessarily know that are agreements, but they’re unconscious, like you’re in each other’s care always. Dr. Stan Tompkins work is incredible in that way, we’re always in each other’s care, no matter what.

The other super important thing for couples to also recognize, is that this is an ongoing process that never stops. That just each time we confront a dynamic within our relationship, it’s an opportunity to do it a little bit better, to be a little more mindful of it. That we’re not going to extinct these things, it’s not like it’s never going to happen. I can just think like, two nights ago, Tarah and I had a moment where something was going on for her, and I really didn’t show up in the way that she needed me too, and we talked about it. She has given me the cliff notes on how to be in these moments. So she came to me and addressed it. My initial instinct was to defend, to shrink away from it. But because we’ve done this over and over and over, we understand it better. Like, I had an internal process where I was able to be like: “Okay, this is happening. This response is happening with me. This is the way I want to show up. It might not solve the problem instantaneously, but at least it’s going to be different. Even though this is a super uncomfortable moment, and there’s not going to be a great resolution in the next 10 minutes, at least I’m doing it a little bit differently. We’re doing it a little bit differently now.” I think couples get discouraged, because they’re like: Oh, it happened again. It’s just like, yeah, it happened again. But was there any gradation of a difference in how you guys dealt with it for three minutes or 30 seconds or seven minutes? 

“Each moment of conflict is your opportunity to grow as an individual and together.”

Thank you both for speaking to that. I really appreciate just the spectrum and the range here. It’s not all or nothing, and that it typically is a progression and a development. I appreciate what you’re both speaking to, too, in that if there’s something that’s occurring in either partner, that it is the couple is experiencing it, the family is experiencing it, the unit. So likely too, what I have found is, let’s say in the example that you mentioned, Tarah, that one person is really struggling with some depressive symptoms, likely the partner has a response to that or a reaction to that. I’ve seen, “Oh, I grew up in a family where one of my parents wasn’t okay. It was scary, and I felt responsible, and I tried to fix it or I really tried to help. So that gets activated.” So it’s not just I’m neutral about this. Usually, there is something that’s occurring. Even EJ, as you’re saying, I had an experience, I wasn’t in my maybe most high level capacity place, so that I could respond in my most optimal way. But I worked through it, and it was still a better version than maybe what it could have been in the past.

I’m telling you, our center here in Tucson, there are so many times where you just look outside the windows, and couples are embracing in the parking lot after they leave here. It is literally the most beautiful moment for me knowing, that EJ and I with our own experience, to create what we have, but to know that they are developing. Because couples counseling is hard. It’s not like: “Oh, this is going to be awesome, and in four months, you’re going to have the best relationship.” It is the hardest thing in the world, and it takes such courage and bravery to look at yourself and shred through all this pain and suffering and awareness. But when you look in that parking lot, and you see these couples embrace, it’s like, it’s so possible. I do feel like a lot of couples feel hopeless and powerless. In the beginning, we train all of our therapists, we are their hope holders. Because we get to hold hope, because we’ve seen amazing healing and shifts. So I guess if I have to say anything and it registers, it’s that it is so possible to create a secure, loving, more deeply intimate connection with the person that you chose. Is it going to take a little bit to understand and get through some of the pain and resentment? For sure. But that coming out on the other side, it’s beautiful, and you get to be in this relationship where you feel free, or where your partner feels free and supported and loved. 

Yeah. It’s helping partners find each other. There can be all these things being said and felt, and with the guidance that we’re describing, can assist in distilling it and helping people access these deeper places, and find each other in this place of more vulnerability. It all falls away, it’s pretty miraculous to witness and to observe and to see that connection. I love that you’re describing what you’re seeing, even just in the parking lot, that’s a real testament to the work. It is difficult, I echo that, and it is also so inspiring and exciting to know that there is a way to cultivate this, that can be pretty profound. 

We really look at it in how we’ve created our vision and the impact we want to have on the world. That relationships are the smallest building blocks of a healthy community, and then a healthy world. That if we can help the two people who have decided to be together, create a supportive, loving, caring environment that gets you through what life is going to throw you, which is suffering at times, that then, like you referenced a few moments ago, then the family is more healthy, and then the work environment is more healthy, and then the soccer game is more healthy. That it just reverberates. But that basic thing of healthy relationships, which we’re not really equipped to do instinctively, that’s what’s going to make big changes in this world.

Absolutely. Well, Tarah, I know you had talked about, and I would love to hear if both of you want to share anything around this. It stuck with me, and I wanted to ask you, and we just kept moving. But to go back to it, you had shared often in the beginning stage of your work with couples, that you’ll give them a description of what safety looks like. Would that be helpful for you to speak to that at all here?

Yes. So a description of safety, what it feels like and what it could look like. We do a lot of somatic work within our program here, because again, so much of our reactivity is based on our body saying, “Something’s wrong here, I’m in threat.” So it’s that you can have a really uncomfortable moment together. But instead of your heart racing, and your throat closing up, and your entire stomach feeling like you’re just going to vomit everywhere, it’s like, “Oh, actually, this is happening, but we know we’re going to get through it.” It’s like this trust that you’ve never felt before, that starts to enter your body. I guess instead of disempowered, you become empowered, because you build trust that even when It’s difficult, we’re okay. I don’t have to get my minivan anymore and take off to go see my twin sister. Because EJ and I are in this moment, but I know we’re going to get through it, because we’ve built the skills and the insights and the awareness in order to know that we can trust our relationship, which again, feels secure and feel safe.

Hmm, and what reassurance in that when things get a little bumpy or difficult!

Yeah. I mean, so often, we’ll hear a couple say something like, if it’s something about work, my partner can come home and be really activated about work, and I can stay present for them. But when it has anything to do with us, that’s when it completely breaks down. For me, that’s what the safety is about. It’s exactly what Tarah is talking about. When you’re activated together, and you have those uncomfortable feelings, that you can stay open in that moment, that you don’t have to shut your heart off from your partner. I think of suffering as constriction and tightening, in an uncomfortable moment with your partner. I felt this, like I said, just two nights ago, and I’m sure Tarah was feeling the same. That we could work through staying as open as we could be in that moment with one another, it was safe enough that we could stay open to where we are right now. That to me, that is safety. Like, we can be uncomfortable together, we can be uncomfortable as a result of our little chemical mixture when we’re in the same room.

I actually am more attracted to EJ after we get into our fights now. Because I’m like, “Oh my gosh, we were able to get through it, and he didn’t get defensive, and I didn’t get defensive.” I am like, that’s sexy. It’s crazy. Because in the beginning, EJ was like, how do our fights make you feel more connected? I’m like, they do. Because we got through them, and you didn’t avoid me, and you stayed present.

Conversely, I don’t have the hangover from those moments. Because I am avoidant. I grew up in a family where there was a lot of conflict, and it was really uncomfortable. I had my adaptive, which eventually became maladaptive coping mechanisms. I’m able more quickly to be like, that was okay. That actually means she loves me, that she’s willing to show up and share something really uncomfortable with me. Even if I share responsibility, it’s not all my fault, and I’m not being blamed for everything. So we both have had this evolving experience of being able to see that moment and experience that moment in a way, where it’s like, that actually brought us closer together.

This is the difficult spot when both people are triggered and activated, which likely happens in couplehood when it’s about the relationship. So what I’m hearing you both reference is, through the development, there’s more that you can resource. That you have this trust, you have this safety, you have this belief, you have a wider perspective than maybe what the framework would have been without having done the work that you both have done. Then through the repetition, being able to build something that you really are in service of. It’s quite beautiful. So thank you both for sharing so much. I always am honored to hear about the guidance, and also to be speaking with people That are not only professionals and have a level of training, but also do the work and can really speak to their own journey and transformation. So thank you.

It’s always so wonderful for us to connect also with another person, who we don’t know, but obviously is really aligned in how we see relationship. Also, we can just hear it from you, just that it’s bringing so much heart and care and empathy into the work. Because couples, they need that warmth, because it’s a difficult process to go through. If they have this really insightful, well-educated individual who also has a really warm heart, it makes the work for them so much easier.

Yeah, I’m so happy to have been a part of this podcast, and just for the work you do and your love of attachment theory, too. I remember when I was in grad school, and I had to do my master’s thesis, I was like, “Oh, definitely Emotionally Focused Therapy.” I always knew I wanted to do work with couples. But we look at it always coming back to the attachment piece. So thank you for having us on your show.

Yeah, wonderful. Well, for people who are listening, I would love to hear a little bit more about what you want to invite people to connect with or look up.

I mean, a couple of things would be great. One is, I’m very excited right now, because we’re doing a retreat in Denver, outside of actually Colorado Springs, place called a Nature Place, October 5th through 10th. We’re going to bring in 15 couples, and it’s going to be very experiential. There’s going to be ropes course. There’s going to be some orienteering, which is kind of like, you have to race; you and your partner have to get to this rock over here, find your way there together. So it’s going to be in a really beautiful environment. We call that I’ve Got You, and it’s all about emotional safety. Like, how do you create emotional safety in your relationship? 

I think, Jessica, our podcast Relationship Renovation, we’ve had several guest speakers on, we’ve had couples that have gone through our program, we’ve had many of our therapists on that specialize in different areas in the couples. So it’s just a great resource, it’s free. Couples, individuals love it. So again, it’s just ways to learn how to be in a relationship wellness, really.

No kidding! So to connect with your podcast, Relationship Renovation. If you’re interested in really getting into the experience. Because in my understanding, we can know something and have insight about it, but if we’re not living it and getting it into our body, to your point about the somatic and even the experiential learning, this reminds me of like a trust fall. Actually putting it into your body and feeling that your partner has you, it’s quite profound. Then also to see what gets activated that maybe we weren’t fully aware of, and to have the support and guidance to really work with that. It just sounds like a really wonderful thing. I lived in Boulder for many years. So I think October could be, hopefully, a beautiful time of year to be there. For people that also might be in Arizona, it sounds like you have a, I don’t know if you call it a clinic or an institute.

It’s called Relationship Innovation Counseling Centre, and then we also have a Relationship Renovation at-home program. We developed that during COVID. So couples all around the world really could have a way to work on the relationship, get curious, be understanding. But they might not be able to afford couples counseling or didn’t feel safe to go in-person, so we also have a Relationship Innovation at-home program for couples too.

Yeah. You can access all of our information just at our website, RelationshipRenovation.com, and just see what we’re up to and what we’re doing.

Great. I’ll make sure to have those links on today’s show notes. Thank you, Tara and EJ, for joining us here today.

Thank you, Jessica. 

Thank you for having us, this was a blast!

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching