ERP 419: How to Identify and Break Negative Cycles (Especially High Conflict Cycles) in Relationship — An Interview with Jennine Estes Powell & Jacqueline Wielick

By Posted in - Podcast April 9th, 2024 0 Comments

How can we cultivate a culture of emotional safety within our relationships, where vulnerability is embraced and recurring negative patterns are met with empathy and understanding, rather than defensiveness or blame?

Traumas, whether subtle or overt, can fuel recurring negative patterns that gradually erode the foundation of a relationship. These unseen wounds, left unattended, can manifest as distress and conflict, undermining the very fabric of our closest bonds.

In this episode, we delve into the depths of these dynamics, exploring how awareness, vulnerability, and proactive communication can pave the way for healing and transformation. Join us as we navigate the complexities of attachment styles, emotional safety, and the power of corrective emotional experiences in forging healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Jennine Estes Powell & Jacqueline Wielick, are distinguished Therapists and co-authors of “Help For High-Conflict Couples.” Jacqueline Wielick is the owner of her practice, Therapy by Jackie, and is known for the empowering, empathetic, and engaging style she brings to her work. Jennine Estes Powell is a dedicated therapist for her clients, and is the driving force behind Estes Therapy, a thriving group practice in San Diego, the go-to hub for couples counseling. She also trains therapists globally.

In this Episode

07:52 Jennine and Jacqueline‘s personal journeys into emotionally focused therapy.

13:03 Distinguishing high conflict from regular conflict.

20:13 The subtleties of trauma, challenging stereotypical perceptions of traumatic experiences.

23:18 How differing attachment styles can create communication barriers within relationships.

28:15 The evolution of relationships: Understanding the shift from early romance to bonded attachment.

34:53 Individual and couple strategies for recognizing and addressing attachment insecurities.

40:54 Repairing relationship patterns through vulnerability and repetition.

55:59 Accessible support and resources.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Identify repetitive cycles and behaviors in your relationship that contribute to conflict.
  • When conflict arises, pause to regulate your emotions before reacting impulsively.
  • Share your fears and needs with your partner in a clear and safe manner.
  • Take the initiative to break negative cycles, even if your partner is not yet on board.
  • Work together to repair attachment injuries by creating corrective emotional experiences.
  • Ensure emotional safety in all aspects of the relationship, including communication and intimacy.
  • Communicate readiness to take emotional risks and provide support without blame or criticism in relationships.
  • Utilize available resources such as books, websites, and therapy to gain deeper insights and tools for navigating high-conflict relationships.

Mentioned

Help for High-Conflict Couples (website) (speaking events)

Help for High-Conflict Couples: Using Emotionally Focused Therapy and the Science of Attachment to Build Lasting Connection Paperback (book) (affiliate)

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Jennine Estes Powell

Websites: helpforhighconflictcouples.com | estestherapy.com | jenninepowell.com

Instagram: instagram.com/estes_therapy

TikTok: tiktok.com/@jennine_estes

Connect with Jacqueline Wielick

Websites: helpforhighconflictcouples.com| jackiewielick.com

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

Jennine and Jacqueline, it’s a pleasure to have you both.

Thank you!

Thank you so much for having us on. 

Yes. I think this is a critical topic, really supporting people. Looking at if they’re experiencing high levels of conflict, what might be happening, and how to negotiate this landscape, particularly in intimacy? You both are also referencing in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), attachment, research, evidence-based therapeutic model. Is that my understanding? 

You got it right, yes. 

Well, very much a dear to my heart as well, just how important that body of work is, and the therapeutic model and all the principles that help guide us in this tricky terrain at times. So I would love to hear from both of you if you want to just share a little bit about yourselves, for people who are just getting acquainted with you, and how this topic and/or just the field of couplehood and intimacy is really just something important to you and how you kind of came into it.

Yeah. Well, thank you so much. Hi, everyone. My name is Jennine Estes Powell. Basically, when I first started therapy, I had a lot of couples that I was working with. I wasn’t getting much guidance from my supervisors, and I was not hitting goals with couples, and I couldn’t hit goals. It was really frustrating for me, because I wanted to help them. So I ended up finding Emotionally Focused Therapy, I got a supervisor, and I started hitting goals with couples. It became so important for me to understand Emotionally Focused Therapy, understanding what’s at the root of it, and why we get into fights, and really understanding the core root of it, versus putting band aids on it. Because that’s what a lot of the old treatment styles I was learning was, they’d just put a band-aid on it. Use I statements. Just very basic fundamental tools, instead of getting to the root of it. So I started getting more passionate about how to help them get out of this distress, because there’s so much on the line to lose. Couples are at a point of like, do we stay together and not, and they have children, and it gets really tough. So that’s where I got randomly fell into couples and randomly got into EFT, which now, I can’t not think of Emotionally Focused Therapy, because I see the results, which then landed us towards the high conflict. Because when you specialize in couples, you have to learn how to work with high conflicts too.

Absolutely. Jacqueline, I want to hear. I just want to ask one follow-up question. As you refer to goals as a clinician, can you help people with what you’re referring to there? 

Yeah. So when couples come in, there’s a lot of different areas of distress. But we always set up goals of: we want to find ways to improve communication, we want to stop fighting. So some of those goals. Like, we want to understand how to repair after an affair. Some sort of really specific pointed goals with couples to get them out of it. So by the end of therapy, we can look and say: How are we doing? Did we hit it? Did we hit markers? I’m very much a businesswoman. So I like to get in, set those goals and hit them, get them out as quickly as possible. But give them the tools so they don’t need to rely on the therapy, that they can actually do the work themselves.

That’s one of the things that I very much appreciate about the model. That it’s experiential, it’s helping the partners and relationship really build the skills and have the muscle memory, have a felt experience around it, so that they can replicate it out of session. Also, just as you’re speaking to, the awareness around where do we get stuck, and having real clear understanding from places. As well as the roadmap around how to de-escalate, how to regulate, how to repair, these type of things. So thank you for just being super crystal clear there. 

Okay. Jacqueline, I would love to hear from you here.

Oh my gosh, I love EFT! I’m so grateful that I found it. Just to piggyback off of what Jennine was saying too, the coolest thing about EFT is how research-based it is. I can’t remember the specific number, but over 90% of couples who do Emotionally Focused Therapy have success in their treatment. So as couples’ therapists, with those goals we want to hit, we get so excited about that. 

So my story is similar to Jennine’s at the beginning, where I was not trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy, and I knew I wanted to work with couples. I had all these couples, and I was really struggling. I would bribe professors and Emotionally Focused Therapy experts to come to coffee with me, and I would buy them coffee and ask them questions. One of those experts in the field was actually associated with Jennine and introduced me to Jennine, and that’s how I started working for her back in 2017. So that’s kind of how we met. Jennine has been doing Emotionally Focused Therapy for a very, very long time, and trains thousands of therapists in this. I was one of those people, lucky enough to learn Emotionally Focused Therapy from Jennine. So since I’ve had a baby, and I’ve started my own practice. But me and Jennine have gotten to work together with clients using this theory for years, and it’s been really special. The coolest part about it is just trusting that the method, you know it’s research-based. So if you stay on track with the steps and stages, you know you can feel really safe and confident as the client and the therapist that progress is going to be made.

Yes. As we narrow in to today’s topic, and you both wrote a book about it, do you want to introduce the topic here a little bit more about this high conflict, which might be different than what people associate as regular conflict, and you see a difference. Can you share a little more there?

Yeah. The difference between high conflict versus conflict, or normal conflict, we all have conflict. Even if we’re in really secure relationships, conflict is going to come up. But the high conflict is when we have these quick-to-react, really intense, 0-60 feelings that hit so intense. It can often look like we’re dealing with the dishes, and there’s a comment around the dishes, to all of a sudden saying I don’t know if I want this anymore, to ice-cold shutdowns, leaving, yelling at each other, the cell phone gets thrown. There can be a high escalation. But it’s interesting that the high escalation we might think of somebody screaming and just yelling. Of course, the most extreme is if we have any type of physical abuse that’s going on. Affairs are a common place where high escalation is high conflict, and having certain types of addictions that are involved will always cause a high conflict. Those are the three A’s: active affairs, addictions, and abuse. But other times, we think of it as this intense yelling. But it could also be the ice-cold shutdowns and withdrawals that cause high conflict, even though you can’t point at it and say: Oh, look at them screaming and being the crazy one. It actually creates a lot of high conflict.

Yes. Jacqueline, do you want to add anything here?

Yeah, jumping in with what Jennine said. It’s your body having just that really quick, automatic, 0-60 reaction where your body goes into fight or flight mode, just boom, really automatically. In our book, we have an entire chapter on regulation and cooling down, to help people learn how to regulate and calm their bodies, so that they can come together and co-regulate with their partners and make different choices. But people in high conflict couples, it looks really similar to regular couples; they just might be a little bit more exaggerated or extreme. 

Another aspect of high conflict couples too is the presence of trauma, either in a relationship or at any point in their life. We do a really thorough, as thorough as we could with the word count. I could talk about trauma all day; we could have written a whole separate book on trauma and EFT. But we did a really thorough examination about a more nuanced view of trauma than maybe what people stereotypically might come in with thinking what trauma is, and how it shows up in the relationship to create these high conflict, 0-60 reactions. Because your body at any time might sense danger, and react in this exaggerated way that spins you into your negative cycle. I know we’ll talk about the negative cycle today. But trauma is a huge piece too.

Yes. I really appreciate you just acknowledging the somatic response, the nervous system response. That this is how, if we can slow down or have a little bit more process and reflection, we can start to notice this escalated up energy of the fight or the flight, and even the freeze that you’re referencing and just the shutdown. We can have a little bit more indicators. While it might not be so visible in all the expression of it, that there’s still a lot of indicators that we can start to identify this shutdown and this kind of freeze.

I won’t go so in depth right now just for time. But in our book, we do section out fight, flight, freeze, appease, and exactly what all those behaviors might look like. So that readers can examine and go through this checklist: Oh, that’s me, that’s me. It’s really empowering. Because then people feel like: Oh, I’m not going crazy, these reactions make sense in the context of my history. Then they feel more validated, which is what we want.

Yes. I think that there is such importance to this assessment, or really looking at the imprint of those early formative years relationally, and then also the relational history. Because so often, I think, stereotypically, the average person might say: Oh, I don’t need to go back on my childhood or just this whole thing. It’s not that, it’s looking at what are the patterns, what are the dynamics around where we saw comfort or how we responded to? This is so informative. It’s just so helpful and illuminating to recognize all of these tendencies make sense in the context of my history. So thank you for just even pointing to that. Do you want to add here anything, Jennine?

Well, I think as you describe it, it’s a common piece of: “Well, my past was my past, I dealt with it.” We don’t want to make somebody the Identified Patient. It’s common to use IPs. We don’t want them to be this: Oh, because you have trauma… However, we also need to know that going rageful might have been so protective as a young kid and it saved their life, and we love that about them. We love that part that saved them. But maybe it doesn’t work now when we’re just having a disagreement. So we’re going to help make sense of that rage or the shutdown, the ice-cold shutdowns were so supportive and helpful, and how can we still resource it. Like, if a big bear is coming at you, you still want to resource it and not turn it off. But we also need to help the body learn to not have that same reaction. Our reactions might show up, even though mentally we know: I’m no longer in that situation. I know this isn’t my mom, or this isn’t that event. Logically, we might know we’re having a fight with our partner. But our body goes into this reaction. There’s a book called The Body Keeps the Score, and that really shows that the body re-acts because it remembers: conflict means I need to go into protect mode. So we do want to help people of like: Yep, there’s my body reacting, what can I do? How do I calm it down? How do I slow down?

Yeah, and the real important thing to acknowledge here is that this is the automatic system. Even if we have all this strength and developed executive skills and emotional intelligence, this nervous system response is kicking in for these survival tactics that we can’t just bull ourselves out of. It’s a different approach here. You were also mentioning, Jacqueline, about the subtleties of trauma. Do you want to just speak to that briefly? I know, like you said, we could go super deep dive into this. But just to name what you mean there. 

Yeah. I think sometimes in our culture way, we might have a belief system that trauma is for war veterans, or I was in a tornado or something extreme. Obviously, those things are very traumatic and important. 

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“There’s also subtle nuances that can cause trauma as well, that don’t get as much headlines, which is like, experiences maybe with an emotionally neglectful parent, or a parent that had a mental illness, or experiencing bullying, or your relationship with your siblings. Or these more nuanced pieces that maybe fly under the radar of what our society might think of as trauma.”

So people come into treatment thinking: “Oh, I don’t have any trauma, my childhood was perfect. I don’t know why I’m screaming at my partner over the dishes.” Then we can dive in and understand. Typically, maybe there’s a thread there that we can follow. Like Jennine said so beautifully, we notice that Identified Patient, it’s not that because somebody has trauma, that it’s their fault or something. No, it’s more like understanding, why am I showing up the way I am in this relationship right now, and how can I feel empowered to know what my history is and make different choices? And we give lots of examples of what that is, too. There’s lots of them there. But those are just a few.

And what Jaqueline is describing is, in the book, we talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as kind of the diagnostic of what we think about veterans. But then we also talk about the smaller PTSD, those are the smaller cased.

The small T trauma.

Yeah, thank you. So that trauma is the big T Trauma, PTSD. But then we have the smaller T that doesn’t say put a label on your forehead. But just know that there’s this nuance, this smaller kind of wave on why our body reacts the way it does.

Absolutely. As we look at trauma and the individual that’s experiencing a certain circumstance and the sensitivity to their system, and what they’re absorbing, it’s my understanding in a broader sense of traumas that it’s overwhelming. It’s almost too much to process. So really, we could put this on a continuum. I know you probably both agree with that, and you’re talking about big T’s, little T’s. Then also just a spectrum here of, there’s been intense experiences that our nervous system is going to respond to, and there might be a pattern of behavior that we’ve chronically been in and upbringing, and that we have a muscle memory around that. So one of the things you’re both describing is the ability to help people identify this, recognize it inside themselves. Also, one of the things that I know you said we’re going to be probably talking about the cycle, it’s how we perceive the other, how we interpret the cues of the other. Because if one is operating with a different strategy, it’s hard to understand. It’s almost like a different language. It’s hard to understand that language, we don’t have the translation yet. You’re both nodding, tell me about it.

I love that metaphor of saying it’s like a different language. I think that’s so beautiful, I want to use that in my own work now. I’m like, I’m going to use that example, because it really is. It’s very common, very, very common to get two partners together, where one partner has a different language of way of reacting to their partner than the other. These two ways of reacting, they have to do a lot of times with attachment styles too. Like, you’re going to have one person who learned from maybe their past that we get really big and we get loud, and we slam doors, or we criticize or we chase, because that’s how I’m getting my attachment needs met and there’s so much pain underneath. On the other hand, it’s the exact opposite. I’ve learned to go ice-cold and shut down, and get in the car and drive away, or sleep in the other room or sleep on the couch to protect myself, and there’s so much pain and emotional needs underneath. And when we get them in EFT to talk about those two things, there’s so much empathy and connection that happens. But when you just see the behaviors, and they’re reacting from their attachment styles or their histories, it creates high conflict couples, and it creates this negative cycle where people are in a lot of pain and don’t feel safe or loved or seen.

Yes. Jennine, do you want to add anything here?

Well, I think Jaqueline just said it beautifully. It’s like, this is the negative cycle. We can reinforce it. 

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“The more that couples are in this type of sharing a different language or sharing in different ways, it creates this consistency and predictability on how are we going to react. Then the more we do it, the more it reinforces how we respond or react. So it snowballs and gets a lot bigger and can reinforce.”

Because if we do have a hard talk, it is going to go bad, so I’m going to avoid it at all cost. History says, this is it. It may not even be from my childhood or past, it’s because of some events that have happened in our relationship now and how we’ve handled it, and there’s predictability on what we’re going to do, and it doesn’t feel safe. If I try to share, you’re not going to hear me, so I’m not going to share it, or I’m going to avoid the conflict, or I’m explain 20 times because I’m not heard by you. 

Yes. So we are constantly learning, whether or not we’re aware of it or not, about how people, our closest people respond to us, and how to negotiate those dynamics. We adapt and we start to modify based on those learnings, and that’s what you’re saying in relationship. Because look, one of the things you’re helping people understand around this toxic high conflict, what are the causes and how it gets developed. In the development of this, it could be what looks like, I think to your point, Jacqueline, we might interpret someone who goes quiet as like: Oh, they don’t care, if the other doesn’t speak that language, or that attachment style, or tendency. Then perhaps, they have a way that they get bigger or get stronger, and this pattern escalates. But you’re saying, with the repetition of these incidences or these dynamics, it starts to take a life or starts to snowball. Is that what I’m hearing.

Right. It can get worse. It can get bigger. This is with all types of couples, the patterns. Again, you don’t have to have trauma or injuries. But that pattern can get bigger or consistent and become very predictable. When we work with clients, I will say: If I was a fly on the wall, and I was watching you two get into a fight, who would do what? They know exactly who would do what response, so they know each move.

Yeah, and that’s helpful, because then that helps us identify: Oh, that’s your negative cycle. One way to get out of it, one of the first things to do is to even know what it is.

Exactly. This is really surprising for couples that are a little bit newer in their relationship, let’s even say two years into a very committed, serious relationship. I do think, I wonder if you both would agree, I haven’t seen any attachment research on this, but the early romance stage and how it’s highly fueled by the neurochemicals, and you’re bonding, and that’s super-intense courting and lots of fun, and we fill in the blank about who we imagine them to be, because we don’t really know how they are in all seasons; how they handle grief, how they handle anger, all these things. Then once the relationship forms a little bit more, some of that neurochemical decreases. Then we’re really in a place where we’re feeling this boundedness, but also going to feel these attachment and insecurities. 

Tell me a little bit more. Because this is when we talk about this might be surprising, or that people don’t anticipate. They’re like, I love this person, and then they’re confronted with this difficulty or negative cycle, and it’s not working. They think: Oh, if I just try harder, or if I give them enough feedback, or if I avoid it, and with time it will heal. This is not always easy to really look at, that there is something happening here that is worth investing in, identifying, and working with. 

Well, dating is the best time to start to feel out, can somebody be safe for me emotionally. How do we handle it? That euphoric time is usually more or less six months. Dopamine or epinephrine, we get this natural high, it’s amazing. You can stay up for all hours. But then we start to get a baseline, and that’s when we get to start practicing: How do people handle difficulties? How do we handle hard conversations? When they first start off, they might be going really vulnerable and get this sense of feeling seen and heard and feel a sense of safety, so they take more risks when they have that euphoric high. 

Then once it starts to stabilize, that is the practice time of: How can I go vulnerable and share my emotions, and then how does my partner show up for me? We want them to be able to really go vulnerable, because vulnerability draws closeness, as Lisa Palmer Olson always says, one of my EFT trainers. But when the you go vulnerable, people get close. So that’s the practice time of: How do I go vulnerable, and how does my partner show up? They’re going to be surprised that sometimes their partner might get flooded, or feel overwhelmed, or worry about: Oh, I don’t want us to disconnect. Knowing that that’s okay, and it’s just part of patterns that happen. All couples get into them, and they just have to learn how to navigate and learn how to jive with each other, while having our talks and staying online for each other. Because at times, we go offline; we shut down, or we get flooded with our own distress, and we can’t see each other. So those couples who are in new relationships, we love our premarital couples because they’re so positive and so great, and they’re working towards marriage, for instance. And we help them highlight: Let’s understand your pattern now, so you can make sure it doesn’t get worse later on. So it’s very preventative, the more information you have on that pattern.

Yes, you’re catching it before it snowballs. Because when there’s many, many years of iteration of this, and the escalation and the intensifying of it, then it’s a lot more to work with. Jacqueline, do you want to say anything else here?

I love and agree with everything Jennine is saying, and was thinking about how at the end of the day, underneath both of these reactions, and we think of our attachment insecurities, that underneath maybe these reactions and the cycle, it’s really the same for everyone, no matter what behaviors they’re showing to their partner. Like, we all just want to feel like we belong, that we matter, that we’re important, that our partner cares about what we have to say, that we feel that conflict is safe. We all want to feel that way. And when we can unify with our partners a little bit, like: Oh my gosh, we both want the same thing, we’re just fighting for it really differently. Then it can help with empathy. And empathy is a hallmark of having a secure attachment. People with secure attachment have more empathy. That’s what our goal with EFT is, to go for a secure attachment style.

Thank you for underscoring that. Because that is what typically is going to help build the path towards a different experience together, is having this understanding of what’s on the inside of these deeper longings of like: “Oh, you do love me, you are for me, you are here. Or I am okay in your eyes, or I am good enough, and that we are good. But we just are going about it in very different ways.” That can be so incredibly transformative.

Right, and that’s something that we need to have explicit with couples, making explicit the intention behind the behavior. The intention gets missed because the behavior is hurtful, the blame or criticize or shutdown, and really understanding what that intention is below the surface, the emotional parts. “I want to be enough. I want to be good enough for you, so let me explain every reason why I got it right.” That’s why we go into defend mode, because I want to be enough in your eyes. Because you actually matter to me, and I don’t want to miss this. There’s this beautiful intention. But on the receiving side, it feels so awful. So we have to really dive into like, what’s that underlying piece, what are the fears that are underneath, what are those longings? The more that we can make those more explicit, it helps de-escalate things. It calms down our system. We start to feel like: “Oh, I really matter, you’re fighting for me! When you go quiet, you’re actually fighting for us, even though it sends the opposite message.” If we need that sense of reframe to it.

Well, I absolutely agree with you. I want to just give a little more room here, both for the individual and the couple, and the benefit of doing what you’re describing of being able to notice these deeper longings or even fears. Because when one can recognize the activation in their nervous system, and then start to identify the fear or the longing, even for the individual, there’s some stability that can start to happen before even expressing that vulnerable part to their person. Can you say a little more about that? 

Oh, absolutely. I mean, it makes me think of like how when we have couples come in to treatment, and we’re using Emotionally Focused Therapy, one of the first things we have helped them do is learn how to stop the cycle when it begins. So part of that is, when you notice that cycle beginning, which is usually like, you’re having this self-awareness that I’m starting to explain, I’m starting to question my partner, I’m starting to defend myself of why I needed to be critical with you, or whatever that looks like. You just press the Pause button, and you fight really, really hard to keep your body online, whatever regulation tools you need to do. Maybe if you’re typically somebody who withdraws, you need to fight really hard to stay engaged with your partner. If you’re somebody who tends to lean in and get a little bit aggressive, you’re going to need to fight the urge to throw bombs, or blame them, or raise your voice. 

So fight really hard to stay online in a safe way, and then take that moment to regulate. 

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“I would recommend people to start to explore in their bodies, what’s the emotion underneath this activation I’m having right now? We recommend in Emotionally Focused Therapy, go for the most vulnerable emotion you can find. Are you fearful? Are you sad? Then start to share that with your partner.”

Before you share, you can let them know: “Hey, I’m going to try and do something really different with you. Can you be silly? This might feel a little bit weird. But I’m going to try something different and step out of our cycle. Can I share a vulnerability with you?” Then say, I’m feeling really, really fearful that I’m not good enough for you right now. Or whatever that attachment insecurity is. So it’s kind of both pieces of doing the individual work of like, I need to fight really hard against my own pattern and cycle within myself and my own automatic reactions. Then I need to use that to jump in and do something different with my partner.

Thank you, that’s so helpful. It sounds like even just what we already spoke to about being able to identify one’s language or their tendencies, that can give some signal to like: Oh okay, this is something I do that is a part of the negative cycle or negative dance with my partner. Can I recognize that, and can I pause to be in my best effort to stop the cycle? Because I think one of the things I love, too, about EFT, is that there’s a real recognizing of the dynamics of the issue, and not either person. So to have this stopping, and to be able to slow down to access some of this, and really be in service of something new.

Right, can I piggyback up on that? I want to get on that. You just described, there’s that fear that we have. We have that cycle and that pattern, and we have this fear about I might not be enough, or fear of losing the relationship, or fear of disconnection, or whatever those raw feelings are. The more that we walk around that fear or that vulnerability, that sadness of not being connected, or feeling loneliness in the relationship. Once we can really identify that depth, then we can figure out what we’re needing, and we can ask for that need from our partner, which is critical. 

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“Our partner can’t read our mind. But when we come out in those reactive ways, we’re not getting the needs met. We might throw out a question, and then our partner answers the question, and it’s never good enough. It doesn’t really give that long-term comfort.”

But when you take that deep dive and really walk around in that vulnerability, we can find out what is it that I’m actually needing right now. “I just need to know that I’m going to be enough for you and you’ll love me no matter what. I need to know that I can be messy and you’ll still love me.” Then that’s an easy one for a partner. They could be like: “Absolutely, I love you. I just don’t like the dishes. I’m not getting rid of you. You matter to me. I just get annoyed about the dishes.” So then they can make that reach and ask for what they need in a clear way, and their partner can actually show up in a way that’s successful.

Right, it streamlines it. It cuts to the core and allows for this connecting that is satisfying, that does bring the repair. Also, I would even add, if please help me if you agree or disagree, that for the person that’s able to recognize their own need, yes, they can send a clear signal and ask. And they can also see the validity of that need, and even emotionally hold space for it. So it’s almost like, I am holding myself in this too. I’m holding my own back, and how much more direct support that is. Versus, I don’t even know why I feel the way that I do, but I can point to you and I can point to the things and say all my complaints. But I still feel all this angst. So there’s a lot of benefit to being able to do this. 

As you both talk about trauma, past history, relationship, attachment injuries can complicate this and the intensity of what one is feeling. Would you like to say more about that?

Oh my God, yeah. There’s so much to say. But to boil it down, I really liked the word that Jennine used when talking about this a few minutes ago, which is reinforces. That sometimes our experience with our partners can reinforce our own reactions in the cycle, and then they get exaggerated, which is why the cycle gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and these behaviors get bigger. But really underneath it, it’s all the same, for high conflict and for not high conflict. This is for all relationships. But what we are trying to focus on in Emotionally Focused Therapy is, when there’s a rupture in the relationship, there’s an attachment injury that’s happened, this attachment need that we were just talking about hasn’t been getting met for so long, we go in after that to work to repair it. We have a whole section in the book about how to do this at home. We have exercises, which are really helpful to have a guidebook if you don’t have a therapist to walk you through it. But repairing these attachment injuries can help then create this new pattern where you start to see your partner differently and go: Okay, I can get my needs met from them, I do matter to them. 

Right, that’s the corrective emotional experience. There’s a lot of research on the more that we experience our partners, as Jacqueline is saying, and we get that positive experience, our body is going to shift, how our brain reacts is going to shift. Everything’s going to change. So we need that positive experience over and over and over.

Which essentially helps us start to earn more secure functioning, and it’s very beautiful. Do you have an example for people that are listening? I know you have the book where you’ve really, really laid this out. Is there anything you want to say about what this can look like, both in the repair and the corrective experience. But also, how it might feel more complex if one’s dealing with previous injuries and/or traumas?

When we have so many of these, there’s so many layers. We use this example of trapeze. I used to do flying trapeze, so this is the way that I could bring in my personal world in my professional world. So if we think about flying trapeze, you have to climb up 23 feet in the air, put your toes over the edge, you have to lean out, and it’s a very vulnerable time and your body is really filled with fear. People who are up there, whenever I would do the classes, everybody would change. Everybody would respond different with their own fears; some would hold on tight, some would freeze up, some would go robotic, to do all these different reactions. Then what you have to do is, you have to tell them like: Hey, I’m going to throw a certain trek. You have to let the catcher know, who’s on the bar swinging, to let them know I’m about to come through. You grab that part, and they’ll let you know: Okay, I’m ready for you, take a jump. So they’ll say: Ready, Hep! That’s that moment where you jump off the platform, you swing through the air, you do your trick, you flip twist, whatever it is, and then you let go, and then you have to reach out to get caught. You have to reach out in a safe way. Then the catcher comes up, they grab you, and they swing through. 

So the way that we talk about how to do this of reaching out for your needs is, one, to say: “Hey, I’m about to take a risk, you matter. So I’m at that ledge, I’m scared. I’m about to take a risk, will you catch me?” Then the person who’s going to catch, they have to be like: Well, am I ready or not? They have to get into a prepared state, like: Okay, I’m here, take that risk, Hep! The person then has to jump out vulnerably and say: Here’s what’s going on in that emotionally raw space. That deep vulnerability we just talked about, without blame, without criticism. It’s really got to be a spotlight on them, on what’s going on for their body, for their emotional attachment needs. They have to share it, and then they have to ask for what they need. This is the reach in a clear and safe way. Here’s what I need from you. Then the other person has to show up and catch them. So I like to think about it as when my clients are going out, you’re jumping. The other person has got to show up to catch you, to make sure that you know they’ll be there, they’ve got your back, they’ll hold on to you. But you have to reach in a safe way.

Well, I just wanted to chime in that there’s preparation sometimes for this. First of all, I’m so resonating with the metaphor of the trapeze. I actually was invited, this was several years ago, my friend wanted to do this. It was like a bucket list for her. So I went to just support her. She has a background of being a dancer, so she has a lot of physicality. Yet, this was scary for her. So on a much more basic introductory level, just even climbing up to the high platform, how to even position your body and actually want to lean forward, and you actually have to lean back to then get the momentum, and then getting into the air and holding on, like all of these moves are scary. Then to be able to reach and let go of the bar that you’re holding, and you reach for that other person. That’s not even any flips or any anything.

There’s preparation for this, sometimes we need to practice. Okay, I just need to lean back, can I just do that? Or can I just stand up on the platform? Like, sometimes these moves, there’s some preparation in the person who’s, ideally, wanting to respond, and might have things that are interfering or getting in the way. So what you’re describing is, I just want to acknowledge, beautiful, and a little more advanced than maybe the beginning level. Would you agree?

We do have it written in the book, which is so funny, because we’re talking about trapeze, and it’s my personal. I absolutely love circus. But it’s a great way of we do need to prep, and it is terrifying. That’s the feeling that goes in our body when we’re about to go vulnerable. We see our clients get to that terrified moment in our session, and we’re like, can you turn and tell your partner at that piece right there? They’re on the ledge going: “I’m scared and I have to jump, and I don’t know if my partner is going to catch me. Because historically, my partner hasn’t caught me and I’ve landed on my face.” So then we’re asking them to take another risk, and we need the partner to show up in a corrective way, and we need the reach to be in a corrective way. So it takes a lot of moving parts. That’s what we walk the clients through with the book of step-by-step how to do this, and we do it in a way where it’s using really clear. We’re not using lots of big therapy language. We like to put in fun metaphors and fun exercises for the clients to learn how to do it. If a partner is not open to reading the book, one person can still make changes. If you think about getting mobile, you pull on one side, the whole thing moves. That’s what the book is. We’ve actually written it in mind that one person might read the other book and the other person might not. 

Free Couple Sitting on Wooden Bench Stock Photo

“If you make your move different, your partner is automatically forced to do something different. It only takes one person to step out of the cycle.”

Yes, thank you. Jacqueline?

Oh my gosh, it’s so exciting that there’s so much research that supports what Jennine saying. Like, really, you only need one person. I mean, ideally, we have both people read the book. If we got both people to read it, I know both of them would find it helpful. But if you can only get one to do it, that’s fine. Because research shows if one person steps out of the cycle, it will make a change. 

I just love the trapeze metaphor so much; we get so much good feedback on it. We have clients come in using these metaphors. They’re like, I was on the trip, I was standing and jumping and taking a risk. That works so beautifully, because it’s exactly what the process is on both sides of the spectrum. You’re about to jump and take a risk. Or your partner is taking a risk with you. Are you going to respond defensively and drop them in the net? Or are you going to reach and catch them? That’s also a risk for you to try something new. 

I think a big piece of thinking of this all as this trapeze and doing something new with your partner highlights the importance of neuroscience, of research, and that comes into our book, which is the corrective emotional experience Jennine is talking about. When you do this trapeze successfully with your partner over and over and over again, and you step out of your cycle and you’re vulnerable over and over and over again, it really does create new neural pathways in your brain. It can change your attachment style. It can change this automatic response that you’re having, with repetition, over time. Just like that reinforcement with your partner could reinforce your cycle negatively, it can also reinforce it positively. Our brains can help us in a good way when we do this positive moves over and over again. So we use that to our advantage in the book, with creating corrective emotional experiencing with the partner. 

Free Woman Sitting on Man's Lap Stock Photo

“It’s so needed. I mean, it’s amazing when we think about one in adulthood, and might be contemplating how come this is so difficult. Yet, if we look at the moments of repetition, early in life, let’s just say on average, that’s 18 years of certain patterns. That’s years. That’s moments. That’s days, weeks, months. I mean, it’s a lot of repetition that we’ve already had learning around.”

So it’s really important to have the support to be able to practice, to be able to have some muscle memory, to be in a place of trusting and being able to do it, and then repeat it over and over and over again. 

I might just say, there’s one other thing that I love about this metaphor. It actually reminds me, when I did my dissertation, I did a meta-analysis, and one of the studies that I was looking at was using the metaphor of rock climbing. So it was like blame, where one person is belaying in the person. So there’s something similar about people’s fear, typically, of being in a precarious high position, fear of heights, and then doing something that’s difficult. But what I love about the trapeze example, or even rock climbing, is something you both were saying, that we’re both in service of doing this. It’s almost like an initiative, like we want to keep practicing so we can get this. So it almost de-stigmatizes one person doing something wrong, or one person is more of the Identified Patient or problematic behavior. It’s more of like, we’re really working together to land.

Yes, we both have to do this together, we both have to show up. They’re called the catcher, the person who catches the flier, they have to make sure that they pump up the swing in the right timing, the right moves; they have to hep the person off the ledge at the right time. Then when they’ve got to show up, they have to be able to reach and grab. So that part is so critical. The person who’s jumping, and everybody’s got to do a move. A lot of times we’re like, you have to change your behavior. It’s very much: I’m the victim, you’re the villain. The defense and offense. So it’s like, we need both; we both need to make it safe, we both need to learn how to do things different. So I really like that language of we both need to make our fights safe, we both need to find out how to show up for each other different. 

Jacqueline, I know we’re winding down here, so I want to carry you if you have anything else you wanted to say here on this note. Or anything else that you wanted to mention and we haven’t gotten to?

Oh my gosh, I think we covered exactly what I wanted to share.

So there’s one other piece, I’ll jump in. I can keep talking, so I’m going to slow down. But the patterns that we also get through sex, which we didn’t talk about. There are patterns that show up around sex. There might be this avoid, avoid; we don’t talk about it, we complain about it, we push for it. There’s all of these vulnerabilities, and sex is a very vulnerable space for connection, and we really need that safety around sex. At times, there’s this: “I’m not going to have sex with you until you create emotional safety, or I won’t create emotional safety until you have sex with me.” There’s this standoff, and we really have to focus on making everything safe. That means the emotional connectivity is safe. But it also has to show like: “You are desirable, I love you. I just don’t like our fights.” How do we take risks with each other sexually? Even just talking about sex, we need sex to be safe. So there’s many layers here, which we also address different sex dynamics that show up in relationship, how to create a little bit more safety. But we want that on everybody’s radars, that sex is also a very critical role in our patterns. It’s a can of worms that I’m going to open up, so I won’t. 

Yeah, we do have an entire chapter just on sex, in our book, because it was so important. We could have written a whole book on it. We could do a whole podcast episode on it. But it really is important to notice how the dynamic shows up sexually.

Yes. Tell us about your book and where people can find it.

It’s on Amazon. It’s at Barnes and Noble. It’s at bookstores. It’s called Help for High Conflict Couples. You can just do a quick Google search, we have HelpForHighConflictCouples.com. It’s really any bookstore, online.

It will be on Audible next month in March. So it will also be on Audible. Definitely check it out on HelpForHighConflictCouples.com, you can purchase it through our site. You can also go anywhere. It is all over. You can go to a bookstore, and it should be there.

Excellent, I’ll make sure to have those links on today’s show notes. On the website, they can purchase the book. Is there anything else that they’ll find there?

Yeah, we also have some resources for clients for learning how to regulate emotionally. We’re going to have a lot more different free tips and advice for clients at HelpForHighConflictCouples.com. We also are giving a lot of trainings for clinicians. So that’s something that’s also really important, is I do a lot of trainings for therapists on how to work with the couples. So we also have tools and strategies for the therapists as well.

Wonderful. Again, I’ll have those links on today’s show notes. It sounds like the best way to really do a deeper dive, get the support and the guidance, is to purchase the book, and really start working with all the material that you both have provided. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us here today.

Thank you. 

Thank you, this was so much fun. Thank you for having us.

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching