Working with the 3 Amigos.
I was on a forum recently where a participant asked for suggestions on how to access and deepen more vulnerable feelings with a man who had an affair and the couple is working to recover from it. When she tries to go access his emotions they get stuck. She asks: Any suggestions of how to deepen more with him?
This is such a common pattern couples and therapists face after an affair.
This spot is tricky because there are so many vulnerable feelings, so much rawness. Both partners struggle with negative views of self and what I like to call The Three Amigo’s: sadness, shame and fear – all at once. The Three Amigos (just like in the movie) are one hot-mess of reactive and mixed emotion, that is until we can help them start to show up as themselves.
A very common mistake we make as couple therapists is to ask for more about feelings right after the withdrawer gives us something close to a feeling, even the idea of a feeling. We naturally want more, we want to get to the feeling. Of course. Processing the emotion is where the healing is after all! Here’s the hard part; the moment we want more and start asking for it on the heels of some sharing, we essentially become another pursuer in the system and The Three Amigos are going to automatically and unconsciously defend against being seen. What we have to do instead is provide extra safety and reflection (through attunement) to reduce the threat after some sharing and calm The Three Amigos (they are much easier to take on one at time BTW).
How do we provide that safety? Glad you asked. Well, when the withdrawer reveals something to you – stay with him, with what he shared with you, don’t go forward exploring for more emotion and leave him alone in his head and emotional unawareness (the automatic defensive response). Rather, use R.A.V.E. Use R.A.V.E. That makes me think of the M&M commercial, “The candy man can cuz he mixes it with R.A.V.E (or was it love) and makes the world taste good.”
What is R.A.V.E.? It’s a little acronym I created to help in these moments, it means:
- communicate Acceptance,
- Validate the position/feeling and then
- Explore. (Take a step towards emotion)
There’s two mistakes therapists commonly make when there’s extra vulnerability and defensiveness running high with withdrawers.
- We often try to access, or explore emotion too quickly after a withdrawer takes a little risk to reveal something. A withdrawers main defensive around the fear and pain of disconnection is to withdraw or defend against feeling that vulnerable attachment affect, you know, basically to not reveal. *smile* And, when The Three Amigos are under the surface in full force, defensive strategies are extra fast and extra strong. Thus, we need to stay longer with the defense to increase the safety until they can naturally let the defense down.
2. We often withdraw from the process ourselves – go to psycho-ed or something. Psycho-ed has a place, but not as pure top down psychoed. In couple therapy we do psychoed “bottom up”, so it folds into the process, it’s not an intervention without emotional connection. We stay close to the experience of the client, meet them where they are and then invite them into new experience. This can be hard for us to learn how to do psychoed while we’re meeting them emotionally and remain process consultants.
R.A.V.E. helps us avoid both of these common pitfalls. I think of R.A.V.E. as doing what Jim Coan talks about, “sharing the cognitive load.” Once our more withdrawing clients experience us as really understand and being with them we can ask them to take another risk with us.
Finally, don’t forget to put what they can vulnerably hold of the Three Amigos (sad, bad and scared) they feel into the negative cycle to organize it. If you’re doing the EFT Tango this will naturally take place. Then both husband and wife will start to understand what is blocking them from safe connection and continue healing together.