The pioneer of Emotionally Focused Therapy and my former teacher Sue Johnson was quoted in the Chicago Tribune recently. She was discussing the nature of a distressed marriage and recen research that shows it is a major risk factor for depression.
This is of course unsurprising. However many people do seek to compartmentalize their dissatisfaction with their marriage. They often believe that they are capable of “putting up with” an unhappy marriage whilst seeking fulfillment in other activities. Such an approach is likely to end miserable according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. A research team led by Richard J. Davidson followed couples for over a decade monitoring their stress levels. They also took self reported measures of how often men and women felt let down or criticized by their partners.
Their research showed a link between marital distress and depression. Interestingly it also showed a tendency towards anhedonic tendencies in those experiencing marital stress. Researchers showed positive, negative and neutral images to the research participants. Their responses to the images were measured. Those who reported frequently feeling let down or criticized by their partner were faster to stop experiencing joy when presented with positive images as compared to people satisfied with their marriages.
Sue Johnson highlighted that this was simply another piece of evidence linking our ability to handle stress and experience joy with the quality of our loving relationships. She said “The quality of our interactions with the person we love absolutely shapes our mental health.” Attempting to compartmentalize and get along with marital stress is neither likely to succeed or bring you happiness it is also doing a disservice to your spouse or romantic partner.
In EFT we recognize that relationships are founded upon emotional security and a trust. When we are let down or criticized by our partners that sense of security is diminished. What is tragic about this is how it can devalue the good experiences in a relationship. It’s amazing how often we hear distressed couples comment that “when things are good they are good”. This tautology says more than it seems. By it couples are attempting to say that are still capable of experiencing the fun and mutual enjoyment that brought them together but that it is somehow not enough to satisfy them.
Most commonly this is because a cycle of being let down or criticized has severely damaged the emotional bond between a couple and left them insecure with each other. Research indicates that in such instances the brain does not accept as valid the positive experience a couple has together because it is primed for suspicion or defensiveness.
In Emotionally focused therapy, marriage counseling takes on the task of helping couples understand this cycle and rebuild trust in one another.