Can You Save Your Unhappy Marriage Or Are You Better Off Breaking Up?
Are you exhausted from having the same conversation or argument over and over? Tired of your partner not hearing or understanding you? Is he/she even listening? Does he/she blankly stare right through you to the point you want to throw something at him to “wake him up”? Has an emotional or sexual affair come between you? Are you afraid of saying the wrong thing, so instead you don’t say anything at all? Have you given up on love and a happy relationship? So here’s the big question…can you save your unhappy marriage or are you better off breaking up now?
Have you asked that question? Well, you’re not alone. Often couples call and want me to tell them if their relationship is salvageable. And some even want me to help them split up. I specialize in saving the marriage.
And though all relationships aren’t saveable (and maybe shouldn’t be), I begin all my couples work in pursuit of repairing attachment injuries and strengthening emotional bonds. Not just saving a marriage, but making marriages whole, healthy and thriving. Fixing an unhappy marriage.
So what’s that look like?
Traditional Therapy Hasn’t Worked, Why Trust Emotionally Focused Therapy To Save An Unhappy Marriage?
The genius of Emotionally Focused Therapy is in its healing of the insecure emotions of disconnected couples. The goal is to rescue each person from the fear that threatens to destroy the marriage. The EFT approach helps couples communicate their terror in a way that encourages each to respond to the other with compassion rather than contempt.
After years of careful observation of emotional communication with couples in crisis, Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Les Greenberg discovered that there are specific steps for rescuing relationships.[i] These sequential steps apply to all relationships in crisis, regardless of the reason for the conflict. They are powerful emotional interventions that help couples rewire their brains and bypass the destructive habitual arguments that destroy relationships.
There are three stages of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) that help couples move from crisis to deep connection. EFT therapists spend years of training and supervision of video taped sessions to become certified in this model. EFT therapists know where couples are on the map of change and do not move them into deeper emotional connection until they are ready.
First Things First: Escaping The Cycle
The first stage of EFT is cycle de-escalation. The majority of couples who come in for therapy are caught in a negative cycle of emotional conflict that feels unique to them. Regardless of what they are arguing about they find themselves in a familiar pattern of arguing that nearly always leaves them feeling disconnected and alone. The argument about the burned toast becomes heated because of years of accusation and defensiveness that spark and ignite the conflict. By understanding how to express their vulnerable emotions, and not fire back defensive responses, couples learn how to escape the cycle.
The majority of couples in conflict polarize and adopt two very different ways of coping with relationship struggles. EFT therapists use the terms pursuer and withdrawer to describe these positions.
In Pursuit Of Connection
In most cases, pursuers are female and withdrawers are male, though the opposite is sometimes the case. Relationships with two withdrawers can find themselves immobilized. Rarely do you find two pursuers in a relationship.
When pursuers feel insecure, they express their emotions in an attempt to gain emotional reassurance from their partners. They want to know that their partner feels as deeply about an issue as they do. If their partner does not respond with emotional authenticity and accurately mirror their emotions, the pursuer becomes even more insecure, trying again, with even more emotional intensity to get the point across. It feels impossible that her unhappy marriage can be fixed unless he changes.
The expectation is that more emotion will surely pull at the heartstrings of their beloved. If the lack of emotional response persists, the pursuer often expresses attacking emotion and exasperation to try to get the withdrawer to engage. The conflict escalates.
Withdrawers become immobilized when confronted by their pursuing partner’s heightened emotion. They tend to be uncomfortable expressing—or even feeling—emotion in the first place.
Withdrawers often try to come across as unaffected by the emotion aimed at them. In the withdrawer’s mind, expressing emotion will only make the situation worse. He (or she—but probably he, so we will use the male pronoun here) may be afraid that if he allows himself to express his feelings, an angry outburst could result.
In most cases the withdrawer feels overwhelmed and does not know how to use emotion to respond to the angry protest of his pursuing partner.
The Perfect Storm And The Negative Cycle
This pursuer-withdrawer dynamic creates the perfect storm in nearly every troubled relationship. The pursuer’s emotional flooding, or overload, causes the withdrawer to almost automatically flee rather than fight for the relationship. This pushes the primitive panic button in the pursuer.
Pursuers must see their partner’s emotion. They must know that their withdrawing partner cares emotionally about their deep pain. If this does not happen, the pursuit will continue on and on.
Couples caught in this negative cycle of interaction repeatedly fall into the same pattern of conflict. This is confusing and painful. And it produces fear.
In time, the smallest disagreement can send them into the spiral of another negative cycle. When this happens, rather than giving each other the emotional reassurance necessary to restore intimacy, each person defends why he or she is hurting the other.
The cycle is driven by unacknowledged vulnerable emotions, most of which are based on the couple’s fears of losing the relationship. One would think it would be so simple for people who love each other to simply acknowledge how afraid they are of losing each other.
Nothing could be further from the truth. When we are afraid of losing love, we instinctively move into a posture of self-protection. This only validates our partner’s fear that we really do not care. Our self-protection escalates our partner’s fear.
De-escalation is about helping a couple see their own emotional cycle of conflict. When they see what each of them are doing to trigger the cycle, they become empowered to stop the destructive dance.
Pursuers usually trigger withdrawers by blaming. Withdrawers trigger pursuers by silence and invalidating facial expressions. A monotone verbal response can send a triggering message to an angry pursuer that her partner does not care.
The Pain In Your Gut
Withdrawing men sometimes need to learn to identify their emotions before they can express them. Even though their voice tones and facial expressions give them away, they are often unaware of what they are really feeling.
It takes time for withdrawers to connect discomfort in their chest with fear. Or a pain in their gut with anger. But with time and the help of a skilled therapist they can learn to make the connection between discomfort in their body and the actual emotions they are feeling.
A withdrawer’s lack of emotional awareness makes their emotionally hurt pursuing wife feel crazy with frustration. The pursuer will interpret their husband’s lack of emotional responsiveness as their not caring about their feelings. The truth is that they cannot show emotional compassion about their partner’s emotions when they cannot feel their own emotions.
It is not enough for them to say they are sorry. They must express that they are sorry with emotion if the apology is going to heal the pursuer’s hurt.
Withdrawers have often spent a lifetime disconnecting from their emotions. So it takes time for them to both recognize what they are feeling and then express feeling for their partner who they have emotionally injured.
They feel stupid and awkward learning how to feel their own and their partner’s emotions. Acknowledging that they struggle and need help with emotional communication takes courage. If they feel disrespected because they struggle with emotional communication they may never learn to open up.
Feeling understood and safe in the therapy environment is critical to the couple’s progress toward escaping the negative cycle. The therapist expresses care and understanding for each partner’s frustration with the process. The therapist helps partners to understand the other person’s love and attachment longings.
When each person can stop reacting, attacking or withdrawing, the negative cycle is deactivated. This is done by letting go of accusations and by simply expressing the vulnerable emotions they are each feeling. Each partner feels loved and understood when their emotions are mirrored back to them.
The first stage of EFT is about creating the safety they need in order to acknowledge their fear of relationship loss. Once the couple can see the cycle and acknowledge their fearful emotions, they can begin a new dance. This dance is all about reassuring each other and pulling each other close when fear is aroused.
Finding The Forbidden Places Of Pain
The second stage of EFT is Deepening and Forgiving. Now with a clear understanding of the negative cycle, the Emotionally Focused Therapist helps each person identify and more fully express their disowned attachment emotions, needs, and self-perceptions.
Expressing these deep hidden struggles creates the opportunity for the forbidden places of pain to be understood and cared for. We unconsciously keep ourselves in cycles of painful conflict by not acknowledging and expressing our attachment fears, shame struggles, and needs for validation.
With a de-escalated cycle, the transforming stage-two work begins. Many people have never had a safe love relationship that allowed them to talk about their insecurities.
In this stage each person learns how to invite their partner to safely talk about the emotional injuries caused by themselves or another person. The listening person responds with compassion and understanding.
Expressions Of Gratitude
These vulnerable and validating conversations are deeply moving. It is not uncommon for one person to hold the other with tearful expressions of gratitude of finally feeling understood.
This creates the foundation for forgiveness. In love relationships forgiveness is a process that requires an emotional and not just an intellectual confession. When the offending partner feels safe and loved it frees him or her to express the remorse of betrayal. When the injured person feels the sincerity of the partner’s emotional confession it releases their hold on emotional resentment.
True emotional forgiveness in love relationships requires this heart-level exchange of needs and wants. It is simply too dangerous to forgive a lover who will not confess his or her deep emotional need for love.
With the heart-level assurance of need in place, transgressions that surpass comprehension can be forgiven. Compassion for any crime is possible when viewed through the eyes of loving attachment. And yes, you can fix an unhappy marriage.
Fragile attachment bonds are strengthened and new attachment bonds form when needs are expressed and accepted and attachment injuries are forgiven.
A Deeper Relationship – Key To Saving Your Unhappy Marriage
The stage-two process of compassionately hearing each other’s hurts and failures deepens the relationship and forms new emotional bonds. It frees each person to have a more secure view of self and of their partner. And it creates an overall improvement in self-esteem and identity.
EFT therapists often find themselves quoting Sue Johnson’s coined truth: “we find ourselves in the arms of another.” Unlike the popular notion that we find our identity alone, the stage-two therapy work teaches couples that they grow as individuals by depending on each other for emotional support and validation.
As each person in the relationship feels the safety of emotional compassion, this new dance creates the opportunity for forgiveness, and deepening the relationship by creating bonding experiences. Old hurts heal and we achieve new capacity to become our best.
Couples learn to acknowledge and express fearful emotions as they come up. They no longer waste energy trying to repress their emotional pain. They learn that their loving relationship is the best place to find healing and understanding. This creates the foundation for intimacy and a sustained feeling of closeness and being cared for.
Like magic, our perception of our life partner transforms as our hearts make room for the pain they hold. We stop seeing the other person through the critical lens of perfection. Behaviors that were once an irritant become opportunities for us to show compassion and provide comfort.
Are You Too Needy?
Most of us live in cultures that discourage neediness. Couples learn in stage-two work that we are only as needy as our unmet need. And meeting the need that we are referring to here requires another person.
As we learn to allow ourselves to need and meet our partner’s need for emotional love and support, we become less clingy and more secure.
It is very moving to watch a couple express their deep love and need for each other in therapy. It’s a deeply spiritual moment when the souls of two people open, perhaps for the first time, to the love they so desperately need for wholeness.
In this beautiful opening of hearts, the withdrawing partner expresses the loneliness and fear behind the wall of silence. The blaming pursuer, in amazement, sees the likeness in her fears and loneliness.
And The Seas Calm
With that the pursuer’s heated anger calms. Her sharp, accusing tone of voice becomes soft and supportive. The withdrawer discovers newfound energy to initiate in the relationship. And the pursuer finds new safety in this initiation and is able to trust in those promptings. Couples begin to get a glimpse now of how an unhappy marriage can be fixed.
It’s like the world that was spinning chaotically out-of-control is set right on its axis. Each partner finds a home in the other, and is able to live into their fullness.
When couples make this stage-two shift into deep acceptance of self and other, they have a newfound capacity to face struggles together. The fear of having different opinions fades and the conversation about different points of view opens exciting possibilities for new learning, without the fear of rejection.
The only thing that is non-negotiable is the love that they have for each other.
It should be no surprise that completing stage-two work is the best predictor of long-term love relationship stability. It is difficult to get knocked off course if the bond is deep and the attachment is secure.
This kind of profound emotional connection is more than a temporary feeling. It is a sustaining life giving force that is at the foundation of well-being and forward movement.
Making Your Primary Primary: Consolidate And Integrate
The third stage of EFT is where the consolidation and integration takes place. I call this making your primary primary. This stage is about lining up your life priorities so that the attachment is secure and growing.
Staying emotionally connected takes time and attention. Relationships are unhealthy, just like bodies are, unless they get exercise. Modern life presents us with a wide array of choices for each person in the relationship to become productive and grow. The choices we make can either deepen or weaken our love relationships. Emotional connection is required to fix an unhappy marriage.
The jobs we choose, when we start a family, how we manage money, how we vacation, how we work out, our hobbies and our spiritual direction all have the potential for creating closeness and distance.
Can Personality Differences Be A Deal Breaker?
Couples who clash over personality differences are going to have more challenges in trying to become more compassionate and emotionally connected. We don’t leave our personalities at the door when we come home to each other at the end of the day. It is common for two people to be very different in their motivations and defenses.
When we meet a potential life-partner we often look at the relationship through rose-colored glasses. New love fills us with the feel-good chemical dopamine making it easy, and even fun, to see and experience our partner’s differences as refreshing and endearing.
What happens two years down the road and you realize that long walks on the beach, hand-in-hand with your partner, just don’t feel like the best use of your time? You’d rather be sky diving, home building a website, helping the homeless, writing a book or doing personal meditation in your he/she shed.
Personality differences can be a deal breaker if we don’t understand and learn to appreciate and accept the differences in our partner. We were not brought into this world as cookie cutter humans. Rather we entered with leanings toward a dominant strategy to relate to others and to cope in our world. Once we tune into our partner’s personality type we can seem as different as day and night. What was once endearing becomes annoying, or worse.
My wife is much more detail-oriented, more perfectionistic than myself. She brings beautiful gifts and talents to many areas of our relationship. She fills in my gaps. And when we want to have our morning coffee conversation about existential reality, well I lead the way on that. And oh how beautiful these differences are once we understand and relax our defenses and appreciate one another’s differences.
So yes, personality differences can be beautifully fulfilling or, when misunderstood, can become deal breakers.
What About Sex?
And sex…well, it’s not automatic. It takes energy and attention to keep a sex life alive for the long run. The lack of a regular, mutually satisfying sex life is a sure sign of attachment injury, or priorities that are out of balance.
Lasting structural changes in a relationship are only possible when broken attachment bonds heal and renew. Too often, couples in therapy find it challenging to make behavioral changes before having the emotional security necessary to make a sustainable change.
When attachment bonds are broken, gifts, flowers, romantic dinners, and exotic vacations will only create temporary closeness. Behavioral gestures of love are signs of responsiveness when the emotional co-regulation is working.
When there is hurt and a lack of forgiveness, couples experience these gestures as manipulation or placating. The same flowers that will warm the heart of a securely attached wife may anger her when she feels distant and damaged after an act of relationship betrayal.
A relationship that is not connected will not be repaired simply by knowing your partner’s language of love.
It can, however, be remarkably easy to make major structural changes in a relationship once emotional intimacy is flowing.
Can You Save Your Unhappy Marriage? Yes!
In the third stage of EFT, we encourage and the couple have conversations about the issues that keep them from enjoying the depth of connection they both desire. What previously felt like power and control debates are now conversations about how to create a connected lifestyle.
This is the transformative work of making your primary primary. When each person understands the primary importance of their attachment bond, all life choices are evaluated through this lens.
Individuals who are attachment-aware monitor and maintain healthy closeness with their beloved. They know when their “love buckets” are low and they feel safe in asking for a refill. Fixing an unhappy marriage might even mean turning down career promotions that might threaten the health of their relationship.
But The Kids Are Difficult…
Couples who make their primary primary understand the incredible challenges of raising children. They are careful to stay connected and in alliance so that they can lovingly parent while minimizing mixed messages.
Connected couples support each other in front of their children and work out differences behind closed doors. They teach their children to come to them with their needs for attention rather than acting out for attention.
Making our primary primary in adult life is about giving our adult love relationships the priority and power to transform our lives. When we make our primary primary, we heal our past, present, and future.
As we place our relationship with our partner above any other, we protect and create safe space for our attachment bond to heal and transform our lives. In the warmth and acceptance of a loving, attached adult relationship, even insecure childhood attachment bonds can heal.
It is helpful for couples to think of their relationship as an epicenter for the nourishment of their deepest needs, wants, and capacity for transforming growth.
There is no other relationship like the primary relationship, which offers the opportunity for total transparency and deep mirroring of emotion. This emotional support and feedback is the primary way that we come to understand ourselves. Thus part of the path to fixing an unhappy marriage.
Feeling grounded and confident allows us to be ourselves in our work and social relationships. Our primary relationship is of utmost importance to our identity, health and sense of wellbeing.
Will More Boundaries Help Save My Unhappy Marriage?
When any relationship other than our primary one becomes more trusted and relied upon, our primary relationship suffers injury or even destruction. Therefore, how we structure our lives to secure and protect our primary relationship is of vital importance.
We learn to express our emotional needs to our partner. Sharing with others without appropriate boundaries in place creates the possibility for a competing emotional connection that can weaken or destroy our primary love relationship.
Couples that stop making their primary primary eventually will find themselves in crisis. Unmet needs build unconsciously and we become hooks for others who are under-nurtured or under-affirmed.
Work relationships often fall prey to these deep primal needs for connection. In today’s progressive culture, where men and women work closely together in surgery suites, corporate suites, academia, and even on the battlefield, there is ample opportunity for the triggering of our bonding emotions by someone outside of the primary relationship.
Even when an affair has happened, as devastating as it is, it is simply naive to blame the crisis exclusively on the person who strayed. There is always a bigger story to understand and insecurities to heal.
The cost of being human requires us to live in the vulnerable position of needing to give and receive love. No one can survive long in love deprivation without eventually failing self or others.
Can You Save Your Unhappy Marriage?
A relationship crisis is a wake-up opportunity to dig in and understand how we are made and what we truly need to survive and thrive. Couples can see the reality of a happy marriage by learning to see and escape their negative cycle, by deepening and forgiving and by making their primary primary.
With secure attachment as a foundation, much of what troubles us disappears and we have renewed strength to take on life’s challenges together.
I believe in the power and effectiveness of EFT to help save an unhappy marriage. I’ve seen it over and over in my work with couples. Couples found renewed hope for their relationships and no longer wondered if they were better off breaking up. Throwing in the towel was no longer on their radar.
Hi, I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. I’m highly trained and experienced in working with couples with relationship issues. Along with my wife Paula, I’ve co-authored Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love. Let me know how we can help fix your unhappy marriage.