Quick Tips for Therapists

What to Do When Couples Therapy Clients Come into the Session Escalated in Their Negative Cycle

By Jacqueline Wielick, LMFT

Sometimes, couples come to sessions escalated in their negative cycle—in emotionally focused therapy (EFT), we use the term “negative cycle” as a way of describing the negative interaction pattern that can occur between the clients during conflict. It is hard to make progress when both clients are escalated—one may be criticizing, yelling, blaming, cursing, and explaining, while the other may be stonewalling, silent, withdrawn, pacifying, and avoiding.

First, press the pause button in the session by calling out the cycle explicitly, and inviting a new interaction to occur. You can say, “It looks like you both are caught in your negative cycle right now. Fight the urge to fall back into your old pattern, and let’s try something different. You are fighting for each other and your relationship right now.”

Next, support each partner in regulating their bodies in order to get them out of Fight-Flight-Freeze-Appease mode. This can look like guiding clients through a grounding exercise, deep breathing, co-regulation such as holding hands and breathing (if there is safety in the relationship to jump to this exercise together at this point in the escalation), etc.

Once each partner is more regulated, from this regulated place you can ask each partner to see what vulnerability is underneath each of their escalated behaviors. Vulnerability draws closeness from their partner, and will help to create a corrective emotional experience of a new interaction with their partner.

When in doubt, always help the client go for the most vulnerable emotion (fear of not being enough, fear of losing the partner, sadness, longing for closeness, etc.). Once clients hear vulnerable emotion from their partner, they can shift out of attack/defend mode and into a state of empathy and understanding.

Jacqueline Wielick, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of her own private practice, Therapy by Jackie. She has a master of science in marriage and family therapy, and degrees in both psychology and sociology. With a focus on couples, relationships, attachment, trauma, and emotions, Jackie’s passion is helping people find deep joy in themselves and in their relationships using her advanced training in research-based theories such as EFT and Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Jackie previously worked at The Gottman Institute for five years, one of the world’s leading research institutes for couples and relationships, where she was exposed to their revolutionary research on love and relationships. Learn more at www.jackiewielick.com.

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Quick Tips for Therapists