Deep Roots: Culture & Attachment – Part 3


Part 3: The Story – Slowing Down Process: Understanding the Cycle with EFT Validation and Empathetic Reflections

This is a companion to my book on Emotionally Focused Therapy with African American Couples, Love Heals. Therefore, a fundamental understanding of Emotionally Focused Therapy is helpful when reading.

Too often, the historical and current negative priming that locates the blame for the impact of discrimination within African Americans’ character is a central feature of the internal working models of Americans. I believe the harshness of the African American experience can influence the intensity of the negative cycle.

As we continue our discussion of the couple, “Clifton” and “Monique,” we see how they demonstrate their prime for negative viewing of each other (Transgeneral impact of Negative Multi-culturalism). Monique sees Clifton as a weak man for his vulnerability because of his anxiety. And Clifton sees Monique as a mean snake because of her reaction, criticism and harshness. Because they are stuck in their negative pattern, both are triggered to be particularly harsh and damaging toward each other.

Like many African Americans, they are primed to demean and hurt each other in conflict. They are also primed to be harsh in their disconnection protests. Negative priming directly results from 400 years of demeaning propaganda about African Americans. This priming is reflected in the tone and words used to protest disconnections.

Over the course of our session, I start to unpack what happens during those times when Clifton internalizes his feelings of anxiety. While he describes his process to me, he admits that he now feels embarrassed for having to even ask questions about the event.

But strongly feels that because he thinks  “something” has taken place, he knows there is a conversation that needs to take place between him and Monique. But rather than approach her, his internalized feelings are so strong that he goes quickly to his narrative script. When he finally approaches Monique, it comes out in ways that are insulting to Monique, she reacts and then it goes downhill from there.

To Clifton, his feelings of discomfort are justified because he’s been betrayed by women in his past. So there’s a part of him that recognizes Monique is different. But when it’s time to unpack his emotions by asking her questions and dealing with what he “knows,” it makes him feel something inside that changes the conversation between him and Monique.

As Clifton continues to put words to his emotions, it becomes clearer that he feels Monique’s friends are more important than him, and if she had to choose between them, Clifton would not be chosen. During the argument, Monique attempted explained that she was simply doing a favor for a friend. Clifton said he only heard, “That’s my friend! I don’t care what you say. I’m going to do it anyway,” or “I would do it again.”

Damaging Impact Of The Escalation Cycle: Influenced By Their Attachment Fears and Negative Black Priming

The EFT map explores each partner’s emotional experience in the attachment dance of connection, longing and disconnection distress.

The race matters concepts helped me explore the harshness of their negative cycle, which is influenced by negative priming. I suggested to them that I have some knowledge of African American experience  and this eventually allowed them to attune with me and explore more profound views of their self-criticism and fears.

Both Monique and Clifton admit that during escalation cycles, they resort to calling one another out of their names and using terms such as “bitch” or “nigga”. They use these terms as a source to hurt one another, hitting below the belt. During their last argument, Monique told Clifton to “stop being a bitch-ass punk,” and it landed on Clifton very hard.

Although Monique said these words during an argument and out of anger, Clifton perceived this as threats to his relationship and his worth as a man. He said that although they call one another names during arguments, and although he knew they were in the middle of an argument, this time, the name-calling was the worst thing she’s ever said to him. He went from uncomfortable to angry, and he stayed there. Monique admits that she said sharp and harsh things in reaction to Clifton’s anger.

Both Clifton and Monique acknowledged that this was a diifficult conversation, and then it escalated. Ultimately, they fell into a cycle, and went “there” with each other. Then the name-calling began. Perhaps they learned this behavior while growing up, and it’s how they’ve learned to defend themselves. But it seems as if they get into lingering feelings of hurt from that negative cycle.

During this exchange, I offered but stayed close to the negative cycle and linked their harshness toward each other to the larger harshness toward African Americans. I’m also being transparent about how I work with them and the therapy process. Sometimes the petite lectures are associated with the EFT model. And other times to, a model of race matters.

Interplay of EFT with Cultural Humility: Using EFT Tango with Encounters

When I guide the discussion back to Clifton’s scripts, he confesses that he now feels embarrassed talking about what happened during the last argument. Because he was so angry, by the time he was able to get the details from Monique, he had already created the worst-case scenarios in his mind.

As he speaks, I can see that reflecting on Monique’s words is still a sensitive spot for Clifton. But the other part, too, is how she came at him. So many men would react that way because they didn’t know they learned something new. It’s puzzling. But for Clifton, there’s a raw spot there, and he develops a script. And from that place of being scared, he creates, perhaps, scenarios that scare him, hurt him and make him very uncomfortable. And it’s hard because he doesn’t always know how to verbalize what he’s feelings. Perhaps it’s Monique’s reaction to him. Or maybe it has something to do with how the fear has talked to him, and he developed his script. And when he speaks to Monique from a place of being scared, his words are harsh. And when he gets a reaction from Monique responding to his words, it’s personal. He feels like she’s attacking his manhood. So although Clifton takes responsibility for initiating the escalation, he says that when Monique responds with sharp words, he feels uncomfortable and disrespected.

Although he is a bit reluctant, I ask Clifton to turn to Monique and describe how he feels. After expressing his feelings and telling her that he wants the name-calling to stop from them both, he apologizes to Monique. She does the same.

I asked Clifton how it felt to look at Monique and say those things. He admitted that it wasn’t easy and would take some practice. Both Monique and Clifton aacknowledged that the vulnerability was a nice feeling.

After this exchange, I wanted to return to the worst moment of their escalated negative cycle – the script that Clifton developed and why Monique hadn’t told him about giving her friend’s brother a ride. I am attempting to engage them in a corrective emotional experience by doing so. Even though small, well-processed encounters can be helpful. Many EFT interventions validate empathy by using empathetic reflections as well.

Clifton’s emotional experience is assembled in stage one work, to the extent possible. He’s able to express his distress to Monique. It seems they are aligned, and there’s distress about their escalated negative cycle that features stinging harshness. Linking their harshness to the larger cultural meanness towards African Americans, I believe, is motivating them to fight against this damaging aspect of their negative cycle. At this point in stage one of our EFT work, I accept that he is uncomfortable assembling his emotional experiences. At times during our session, I gently conjecture that more emotional experiences go on inside of him and work with what he gives me. The working relationship is affirmed with our ability to laugh about my EFT focus and his uncomfortableness. Their conversation is processed through the five EFT moves.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples is an evidence-based model developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and one of the leading innovators in couple therapy. Dr. is also the author of several books on EFT, including Attachment Theory and Practice: The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Love Sense and Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations For A Lifetime Of Love. In addition, she has produced many training videos with the International Center of Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Those interested should seek out Dr. Johnson’s work for background regarding EFT.

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