Part 4: “Pretty Tony”: Attachment Fears, Racial Priming and Negative View of Self
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.
After the escalated crisis that brought “Clifton” and “Monique” to therapy has been processed over a few sessions, the couple agrees to discuss the Structured Attachment and Cultural Interview questionnaire.
This interview is included in the appendix of my book. From this interview, I hope to evaluate and enhance my assessment of their relationship and develop attachment and “cultural-related handles,” which are phrases or words that are essential indicators of attachment and cultural triggers, needs and longings.
I also hope to develop a sense of their security, insecurity, flexibility and rigidity with their internal working model of racial identity.
In this case, I have grown to understand that Monique has developed a collective tribe of women who have been her lifelong, mutually supportive, encouraging base.
To her, they are family, and she is close to her mother and sisters as well. She’s always been viewed as a “strong black woman,” and her family of women enhances her racial identity. Clifton would call her a feminist, strong to defend herself. She can be self-reliant, values strength over weakness, and values her female friends.
I learned from Clifton that he has a painful history of relationship betrayals and challenges to his self-perception. He grew up in the inner city, where privilege and vulnerability were seen as dangerous weaknesses.
Boys and men were hard, and they were respected and valued. Clifton was thoughtful, kind and compassionate. He was different. He had a long-standing sensibility to be seen as “soft.” In my view, this reflects a wounded view of himself. His racial identity was insecure as a valued and respected black man.
Both Monique and Clifton take pride in being black. They involve themselves in black social groups and readily discuss being African American, which led to easy and comfortable conversations about race matters. The interplay of their views of self and one another and their racial identities could be woven seamlessly with their negative cycle, attachment longings and needs.
During the interview, Clifton reflected to the day he first met Monique. They were shopping in a grocery store, and he was surprised that Monique actually showed interest in him. Monique was headstrong, a no-nonsense type. Clifton viewed himself as soft and different.
He felt that Monique could walk around the store for an hour, see him and give him a disgusted look that said, “You better not say nothin’!” But on the other hand, if “Pretty Tony”, the more handsome, unique guy, were to walk past her, she would look at him differently and invite his advances.
It never occurred to Clifton that he could be Monique’s “Pretty Tony.” Due to Clifton’s wounded view of self as a black man, he couldn’t fathom that there could be something about him or even the way he approached Monique that landed on her above anyone else.
As I question Monique about Clifton’s idea of her having a “Pretty Tony,” she admits that since she was a young girl, boys would try to approach her, and they could tell by her facial expression or body language that she didn’t want to be bothered. She had a reputation for being hard with men. Now older, she is the same way.
You will know if she doesn’t want you to talk to her. She admits she may have given Clifton that idea when he first approached her. But there was something about him that drew her in.
She explains that Clifton believes that “Pretty Tony” is physically attractive, with muscles and good looks. She turns to Clifton and explains that, for her, “Pretty Tony” is more mental and about what’s inside his heart. I direct her to look at Clifton and tell him he is her “Pretty Tony.”
She tells him his heart is how he got her 20 years ago. There was something about him. With tears, Monique continues to express her love for Clifton.
Clifton thanks Monique for telling him because he loves hearing it. He says he is taking in her words. But it’s hard to brush away his feelings about “Pretty Tony” because he has been hurt in the past. So I interrupt and tell him that I am doing so.
At this point in the session, I am doing mini EFT interventions, specifically empathetic reflections and validation. I asked Clifton to tell me about his inner world. The focus here is to explore his view of self.
And I know from his history that he’s been rejected traumatically by his dad and siblings and in romantic relationships. Asking one partner to talk directly to the other partner from an internal place of vulnerability is central in EFT therapy.
The deeper the emotional experiences and expressions about attachment fears, the greater the possibility of corrective emotional experience.
With some black couples, however, emotional vulnerability is strongly associated with weakness and to be avoided. Monique and Clifton struggle with vulnerability.
Like many African Americans, they can ward off vulnerability, as it makes them open to the damaging prime negative views of their blackness. As a result, this requires EFT therapists to be more transparent about the process of encounters, using repeated mini enactments that are less emotional, assembly heightening and distilling practices with their couple.
In this regard, the encounters require adjusting to the style of Clifton and Monique and creating practicing encounters that increasingly lead to more vulnerable moments. Therapists must also be transparent about countering negative views of blackness, linking those views to the negative priming by the broader American culture and actively promoting positive black intrapsychic and interpersonal love.
Monique is slightly more ready than Clifton for encounters. Clifton and I have worked mutually on his need to say, “’Yes, Doc…But…’” by focusing on his coming in contact with his internal world and making friends with his feelings. There is tension between Clifton and me, and we had to negotiate a rhythm and listen to see each other with mutual respect and negotiate the power between us.
Monique’s emotional expression of tenderness and softness becomes an anchor point for the therapy. Her tears and soft tone become EFT move number one in the EFT Tango.
It is significant for Monique because her lifelong coping has been to develop herself as a strong black woman. That includes suppressing her own emotions and developing independence from men.
This also demonstrates the relentless use of an emotional cue. Monique’s vulnerability and soft emotional expression of her love for Clinton and his negative view of self when his core fears come bubbling up. He considered himself unattractive, “just another dude,” “just another n-word.”
He is trying to devaluate and devalue himself. He says he could lose Monique to a “Pretty Tony.” Although he shows a desire to, a part of Clifton doesn’t lean into Monique saying he is her “Pretty Tony.” His wounded view of self and his past won’t allow him to. The fear becomes part of his narrative. He believes it’s easier to go with the worst-case scenario because it hurts less when bad things happen.
I continue to lean into his pessimistic view and tendency to consider the worst-case scenario. This is a form of heightening in EFT which often means staying with the topic or returning to a topic. Here, I returned to the impact of his harsh, complex life on his attachment fears.
Later, I attempt many ways to see the specialness of their relationship and reflect on the positive feeling he has about their bond. As I offer a summary about his protective stance and his attachment to Monique in response to me, Clifton returns to an earlier moment in the session. It sends a spontaneous emotional reflection linked to the empathic summary. Clifton now reflects on a number of examples of reaching for connection when he feels close to Monique.
While the work continues transitioning to stage two, with both Monique and Clifton increasing their vulnerability and increasing a felt sense of closeness, Clifton’s internalized evaluation continues to run deep, and he will struggle with his vulnerability.
He is taking more risks, however, expressing his attachment feeling as they bubble up and reaching for Monique when that happens. Monique continues to experience Clifton’s influence and says that he is relaxing her view of softer feelings. She relaxes or experiences safety with him and more readily moves toward him.
In my view, they are securing their relationship and healing each other. They are experiencing the power that love can heal.
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.