Complementing Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy with Mindful Self-Compassion Training, A Three-Part Series
As I wrote in the first part in this series, I believe that Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) are congruent approaches to healing, largely because they both work within and on the attachment system. Both view the self as fundamentally relational in nature. In this post, I have endeavored to more directly respond to some myths that might prevent attachment-minded therapists from integrating MSC into their work with couples. Each of these myths rests on the assumption that MSC targets a fixed, walled-off, non-relational self. This is an understandable assumption given that this is how we commonly use the word “self” in our highly individualistic culture, where we are taught that to depend on others is to be weak. However, as will hopefully become clear below, it is an assumption worth challenging.
Myth 1: MSC, and meditative practice more generally, is isolative navel gazing and therefore runs contrary to EFT
Answer: One of the three central components of MSC is a focus on common humanity—the idea that everyone is imperfect and everyone suffers. We embrace the idea that our distress is the norm rather than the aberration, and through MSC we strengthen the insight of how inextricably interconnected we truly are. One way to look at our goal as EFT therapists while we are de-escalating couples in the first stage of the process is that we help them rewrite the narrative of what is driving the disconnection. A significant part of this re-authoring is moving from “we’re disconnected because you don’t care about me”…or “because I’ll never be good enough for you” to “We are *both suffering* because we’re getting disconnected by our cycle.” MSC seems uniquely positioned to nurture curiosity about commonalities in our suffering as human beings. Additionally, there has been significant research demonstrating the correlation between mindfulness and secure attachment. Although I am not aware that the direction of causality has been established, this research suggests it is worth exploring whether mindfulness training can be helpful in securing attachment bonds in distressed couples going through EFT.
Myth 2: Focusing on the self through self-compassion training runs against the grain of attachment-focused couples therapy.
Answer: I once heard Christopher Germer say that MSC classes tend to go to deeper emotional places than some other mindfulness training programs because MSC taps the attachment system. That feels true to me. When we focus on an issue that we feel badly about and then we call to mind a compassionate benefactor, we are practicing giving and receiving compassion in an internal relationship. Most of us learned through experiences in our relationships to respond to ourselves with criticism. In MSC, we bring ourselves back to the cue (e.g. a mistake) and then we offer something new. This feels to me like good practice for what happens during the heart of EFT (the bonding events) when we heighten attachment fears, support a reach, and then support the internalizing of a loving response. MSC doesn’t teach us to turn away from, deny, or suppress our attachment needs. It teaches us to know them, honor them, and practice tending to them inside our own minds and hearts. I have found that this makes us more open to a similar process with our partners.
Myth 3: By focusing on self-compassion, someone will be less likely to turn to their partner with their needs
Answer: Through MSC, participants become more loving with themselves around their needs, which increases their awareness of what these needs are and increases their safety in acknowledging and opening to the feelings these needs provoke. I believe this supports turning to others rather than undermines it. What diminishes with self-compassion training is not support-seeking, but rather the likelihood that we will reactively push our needs onto our partner in an intense, demanding way and/or reactively suppress our needs. These are the drivers of the cycles of disconnection that couples find themselves in. MSC seems well suited to supporting the move from reactivity to responsiveness.
Myth 4 (variant of 3): If someone is already withdrawing, focusing on self-compassion is going to increase the likelihood that they turn away/inward when faced with demands from partner.
Answer: We know from Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion that in fact people high in self-compassion have higher satisfaction in their relationships due in part to their willingness to hang out with the feeling that they’ve made a mistake with their partner. This is a very important thing to be able to do during the first stage of EFT when the cycle of disconnection is still quite active. We’re asking each partner to acknowledge his/her role in a cycle that has been harmful to both of them.
Having addressed these potential obstacles to integrating MSC into attachment-based couples therapy, I will, in the third installment of this series, share some of the gifts that MSC can offer to the EFT process.