16. Separation Distress - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

16. Separation Distress

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Attachment theory reminds the therapist that emotion and emotional signals are essence of the interaction between partners, while some theories/therapies prompt the partners to avoid or eliminate strong feelings with logic and rational thought.  Unfortunately, a partner who tries to inhibit or minimize his or her emotions causes increase in his or her arousal and tension.  Respecting attachment allows emotions to be recognized and respected, and then adapted for positive connection between the partners.  Therapy helps them develop new, more productive, and effective emotional behaviors to address deeper needs.  The therapy strives to create a more compassionate and loving connection based on secure attachment, rather than merely to reduce conflict.  "By the end of therapy, an EFT therapist, for example, wants to see his or her clients listen to their emotions, speak their needs clearly and reach for their partner in a way that helps that partner tune in and respond… Safe emotional connection then helps each partner deal positively with stress and distress, whether this stress arises from within or outside the relationship. Negative events then only make a relationship stronger…  As Bowlby predicted, there is more and more evidence that lovers are connected by a neural net.  They regulate each others physiology and emotional lives.  When they are tuned in emotionally, they help each other reach a physical and emotional balance that promotes optimal functioning" (Johnson, 2010).

Separation distress that comes from the experience of being deprived and starved of emotional nurturance is at the core of the negative cycles of intimate relationships.  The protestation is often repeated through the relationship history beginning with hope and followed by anger, descending into despair and coercive tactics to restore contact.  If unable to successfully reach out to ones partner and gain secure connection, Johnson says individuals often use two secondary strategies.  Blaming the partner can become a habitual way to demand response to the distress.  The outcome of this strategy is the partner feeling threatened and pulling away.  With the second strategy, the distressed partner disconnects from his or her attachment feelings and avoids risking being engaged.  Thus, he or she functionally avoids potential conflict and disappointment by withdrawing and shutting down intimacy, which unfortunately blocks the other partner out.  "Both these secondary strategies are ways of trying to hang onto an attachment relationship and deal with difficult feelings but they often backfire.  Over the course of EFT studies and practice, we have been able to chart the emotional realities of partners as they use these strategies.  Once they can order and name their feelings, blamers speak of being alone, left, unimportant, abandoned, and feeling insignificant to their partner.  Underneath their anger they are extremely vulnerable.  Withdrawers speak of feeling ashamed and afraid of hearing that they are failures.  They believe that they can never please their partner and so feel helpless and paralyzed" (Johnson, 2010).

There are different attachment styles including styles of insecure attachment, each of which can differentially challenge the relationship and the couple's therapy.  Naaman, et al., 2005, (page 74) discussed some couples and the effects of their attachment styles.  "In the first couple, the reported attachment styles of the injured and offending partners were dismissive and fearful avoidant, respectively.  At termination and as a result of successful resolution, both partners rated themselves as securely attached.  This outcome was somewhat unexpected, given the resistance of a dismissive–fearful avoidant combination— Johnson and Simms (2000) have found that a fearful attachment style is difficult to change in the context of therapy.  In contrast to the first couple, the injured and the offending partners of the second couple endorsed anxiously preoccupied and dismissive styles of attachment, respectively.  These attachment styles remained constant throughout the course of therapy and where both partners perceived themselves to be relating in the same fashion.  It may be the case that attachment injuries sustained in the context of particular combinations of attachment styles prove to be resistant to working through and integration.  For example, with the first couple, the injured partner adopted a fearful avoidant stance, where she would take one step forward followed by one step back.  When her avoidant partner re–engaged, she felt it was safe to express remorse for her behavior.  It is the authors' contention, however, that withdrawer re–engagement was facilitated, because of the calm emotional milieu of the relationship, since there was no hostility between partners.  However, this was not the case with the second couple, as exemplified by the injured partner who remained adamant in her goal to control and punish her partner for making her feel insecure, and, as such, manifested a level of hostility that precluded his willingness to engage.  Accordingly, couples with different attachment style combinations may be studied to further refine understanding of such therapeutic limitations."  These variations and matches and mismatches challenge the therapist who does not adequately assess a person in individual therapy, or both partners and the couple's relationship, or all family members and the family dynamics.  They may demand greater theoretical and therapeutic flexibility than is comfortable for the therapist who has some unilateral approach to individual, couple, or family therapy.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu