Probably no aspect of couples work is more critical, or more difficult, for therapists than engaging a distant, emotionally shutdown partner. It’s far harder to connect with an emotionally closed-off person than with a more expressive client—even one who’s angry, loud, and actively fighting therapy every step of the way. At least the latter gives us some emotional Velcro to which we can attach, rather than the slippery-smooth surface of impassive, impenetrable stoicism. Attunement requires us to experience in ourselves and reflect back our clients’ feelings, but if we can’t pick up any feelings except an obvious desire not to have or express feelings, we’re left high and dry.
Beyond Radio Chatter
Josh, a 32-year-old Army officer, and his wife, 30-year-old Jennifer, who’d just retired from the Army, came to see me after two failed attempts at couples therapy. In the initial call, Jennifer’s voice was shaky, and she wasn’t sure Josh would come. “I love him very much, but I’m worried about our marriage,” she shared as we ended the call. At the first session, Josh, who’d been home from Afghanistan for eight months, moved toward me in the reception area, slow step by slow step, as if walking into my office was as perilous as leaving the safety of Iraq’s Green Zone, where he’d spent his first deployment during the volatile early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Josh prided himself on being a soldier, willingly worked long hours, believed in the mission, and had devoted his life to his military career. He’d married Jennifer between his second and third deployments, and found her military service and independence appealing. While he said he’d liked the idea of having a female companion—after all, many of his buddies were getting married—he wasn’t interested in an emotional connection. It seems he expected his wife to be a kind of stay-at-home buddy—fun to have around, but self-sufficient. He didn’t want to rely on her for anything, nor did he want her to rely on him. His real companions were his Army comrades—he “ate, drank, slept, and fought side by side with them for years”—and they were all he thought he needed.
Far from being self-sufficient, however, Jennifer had grown increasingly “clingy” since Josh had returned home from his third deployment. She hovered at the front door waiting for him when he came home from work, he said, and followed him around like an anxious puppy. He needed space and solitude, but she wouldn’t leave him alone, constantly demanding reassurance that he loved her. “She’s choking the life out of me,” he said. “I need some room to breathe.” The more she clung to him, the more he stayed away, spending hours at the gym, washing the car, or hanging out with his buddies.
Jennifer’s experience of their relationship was quite different. During Josh’s last deployment, she’d been terrified that he might die—might even already be dead and she wouldn’t know it. Troops in his unit had been killed, but there’d been long delays in notifying family members. They’d dated during his first two deployments, and now she was desperate to get him home safe, counting each day until his return so that they could finally begin their married life together. She was determined to be the best wife possible, promising herself she’d never let him down.
During the first few sessions, Josh spoke about “radio chatter,” which he described as communication that was “brief, concise, to the point. No emotion.” Describing his interactions with Jennifer, he said “I shut her out, put the wall up, and tell her only what she needs to know.” I quickly realized he was using radio chatter with me, too. When I asked him how he felt his connection with his wife was, he said flatly, “Fine.” When I asked him about his experiences while deployed, he answered, “Nothing noteworthy.” I turned myself into a pretzel trying to connect with him.
This wasn’t going well. Josh remained tensely remote, and when he did talk, Jennifer was often looking away. She looked exasperated and said how frustrating she found his terse remarks. The only time she talked directly to him was to beg him to get with the therapy program—“Please, Josh. Just start talking. We’ll never get better if you don’t start talking.” This only made him double down in his withdrawal. Sitting rigidly, looking straight ahead, he remained on high alert. He told me that he didn’t feel safe in sessions and, frankly, wasn’t expecting to feel safe.
It was clear that I had to slow myself, and the process, down. To make myself and therapy safely predictable, I described the way my specialty—Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)—works. I told them that the emphasis was on their interactions as a couple, and that I was working on the behalf of the relationship, not “taking sides.” EFT, I said, is never about fault and blame, but about how partners can learn to reach for each other in moments of need. I added that I wanted to help them both learn how to be there for the other. “We all need to know our loved ones have our backs,” I said.
As I was talking to Josh, I saw tears seeping from Jennifer’s eyes and rolling down her cheeks—which he didn’t seem to notice. I turned to her. “I see your tears and see that you’re touched. What are these tears connected to?” She shrugged and looked away, seemingly not wanting to say more. “Tears of frustration?” I conjectured, using a common EFT intervention (when clients can’t name their own emotion, we’ll often suggest possibilities). “Yes,” she said, “frustration.”
I started talking about how important his wife must be to him. This was risky since he might well go deeper into his shell, or even indicate that his wife wasn’t nearly as important to him as his buddies. But by highlighting the significance of the attachment—a common tactic for EFT therapists—I was putting their distress in the context of their relationship. I said to Jennifer, “Your partner is so important to you that when you can’t get a connection, you up the ante by getting clingy?” To Josh, making one last try at couples therapy, I said, “For you to come into this foreign and potentially risky environment all because Jennifer wants an emotional connection with you—she must be very special to you; as special to you as your battle buddies are, I imagine.” He agreed with a nod of his head and a slightly perplexed look on his face. This tiny indication that he was beginning to accept the therapy process and my highlighting the significance of their attachment was enough to give me a sense of hope.
I tried to normalize couples therapy by telling him that many of his comrades were also seeking it—even if they might not reveal it to their buddies. I told them how much I respected their profession and their sense of mission. Since therapist transparency is a hallmark of EFT, I admitted that I didn’t think I had the courage to go to war myself: “Facing that constant threat and fear would have dismantled me emotionally.” To my surprise, both responded positively to my admission of vulnerability. Josh’s mouth turned upward in the first smile I’d seen from him, and he even began to chuckle a bit, saying, “Oh, you’d learn how to survive. We all did eventually.”
This conversation was a real shift in the therapy. Over the next few sessions, Josh talked about his own experience without the usual radio chatter. As he spoke, his face moved and softened, his eyes opened a bit, and he looked directly at me. He told me how, after redeploying, he’d ended up in a hospital bed with a sudden seizure, which after three weeks in the hospital and a battery of tests, proved to be caused by the stress of coming home and being emotionally ill-prepared for life away from the wars.
Turning to Jennifer, I said tentatively, “Your tears now, and probably back in the hospital, are all about how important he is to you? How vulnerable you’ve felt being home alone, worrying about him daily while he was overseas, and then worrying about him, for different reasons, once he was home?” She nodded positively while dabbing her cheeks with tissue. “It’s been so hard for you to try and contain your feelings . . . they end up seeping out,” I said in a very soft, low voice.
She nodded again and said, “These tears are about my love for him, my hope for our future, how vulnerable I’ve felt for almost two years now. I’ve tried to hide them—I thought in the hospital I did a pretty good job of hiding them,” as she looked at him. “I didn’t want them to increase the stress on you, but this whole thing has been so hard on me, too.”
I slowed the moment down. “Josh, as you see Jennifer looking toward you tentatively, and I see you looking back, what do you feel going on inside of you?”
“I see her sadness, I hear her sadness, and it makes me realize how much she cares,” he said.
“Right,” I said softly, “How much she cares for you. What’s that like to notice how much she cares for you?”
He took a deep breath. “Pretty amazing, actually. I didn’t realize the depth of her feelings, or how much she’d gone through while I was downrange. I’m starting to see how hard it was on both of us, and how much we haven’t talked about this at all.” Jennifer smiled upon hearing this and looked at him.
As he talked about those weeks in the hospital, he said he now realized that he’d been “held together by Scotch Tape.” He continued, “I held it all together for my guys. I was the one who had to be there for them. I remember once when one of them asked me how I was doing, I just said, ‘fine.’ I had to be fine for my guys. There’s no way I could even let myself wonder if I was really doing fine.” The seizure, he admitted, forced him to see that he wasn’t exactly okay. “Looking back,” he said, “I was way more overwhelmed than I even realized. There’d been no time to think about all that I went through, but clearly my brain was full and got all scrambled.” Much to my relief, once he opened up, Josh seemed willing to continue talking, and our sessions became more fluid.
Over the next several sessions, something fundamental shifted between Josh and Jennifer. Josh reported that he no longer felt so helpless, or so anxious to escape into his default autopilot mode. And the more he opened up to Jennifer, the more easily she could give him space. The more settled she became, and more able to slow down and share her fears, rather than pressure Josh for reassurance, the less he experienced her as “clingy.”
As we terminated therapy, Josh was making plans to leave the Army and go to graduate school while Jennifer was finishing her degree. Since then, Jennifer has stayed in touch with me periodically and has shared how well they’ve continued to do. “Of course,” she said, “it’s not perfect, but we find our way back to each other with more ease and less drama.”
This blog is excerpted from "Connecting with the Shut-Down Client" by Kathryn Rheem. The full version is available in the May/June 2012 issue, Emotion in the Consulting Room: What Should We Do When Clients Cry or Scream at Each Other?
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