Q: The couples I see often are in such a state of emotional arousal that they can't calm down enough to do the work of therapy. What can I do to reduce their agitation and help them become more emotionally open, to me and to each other?
A: I know exactly what you mean. Take a recent session of mine. Lisa started yelling at her husband, Andy: "You never talk to me anymore! I'm sick and tired of you never saying anything! You're a brick wall!" He sat frozen on the couch, staring at his hands.
When clients are emotionally worked up, caught in fight-flight-freeze mode, all their hard-earned skills in empathic listening and responsible (and responsive) speaking go out the window. Nothing therapeutic is going to happen until they feel calm enough and safe enough to reengage with each other.
So I quickly asked them to do what I knew would calm Lisa down and reengage Andy in less than a minute.
"Stop! Breathe. B-r-e-a-t-h-e. Place your hand on your heart. Breathe any calm you can muster right down into your heart center."
They did, because they've done this before with me, and they knew it works. "Let yourself relax into that calm. Now remember any moment you can of safety, trust, love with each other, any moment at all. Get the sense of that memory in your body. Feel the love and the trust in your body. Settle into it. Relax and breathe."
In less than a minute, Lisa felt calm enough and Andy felt…