Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a model of communication that empowers us to speak and listen in a way that is most likely to inspire compassion and to keep us connected to our own and each other’s basic humanity. It is a language that helps us stay in touch with the natural compassion at the core of the human heart. It was developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D, who was a student of Carl Rogers, and has been taught all over the world for the past thirty years.
At present about 1/3 of my work is couples therapy and much of that work is deeply informed by my experience and practice of NVC. More and more I am seeing that if people can find a way of connecting and really hearing and understanding one another, then any conflict, however big, can be resolved. And I am seeing that if people cannot find a way of meeting heart-to-heart and connecting then any conflict, no matter how small, will result in separation and pain. My work as a couples therapist seems to be about helping people remove the barriers that get in the way of connecting in this way and supporting people to stay in the fire of difficult conversations long enough so that such a heart connection can be formed. As people in relationship, we are often threatened by our differences. I am seeing that when people stay in these conversations about difference then the relationship grows strong enough to tolerate such difference and intimacy and closeness deepen. I am always struck by both the sacredness of such work and the courage of my clients to do this work.
As a former English teacher and poet, I also have a passion for words. I was drawn to NVC because it was a way of using words and communication to transform our relationship with self and others, a way of remaking the world through remaking language. I am passionate about finding different ways of meeting differences, whether the differences are between people, communities or nations, or whether the differences and conflicts exist in our very own hearts.
EFT–Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy:
One form of couples therapy that is beautifully congruent with NVC is Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy.
EFT is a structured approach to couples therapy formulated in the early 80’s by Drs. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. EFT is also used with families. A substantial body of research outlining the effectiveness of EFT now exists. Research studies find that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers and hospital clinics and many different cultural groups. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness.
Take the image of a couple against a wall, facing a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon could be a crisis, or just daily life. When people feel safe with one another, they can face the dragon together. If I know my spouse will be there to understand, then I am already less afraid of whatever life has in store, of whatever the dragon will do. We need to be able to count on each other, or we are doubly threatened: first by the dragon out there, and second, by the missing safety and responsiveness in the relationship.
In our society, we have tended to value independence, and to frown on dependency. But people want someone they can count on—someone dependable. This is effective dependency—you can count on each other. For some couples, this feels like a risky proposition, and it seems safer to stick with independence—nobody let’s me down if I stand on my own. So, you have two individuals living together, but in isolation from each other, not truly connected.
The classic cycle that romantic partners get into is an attack-withdraw cycle—the more one withdraws, the more alarmed the other becomes, increasing the frequency and intensity of the attack, which further pushes the other into an even more entrenched withdrawal.
In EFT we aim to break this cycle and to replace the old cycle with new, more constructive and life-serving ways of interacting. This happens by helping couples move from the secondary emotions which are expressed often as anger and blame or withdrawal and shutdown, to the primary emotions which are vulnerable and heart-centered and can lead to a radical transformation of the couple’s relationship dance.
The goal is to have the relationship dance move from being a a dance of tension or even danger to becoming a safe and healing dance where both partners can thrive.