Inside blamer softening: Maps and missteps - summary of an article by Bradley & Furrow (2007)

Bradley, B., & Furrow, J. L. (2007). Inside blamer softening: Maps and missteps.  Journal of Systemic Therapies, 26(4), 25-43


In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the softening of a more-blaming or pursuing partner is a pivotal change event.

Soft emotions and the process of couple therapy

A therapist’s facilitation of emotional regulation at both the intra and interpersonal levels is a primary influence in reducing relationship distress and the likelihood of dissolution.

Primary shifts in internal emotional experience lead to changes in interactional patterns in EFT. Changing positions in a couple’s pattern promotes new opportunities for a more secure bond in the relationship. Emotional experience is a critical moving force in promoting these changes.

Blamer softening

Blamer softening occurs when a previously hostile/critical partner asks, from a position of vulnerability and within a high level of emotional experiencing, for reassurance, comfort, or for an attachment need to be met.

The softening event results in the restructuring of a couple’s emotional bond, where a rigid cycle of negative interaction is transformed through the engagement and response to attachment-related affect, needs and longings. The shift toward vulnerability is typically followed by the accepting response of the other partner.

Increases in partner accessibility and responsiveness are evidence of the couple’s move toward a more secure bond. Softening events are an ‘antidote’ to the negative interactional cycle the previously defined the couple’s relationship as insecure.

Mini-theory of blamer softening events

The mini-theory of blamer softening identifies sex content themes and uncovers distinct interventions relied upon within each theme. A ‘map’ emerges of what and how the therapist intervenes moment-by-moment to successfully navigate with couple through this part of EFT.

Each therapist content theme describes a shift in the therapist’s focus through the softening event. The themes follow a predictable pattern with each theme building on the previous. Circularity can happen when the therapist move back and forth between two themes before shifting to the enactment.

Six expert themes are
Possible blamer reaching <-> processing fears of reaching -> actual blamer reaching -> supporting softening blamer -> processing engaged withdrawer -> engaged withdrawer reaches back.

Possible blamer reaching

The therapist has set the stage for softening event by helping the couple explore how the more-blaming partner’s angry, sullen and/or sad experiences has dampened the couples hopes for mutual accessibility and responsiveness.

The softening process begins with an invitation. The therapist invites the more-blaming partner, whose heightened awareness of previous unspoken vulnerability is evident in session, to imagine what it would be like to reach toward the other in the midst of these vulnerable feelings.

The therapist provides both a frame and words for sharing the expression of vulnerability, helping the blamer imagine the risk for sharing their attachment-related affect in a moment of connection distress. A typical response may include hesitation or fear. The therapist reflects this response, drawing specific attention to the emotional experience of the reluctant partner..

Heightening the blamer’s response intensifies the fears underlying the anxious defense and shifts the focus to the blamer’s fear of reaching.

Processing fears of reaching

Accessing and processing fears of reaching toward a partner in a moment of heightened vulnerability enable engagement and evaluation of the emotional schemas that shape the view of the self and other. These schemas inform how each person in the relationship will respond to a perceived loss of access to a significant attachment figure.

In processing a client’s fear of reaching, the therapist listens for the blamer’s fear of a partner’s negative response.

The therapist promotes the accessing and reprocessing of these fears associated with views of self and other by maintaining focus on the attachment-related affect. The experiencing and processing of these fears is supported by framing these primary emotions in the context of the partner’s attachment-related needs and longings.

Accessing and staying in the client’s emotional experience is critical.

RISSSC is an acronym that summarises the approach a therapist uses to engage and heighten more difficult or vulnerably emotional experiences: R, repeating key words and phrases, I, using images to capture emotion, S, using simple words and phrases, S, slowing the pace of response to the client, S, softening tone of voice, soothing, C, suing client’s  language, words and phrases.

Therapists are more likely to use heightening, evocative response, and empathic conjecture to bring the softening blamer to the leading edge of his or her fear.

A pattern of increasing emotional experiencing proceeds the actual softening reach of the blamer. 

The therapist then revisits the invitation to make the softening reach with emphasis on both what the client might say as well as the newly distilled fear that makes this reach so difficult. The therapist ‘seeds’ the attachment by both validating the fear, and helping the blamer envision what might happen if the fear itself was no longer an obstacle.

The therapist uses a first-person stance to heighten the attachment longing in the experience and offers words to help the client imagine how she could express this need.

Actual blamer reaching

The therapist makes a directive statement to the softening partner to reach to the other. The instruction is short, direct and to the point. It initiates the softening enactment.

The therapist remains steadfast and maintains a focus on gently guiding the vulnerable disclosure while blocking the blamer’s tendency to detour and reduce the intensity of the moment.

Supporting the softening blamer

The therapist remains active in structuring the softening event by providing support and processing the experience of the softened partner. Following the softening reach the therapist validates the risk and affirms the new position taken. The therapist then aids in the processing of the experience using an evocative question to help the client process and bring new meaning.

The therapist’s validation and processing of the softened blamer’s reach, and the new position taken, enhances the safety and importance of this each. It assures that support for this new and vulnerable position is not solely dependent on the response of the partner.

Processing with engaged withdrawer

The therapist moves to the engaged withdrawer, focusing on his immediate affective response to the softening reach and risk just taken, recognizing that the expression of the blamer’s attachment-related affect from a place of vulnerability is likely to pull for a comforting response.

The tone is soft and the pacing slow as the therapist invites the other partner into the significance of the moment and the emotions he is experiencing. The therapist sets the table for the withdrawer to process the emotional impact of the reach by giving special attention to the attachment-related affect expressed in the blamer’s reach.

The therapist must help the engaged partner shape his response, emphasizing accessibility and responsiveness to his partner’s need. The therapist may reflect and reframe the engaged partner’s response into an attachment context, ending with an evocative response.

Engaged withdrawer reaches back with support

As the therapist heightens the engaged withdrawer’s emotional response to the softened blamer’s reach, the building intensity naturally sets the stage for the engaged withdrawer to respond with support to his partner’s request.

Softenings derailed: five common obstacles

Absence of an attachment base

When therapists stray from the attachment anchor, they run the risk of losing the therapeutic calmness available when viewing current couple distress as stemming from an underlying attachment insecurity.

The EFT therapist formulates responses through an attachment lens, reflecting and reframing back to the couple the mostly unseen but all-to-often deeply felt attachment related affect and behaviours. It is not enough to work with primary emotions. Attachment theory allows the therapist to pinpoint central these and emotions that unlock the processes of how human beings create and maintain safe and secure emotional love bonds.

Attachment-related affect distance

Taking about an issue is not that helpful when it comes to change. You should encourage moving right into an issue and processing the emotion that arises in the immediacy of the session. This process is usually alive and relevant for both partners.

Therapists have to learn to use emotion, moving repeatedly form inside to in-between in a circular manner: 1) inside pertains to the emotional experience happening internally for clients in the moment 2) in-between stems form that internal experience. Leads to the sharing of one’s internal affect and associated meanings with their partner.

It is not enough to look at emotions form a distance. We must talk inside of emotions (attachment-related emotions). When processing a softening event, it is vital that the therapist move into the softening blamer’s affect so that attachment fears and needs are activated and become amendable to change.

Attachment-related fear allergies

Fear often blocks bids for attachment. Intense attachment-related fears, if left unprocessed, can paralyze partners in their tracks, rendering them alone in their fear and unable to move toward their partner.

It is crucial that EFT therapists master processing attachment-related fear to help guide couples in their most vulnerable moments. The therapist must honour and process attachment-related fear by 1) evoking it 2) reflecting it 3) heightening it 4) seeking to fully understand that fear within the context of the partner’s current and past relationships.

Internal views of other and self unacknowledged

During softening events the softening partner often experiences painful emotions that are best conceptually placed within attachment working views of other and self. It has the effect of collaboratively going into and with a client’s defences, rather than trying to work against them. Conceptualizing the difference between internal views of other from vies of self helps inform and direct the therapist to listen for both. This allows for a more precise processing of attachment-related affect and behaviours in the context of different internal working models.

The fears associated with beliefs within a negative view of self often need to be processed and shared between partners before movement forward in the softening event can occur.

Interpersonal enactment failure: no softening reach

It is imperative that the softening blamer actually reach out to the other for themselves and ask for comfort and support. It initiates the interpersonal bid for connection.  

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