Working with traumatized couple – the integration of SP, EFT, and Gottman researches

Dr. John Gottman’s lab uses the term “flooding” to describe how strong emotions disrupt most communication between the couple in conflict. “Flooding” is not a daily emotional wave; it’s the HUGE wave that knocked us away from rationality.


In Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, “flooding” is described as being “outside of the Window of Tolerance.” When the sign of danger triggered the sympathetic nervous system and/or the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system to dominant our body and mind, we are lost in the swirl of the fight, flight, freeze, collapse, then, our body and mind are dissociated. When we are dissociated from our “heart”, we simply can’t feel love and we can’t give love.

Dr. Ven der Kolk cited a brain image during flashback in his recent book, The Body Keeps the Score. In this fMRI brain image, the right amygdala area is the darkest area in the whole brain, which means that, when we are stuck in the trauma, our brains are hijacked by the alarm system.

In couple relationship, if one (or both) person is flooded by the strong emotions triggered by obvious (or unconcious) flashback of past relational trauma, there is simply no space for rational discussion. It’s all about not feeling safe in this current relationship and why fighting or fleeing is the only way out of this “dangerous zone”.

Also, in the brain image, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex areas are blank. What does this mean? This is the area providing us a sense of time. Yes, if two people are stuck in trauma, 20 second of “abandonment” feels like “you left me alone in the hell FOREVER.” On the other hand, these two people may lose a sense of how long they have been yelling at each other. Three hours of fight feels like 20 second. Nevertheless, the body is exhausted, which further narrows the Window of Tolerance after the escalating conflict.

Therefore, as the student to both Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, based on Dr. Gottman’s advice from his lab’s long-term research results, I found it’s necessary to “marry” the SP and the EFT when working with traumatized couples.

When the primary emotions are trauma-related fear and collapse (numbness) triggered by relational trauma, SP provides an effective strategy – drop the content, come back to bottom-up body-based regulation. One strategy could be directing the person (the couple) to simply notice one positive sensation (the smell, the touch, the breathing). Another strategy could also be allowing body to move the chair a little bit away from the other person and the therapist; or, even allow this person to slowly walk away from the counseling room and to mindfully experience the power of having two legs (yes, it is very empowering to be able to walk with our legs; on the other hand, it is very dis-empowering if we are trapped in a space that we can’t move).

Dr. Judith Herman reminded us long-time ago, the first stage of trauma recovery is “stabilization and regain a sense of safety.” The initial step of EFT is de-escalation, helping the couple to cool down from the conflict. Also, the initial steps of Gottman’s conflict management is “Soften Startup and Accept Influence.” None of these could happen if one or two parties are in “fight or flight mode”. Therefore, It is important for therapists to notice the signs of “outside of the Window of Tolerance” in couple sessions and being the one bringing the couple back to the Window of Tolerance, so the conflict could be effectively de-escalated.


Written by Chia-Chi (Alicia) Hu, Ph.D., Psychologist (ID, WA)

Note: This website does not intend to provide any specific individually-tailored psychological advice/services to replace any medical and/or psychological treatment. If the readers are in need of medical or psychological attention, please seek appropriate services in your area.

Copyright © 2018 Chia-Chi (Alicia) Hu; 版權所有:胡嘉琪



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: