February 1st, 2013

Practitioners laud benefits of EFT in couples work

A local group is spreading the word about how Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) can benefit practitioners, particularly in couples work.

Jill Fischer LICSW says the New England Community for EFT – of which she is assistant director – provides training, resources, connections and opportunities for EFT therapists and those interested in EFT.

Fischer began incorporating EFT into her work about three years ago. She had been using the Gottman Method, which she says was effective but could be limited, particularly with couples who have trauma or attachment injuries. She says the Gottman Method and EFT are complementary, but EFT focuses on the primary and more vulnerable emotions (such as fear, sadness) that often underlie secondary emotions (anger, irritability) that are commonly the immediate responses to conflict or disconnection from a partner.

“We all have a need to know we are safely and securely attached to another human being,” Fischer says. “When that gets jostled in some way, which is inevitable in love relationships, it touches off our attachment fears and the need for reassurance. Learning how to talk about those moments and to reliably reconnect on an emotional level, is what EFT is all about.”

“EFT provides a clear road map for the process of moving from identifying the negative cycle in which the couple is stuck, to ‘taking the elevator down’ to helping each partner get in touch with the more vulnerable emotions that are fueling those immediate responses that make sense but that perpetuate the negative dynamic,” Fischer says.

Michelle Avigan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Massachusetts who has worked with couples for more than 20 years, says her practice has been enormously enriched by EFT training. Avigan heard Sue Johnson, Ed.D. – a founder of the International Center for Excellence in EFT – speak at a conference, and began working toward EFT certification.

“I felt right away that this was the missing piece for me,” Avigan says. “It incorporated a lot of the psychodynamic and attachment theory that I’d been using already in many ways, but it really organized treatment into very organized maps.”

Avigan attended an externship (the first step in EFT certification) in December 2010. “I started using it right away with my clients and found it enormously helpful,” Avigan says. “I really feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount and I feel like it’s really helpful for my couples.”

“(With EFT), we help couples recognize their attachment needs and help them recognize the negative cycles they get into that are kind of a reflection of the problem and the cause of the problem,” Avigan says. “We help them communicate their needs to each other in a more direct way that will help the partners come closer rather than pull away.”

“The attachment lens of EFT has been helpful for me in working with my individuals, as well,” Avigan says. “There’s a way to use it as an adjunct to whatever you practice.”

Jennifer Leigh, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Massachusetts and Community Outreach Chair for the New England Community for EFT, says she attended a 2010 externship “out of sheer desperation.”

“I was working with a couple where both individuals presented with trauma histories,” Leigh says. “This couple was so dedicated to one another and indeed were lovely, compatible people when feeling secure. But inevitably, something would trigger a feeling of emotional unsafety in one of them and these otherwise reasonable, sensitive people would become either viciously attacking or coldly dismissive towards one another. The behavioral and insight-oriented techniques I was using at the time were not effective in transforming this pattern. I knew I needed an additional approach.”

Leigh says EFT has transformed her couples work. “EFT for couples draws upon the maps of adult bonding and teaches clinicians how to intervene in a way that directly addresses the underlying emotional vulnerabilities that give rise to these patterns of conflict,” Leigh says.

“When individuals are helped to unpack the secondary anger and stonewalling, and access their underlying attachment fears and longings, they are able to reach for their partners in ways that are more likely to elicit compassionate responses,” Leigh says. “Facilitating this emotional transformation for couples has become the highlight of my week.”

By Pamela Berard

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