Emotionally Focused Therapy: Strengthening Couples Emotional Bond

The Couples Expert Stuart Fensterheim LCSW, interviews Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen.

I joined Stuart Fensterheim at The Couples Expert podcast to talk about the importance of connections in our relationships. I share that humans are hardwired for strong emotional bonds with others and as a result all of us need to have closeness in our relationships to feel secure in our lives.





So Rebecca, welcome to the Couples Expert Podcast.  I’m so pleased to have you.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.  I’m so excited to be here with you.

Stuart: You know it was really funny, I did that introduction, and then what the audience doesn’t realize is what happened before we began today is the technology was falling apart.  I couldn’t hear you.  You couldn’t hear me, so it’s so much fun to sort of talk about the whole technology piece, but also about, you know, I talk a lot about the power of the internet and that I have met so many people through the internet now with the power of the internet. I have someone I just actually did a podcast with out of Australia, and I did one with someone out of DC and now yourself, although you’re in San Diego now, but you live in the Mexico area.

It’s just, when we talk about connections and meeting people in so many different ways, it’s so much fun to think about as an EFT therapist the connections and the many different ways we can connect to people.  So Rebecca, how did you decide to become a marriage counselor, or why did you decide to become a marriage counselor and your part to EFT? I’d be very interested in that.

Rebecca: So I was a child counselor, a school counselor, and then I went into a private practice and was — I got tired of being a child counselor because to me it just felt like I couldn’t make the changes without making changes in the home, the child wasn’t improving.

So I started — I went into private practice, left school counseling and started this work with families because that was my training.  And then I started to see couples, because by default that’s who was coming in my door.  I was a terrible, terrible couples counselor, which was average by national standards, you know, because untrained couples counselors really have a bad outcome rate.  About 25 percent of the couples who came in got better, and that was just miserable.  So I started to get training around couples therapy, and I went to John Gottman’s workshops and that helped a little bit, not too much, maybe about 5 percent.

And then, much to John Gottman’s credit, and we love him because of his heart for research, and he knows good research when he sees it, so he said to me if you really want to see good couples therapy, good research on couples therapy, read Sue Johnson. So I started to read Sue Johnson, and when I was growing up, my mom said, if you can read, you can do anything.  I was an early reader, and I read Sue Johnson and I’m like, great, I can do this EFT thing. So I started doing the cycle and thought I was working with couples.

And then I went to several years later, and that helped understand a little bit about attachment and cycles and seeing the couple system and that sort of thing helps.  But then I went to an externship, and I saw Sue Johnson work, and I went wow, that is nothing like what’s happening in my office, and it changed my practice and turned my stats all the way upside down too.

Stuart: Yeah. I tell couples when they come in and we begin to talk about, especially those that have seen other therapists, none EFT therapists, that the thing that I used to feel is that I had this revolving door.  Although it was helpful for my business side of my practice, it wasn’t very helpful for the couples because I would see couples and then six weeks, six months a year later, they are coming back, and I said coming back doesn’t tell me I’m being successful.  Success is if I can help you and you understand your cycle, and then I don’t see you again because things are going so much better, and that’s the feeling of why I love EFT so much.  I really have that sense that people leave my office and they really are in a place where they can nurture each other and themselves in such a different way than I’ve ever had.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a permanent change.  It’s an inside out change that lasts and continues to strengthen across time.  So not only do we prevent breakups and getting out of crisis, but it’s really kind of a complete change not in the way that it’s all set, but that it shifts things in such a way couples can move forward and continue to get better and better together without more therapy as they go on.  It’s very exciting.

Stuart: It’s really the sense of the we-ness they leave with is what it’s all about.  And what I love so much about it, the blaming just stops, the blaming of each other.  They blame their cycle, but they don’t blame each other at least.

Rebecca: Yeah, they can stop blaming themselves or blaming their partner.

Stuart: Yeah. And the part that I don’t know if Sue Johnson is talking enough about is that blame-free lifestyle also involves self-blame. A couple who is invested in this, they know not to blame their partner, so they start hearing them talk about, I did it again and I did this and God, my own, you know, I’m empty, and it’s me and I got to get — I said, wait a minute, you’re not following this model at all.  Blaming yourself is also not acceptable here.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a co-created pattern, and there’s a we-ness to it, and really we haven’t understood. Sue Johnson was such a groundbreaker and really understanding attachment theory and applying it to romantic relationships, and it makes all the difference when we really understand what we are as human nature, what our natures are, what we need. We need attention; we need connection; we need comfort from each other and especially from our romantic partner.

Stuart: What would you say is the thing through your work particularly since we wanted to talk a lot today about the professionals who have gotten involved with EFT, what do you think the draw to most professionals are to coming into EFT? Is it that whole cycle piece or is there another thing that tends to attract?

Rebecca: In a helping, in a healing profession, we’re healers. And when you’re sitting in front of couples, and you’re not helping them, that stinks, right?  So I was at a workshop not too long ago, Hold Me Tight workshop, and it was at a university and a professor walked through on a break, and he saw the manuals on the student’s test and he said, “Oh there’s a couples workshop.”  And I said, yeah, I’m involved in emotionally focused therapy, and it’s based on that. And he said, you know, I see couples and I really can’t help them very much. I probably should learn something about couples therapy. And I went, yeah, you ought to. In fact here’s the workshop you might want to take at some point. There are a lot of therapists– I thought he well represented what happens in a lot of counseling, a lot of therapy offices, is that people are trained. They want to help; their heart is for helping; we’ll take whoever comes in our door. We figure we have some skills and we do, but working with couples is a whole different animal than working with an individual, and therapists aren’t very successful at it. And that just doesn’t feel good and they — we know therapists who are doing therapy for couples without special couple training generally aren’t successful and they know that. They want to get some help for it.

Stuart: And then your self-esteem as a professional, I think there is such an animal as a professional self-esteem.

Rebecca: They are professionally confident.

Stuart: Identity, right, and I know through EFT, we talk about the selfless therapist a lot, but this is interesting because I worked in a lot of managed care companies, and I was one that would raise my hand and say I’ll do the couple’s work.  This is even before I had EFT because I just loved that whole concept and people would look at me like I’m an odd bird because they’ve said, you want to do this kind of stuff?  It’s like it’s one of those horrible, horrible types of specialties that no one typically wants to do, and I think what you’re being so eloquent about is talking about the reason because we don’t know what the heck to do.

Rebecca: They were not trained in it, and they come out of school with the idea that here is a bunch of tools and let the clients kind of guide you and pull up the tool that seems most effective for what you’re treating.  Only we don’t have a couple toolkit, you know, unless you have specialized training, and we know there’s only a couple of forms of couples therapy that do any significant good–that really create any change, and Emotionally Focused Therapy is more than double of Behavioral Marital Therapy which is the other form.  So hands down without a doubt, it’s the most effective game in town.

Stuart: And I think the other piece that for me was so exciting, you know, I turned 60 this year, and there are some things that happen when you turn 60: you can reflect back.  I think that’s part of the developmental of that age.  And I recall when I first got into this field, I was very much involved in some — the people out there may know what I’m talking about. I was working with Salvador Minuchin, and one of the things that we were doing back when I graduated in 1985, the whole two-way mirror concept was going on and then it went away.  And then you sort of were going by the seat of your pants and hoping you were doing good work.

And then EFT came along with the video and the new technology, and one of the things that I share with my clients is one of the reasons I know that whether you see me or someone else is because there are hundreds of people who have seen my work and other people who have seen my work, and I’ve seen their work, and we give feedback on each other. You can walk into an office and know when the door shuts, you’re not necessarily alone, and there are so many therapists that have solo practices that no one has seen what they’re doing.  And it’s a little bit worrisome for me to recognize that no one is sort of giving feedback.  And I guess I would like your input on some of that.

Rebecca: Well many of us — we’re also trained without any feedback, without any of that, that our — I was a non-traditional student.  I was a young mother; I stayed at home, went back to school late, and by the time I became educated as a psychologist, that at least the school that I went to for my master’s degree, I did one audio tape of a session that I transcribed, one.  And for my doctorate degree, no one saw my work, and I had seen no one’s work until my APA internship, so that was pre-grad, but it wasn’t part of any course work, it was my year of internship.

And so there was a lot of working in isolation and not seeing other people work and not — no one has seen my work either, so I think the whole idea of really having some accountability and helping each other in this way where we can see what’s effective; we can measure what’s effective; we know at particular moments what needs to be done, like we really have a science for healing couples.

It’s very well developed, and we’re not doing that in other parts of therapy and individual therapy necessarily either. Having a standard like we have in EFT couple therapy, where we’re really helping each other and holding each other accountable through certification and other ways, and expecting we’re going to be lifelong learners, we’re going to be peer consultants.  We’re going to be mentors.  And that’s a very, very nice thing to be involved in a community that has that kind of support, and it’s helpful to the couples like just for couples to know they can see someone who is actively in the organization that has sort of mentorship and community involvement.  I think as a couple, as a partner, if I was seeking couples therapy, I would want to have that kind of association support behind who I’m working with.

Stuart: Right and those are the two concepts I usually share with folks that are maybe calling me and I’m saying whether you see me or not, please see someone that has a model that they’re working with, and if they they can do the work, but they can’t describe for you what they’re going to do, run, do not walk away, and second is the exciting thing and this is what — even when we start talking about therapist relationships, but even as a professional is that I now know.  I can — I’m so convinced that I know.  It’s not even — it’s such a passion for me too, and I can get on the soapbox and go on and on and on about this, that I know how to help you go from point A to point B, and it’s not marketing.  I’m not selling you anything.

There truly is a map now, and we have a blueprint and that’s the word I usually use.  It’s not what shall we do today.  It’s we know what to do to go from point A to point B where you’re going to love each other more than you ever have in your entire life.

Rebecca: I like to think about it Stuart, as couples therapy being a form of open heart surgery because couples are disconnected from each other.  Their hearts are closed, hardened, protected, and we know how to help them to open their hearts back to each other.  And like surgery in a literal way, we do have procedures and a methodology that guides us, so we’re not going in the wrong places at the wrong time.

Stuart: Right.  And I think before we move into the therapist relationships, the other piece that I think a lot of people wonder about has to do with, okay, so you have these relationship injuries that sometimes come, can I do this without taking risk?  And I think so many people want to say, okay, I understand you want me to be vulnerable, but I don’t know if I’m really ready.  And I say, well we’re going to do this at your own pace, but I’m sorry, but a part of this is trusting the specialist like the open heart surgeon who says this is what we need to do, and do we ask an open heart surgeon, do I really have to do that today? You know, when we start thinking about it, we understand the pain and the vulnerability.

But some of this involves just trusting and having faith in the process, doesn’t it?

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.  And I think we do as a couples therapist have a high responsibility to demonstrate to the couples that we’re working with that we can help them.  And so when they are leaving our offices there is a process that we’re involved in, but they will be feeling better as we move through this process.  So I think there are some indicators that people can use so that they know they’re putting themselves in a professional’s hands that is reliable, that is worth taking the risk on.

Stuart: And I like to tell couples, you know, the process with EFT is doing the assessment, and then we do some of the individual appointments.  And I am usually pretty transparent that part of why I’m doing that is because I need to assess what the commitment to the relationship is, because I’m not going to have you open a wound to just put salt in it. That part of my responsibility as a clinician is to make sure that the two of you are at the same place with this.

Rebecca: Yeah, having that agreement.  Of course in America, having an informed consent for treatment is a really important thing.  It’s not that way in all countries. Like I train a couple of therapists around the world, but in America, that informed consent is important, and that’s what you’re describing.

Stuart: So with the work with professionals, and we don’t have to just talk marriage counselors, what have you learned through the workshops that you’ve done and the challenges for couples counselors? Especially because I think that’s probably what a lot of my audience is going to be very interested in, and how their relationships are the same, more different, than their challenges? What is the learning that you’ve gained from working with the professionals?

Rebecca: Yeah, I work with professional therapists, psychologists, counselors, mental health professionals, and marriage educators and coaches in this couples workshops that I do for our professionals, for mental health professionals.  And we’re not exempt from the social constraints and the dogma that were taught growing up any more than any of our clients are. We’re not exempt from having misconceptions, being mistreated, not having secure home families, or family lives growing up.  So we have similar raw spots and pain as people who aren’t in a helping profession.  And there is some research too about therapists in general and psychologists that many — and I think it’s about a quarter maybe, maybe not quite that high of healers go into the healing profession out of personal injury, or of doing some recovery work of their own, and then wanting to give it back in some way.

So we also have a large number of professionals in the mental health field who are there because they had some initial early injuries.  So many, many of us have relational problems and had relational problems growing up and see the effect of that on our lives.  So we’re not exempt in any way from having relationship distress.

Stuart: Do you think that there’s a dimension though of their relationships that may be unique for that caring profession? In terms of, I guess I’m thinking of my own marriage, in particular where my wife is very much not in the field and has never really been.  She’s more of a number’s person, and she is much different in terms of that.  And the challenge sometimes for us is for me to want to sort of debrief sometimes and whether or not she’s really — when we talk about are you there for me, can she really be present about it because you know, I equate it  to my brother who is a neurologist, and I remember having dinner at their house, and they started talking about the surgery that he was doing and about the body parts that he was dealing with, and we’re looking at each other and we feel like we’re going to pass out.  It’s sort of the same experience, and how do you help your partner really understand what you need at those times?

Rebecca: We see that to some degree.  I see that in my workshops–that bit of disconnection.  I think it happens when people are in different professions that are highly specialized like you’re describing with your brother. There is a difference in what you understand, and so what you want to try to share, and I think one of the things that gets in the way of relationships, is not knowing how to kind of take off our expert hat, you know.

So we don’t necessarily approach our partner at the partner level, and so we need to learn also to take off our expert hat to stop analyzing and teaching, comparing and expecting that our partners are going to come in when we’ve had 10 or 12 years of training, plus however many years of experience, and additional continuing ed credits, and have our partners be able to come in at that sort of a level.  So I think our awareness around coming in as a partner, rather than as an expert, is a tricky thing for of course psychologists and marriage and family therapists, but also other professionals who have high degree of expertise.

Stuart: I think that the people that will always let you know who are not necessarily your wife or partner, but your children will do a good job at it.  Don’t you dare try to analyze me Dad.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard that one.

Rebecca: Yes, that’s right.  You’re at home, stop being the therapist.

Stuart: I think when we talk about triggers, where I see it for myself and with my colleagues is the weight that I think a lot of mental health professionals, particularly those that are doing EFT have. Number one is we know so much.  Now, so we can see when we’re triggered what we’re not doing,  and the hypocrisy that you sometimes feel. I remember at one point we were having this conflict, and I was so triggered, and I turned to my wife and said, “You see, it’s your fault that I can’t like being a therapist now because now I have to go back, help these people and remember what we just went through, and how can I do a good job doing that.”

That kind of feeling of being a hypocrite that we don’t have a relationship that’s always wine and roses gets in the way I think sometimes.

Rebecca: Yeah.  We can be very hard on ourselves of course not just our profession. I think that’s a general human quality that we can be very hard on ourselves.  And criticism is a great distance maker. Iit distances us from our own experience; it distances us from each other, whether it’s self-criticism or other criticism. When we’re feeling distressed and don’t quite know how to manage ourselves, we become critical of ourselves, of our partners, because it’s a distancer. It’s not very effective in the way of recovery and healing and repair, but that ability to be self-compassionate and to have a life-long learning stance and that we all are human, we’re all in the same boat together, that’s just so important.

And we’re going to forget that at times because we didn’t necessarily grow up with that view or that vision, but there’s a vision of community, the vision of connection. How much we all need it and to have that compassion for where we’re at. Gratitude, a practice of gratitude and compassion really, really helps as we’re developing this muscle to view ourselves, where we’re at, where we get stuck, and our partners who wear compassionate lenses.

Stuart: And I think the thing that I’ve talked a tremendous amount about is that the conflict that I just described, the conflict from my wife and I, what was important there wasn’t that we fought like that, but what happened afterwards and even during.  And I think the thing that EFT has taught me as a man, as a husband, and a mental health professional is that conflict is not your problem.  Where you repair is the problem.  And what security does in a relationship, and this is the thing that I get so emotional about when I start thinking about my own trail in EFT is the nurturing that occurs between two people who have gotten together because they have a foundation of kindness and caring.  It’s that in the middle of these conflicts like that, she can turn to me and crack me up, and I start laughing and we start talking about, “You know we love each other.  What are we doing here?”  And the dance that you dance changes.

And the ability to do that with someone you love and you know loves you, that’s why EFT is so beautiful isn’t it?

Rebecca: Yeah.  And that’s really a sign of security.  Gottman’s research really points to that in a middle of a conflict if someone can look across and smile at the other or do something that diffuses that conflict just a little bit, those are real marriage masters, the ability to do that.  And of course we only do that when we feel secure, and we start to develop some internal security, and that takes some effort especially if we come from places where we have a more anxious attachment style or a more avoidant attachment style than to move into earnest security. It takes some effort to do that.

Stuart: And I think professionals who attend your workshop, and I would encourage as many professionals as possible to come to your EFT Hold Me Tight workshops, particularly if there is a non-professional married to a mental health professional, the learning that comes from someone outside of your partner is easier in terms of — and how important is it for a non-therapist to really understand what vulnerability really is about, and what that means and the power of it for them.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a very wonderful thing to see partners, couples, come to workshops where we’re using an EFT framework, and the partner starts to get a window into the therapist world and the support that comes out of that.  It’s really a very remarkable thing.

I can remember a couple, a few years ago who came, and actually I’d like to do some research on a the couples’ parents because there is a dynamic — not even a dynamic, but I think there are some occupations that come out really regularly of therapists or psychologists married to particular people and other particular occupations.  So I’m seeing kind of this trend and I don’t know how significant it is, but maybe I’ll do some research around that at some point.

But that’s a side note.  So this ability, I can remember this one couple because they were so powerful.  In fact I think I have a testimonial from them, from the workshop that they attended, just a beautiful couple.  And he was a construction worker or not even a worker, I think a contractor, so he had a lot of employees and he said, “Wow, I’m starting to get what my wife is doing every day at therapy, touching hearts, helping people get below their defenses, understand their own emotional worlds, feeling value inside of themselves, repairing bonds,” started to see the whole picture of what happens inside of a clinical office on a day to day sort of a basis.  And he said, “I just want to go back and kind of tell everyone to go get some therapy or to go do one of these workshops because it’s so powerful.”

So really it is very fun to have couples come together, and it’s a way that the therapist and non-therapist world starts to bridge, and it’s through their lives and their connections they start to understand who it is coming from, so that’s really a very fun thing.

Stuart: And the part that I think was so wonderful about what you just described, that couple, is when we start talking about people wanting your partner to see all of you and to see the parts of you that really are so precious.  And that guy I’m sure had a totally different experience now when we talk about the EFT being an experiential model, that’s really what we’re talking about.  He now has an interpretation of his wife that he never had before, and it was of someone who was so giving and loving and caring and how we can benefit from that, having someone in his life like that.

Rebecca: Yeah, he really, really valued her or respected her love and appreciated what she gives to the world and the work, the effort that that takes to do that.  And so that’s a delightful thing for couples to feel with each other and to feel that support at that sort of a level vocationally, and that’s professional, and it’s really nice.

Stuart: I wanted to just thank you so much for being here today.  And I have sort of a closing question for you which is through your work as a marriage counselor, through EFT and I don’t know if EFT really fits into this separately, I think it’s all the same, what do you think you learned about yourself in your own relationships through your work that you’ve been doing?

Rebecca: Well it’s a constant experience of unfolding and growing and learning and discovering which is so exciting.  Well what I’ve learned–I think that what’s most valuable to me really comes back to attachment theory and connection and vulnerability.  And so I’m learning in ways more and more all the time to be authentic, to show up as the real me, to allow some discovery and growth to continue to happen, and not to shame myself for not being present or perfect all the time and to really adjust that expectation of around presence and connection.

So I think I’m a continued work in progress.  I think I’m continuing to grow and discover and certainly I have come a long way from a person who felt like I had to be right, have it right, and know it all to be worthy for love.

Stuart: That’s wonderful, and I guess I thought it was the last question. There’s just one more and that would be to the couples that are listening who are sort of very interested in EFT and trying to figure out should they get counseling or not getting counseling. Any pearls of wisdom for people who are struggling that you could offer to sort of help?

Rebecca: You know, I do for your audience, Stuart. I developed a little guide of tools of the trade to apply to their own relationships if they’re struggling.  And so they can text 33444 the word FENSTER and get a download of little PDF handout with 11 tips on it of things to begin to use to help their relationship.

Stuart: That’s wonderful, and what I’ll do is I’ll make sure that that’s on my show notes along with info if people want to get ahold of you and find out more about what you’re doing, or any professionals out there listening or interested in getting more information about the Hold Me Tight workshops that you’re doing. They can get a hold of you along with your website and everything because I want to make sure that people can get hold of you if they would like to stay in contact.

Rebecca: Thanks very much.  I really love to be able to help couples and help professionals in their relationships and spread the good news about connection.  I think of myself as being on a connection crusade.

Stuart: Right, yeah.  I think we all are, attachment and connection and love and that really — I’ve said it a few times during this, I will say it again, and I will keep saying it–if we can really form that attachment with one person in the world, the whole world changes for you.  And that part of counseling, part of EFT, part of living our lives in the power of EFT for me, and for those of us that have been through this sort of journey and it is a journey, is that if you and your partner have a relationship that is connected, where love is what matters, your children will do that, and what does that do for the world in the years to come and in generations to come?  And to me that’s the journey we’re all on is to really have this world be a place where love is what is important, and there isn’t anything more valuable.

Rebecca: And adding to that, nothing is more valuable than sharing love and changing the world through connection and having lasting relationships.

Stuart: So thank you, again, Rebecca Jorgensen for you giving of yourself, giving of your time, sharing your kindness, and we’ll see you all next time, and we’ll see you on the Couples Expert.  Take care, bye-bye.

Rebecca: Thanks for all the good you’re doing out there.  Bye.