I’ve always struggled with prescribing homework for couples. First, nobody likes doing it. Second, it can be difficult to know how to follow up when it isn’t done, or even attempted. Finally, while it’s a typical feature of more behaviorally oriented approaches – and I’ve been giving much more homework since learning sex therapy – it’s often not so prominent in experiential models. I’ve been studying and practicing EFT for over 10 years and homework as a part of the therapy process wasn’t talked about in trainings much until relatively recently. It’s not surprising since the roots and process of EFT are so strongly experiential. You can see it in the interventions: we evoke emotion in the moment; we heighten primary emotions – especially those related to vulnerability; we set up enactments to bring alive partners’ experience of each other. We also focus on in-session process, tracking partners’ responses to each other, what draws them in and what leads them to pull away or attack. And we ask about cycles of conflict and distance outside the session, in an effort to understand how partners ask for and respond to each other’s needs. But one of the perennial challenges is helping couples take all that great experiential work out into the world and use it to slow down cycles, take risks to be more vulnerable and continue the process of strengthening their attachment bonds.
Before telling you about some excellent EFT-oriented books to add to your current resources, here are a couple of suggestions. They’re appropriate for almost any couple.
- At the close of the initial session, ask partners to have a brief chat in the next day or two about how they felt about their session. Suggest they not revisit conflict points from the session, rather this is about how they felt about meeting with you, your style and approach and anything they particularly like or disliked. In addition to creating a structured interaction, it helps set the tone for monitoring and strengthening the alliance.
- Also at the close of the first session or subsequent stage one sessions, suggest basic awareness work. Ask them to notice how their cycle starts and progresses, and how they get out of it – if they do. Can they identify a vulnerable emotion related to hurt or fear underneath their typical pursuit or withdrawal – even if they choose not to share it at that moment? They get bonus points for being able to actually interrupt the pattern.
- Standing homework for my couples is to revisit a particularly poignant moment of connection that occurred in the session. I’ll often flag this for them in stage two by asking, for example, a re-engaged withdrawer to remind the pursuing partner what it meant and how it felt to hear the more vulnerable primary emotions. It helps build familiarity and comfort with sharing deeply and carries their bonding out of the office and into their lives.
A few suggestions about giving homework: It’s essential to have clients’ buy-in, so co-create it. If it isn’t meaningful after they leave the office they’re far less likely to do it. Suggest it as a way to speed treatment progress and give them time to comment on and fine tune your suggestions. Many couples need to start small, so build on what you’re doing in the office and see if they can reprise that work or take it just a step further. Suggesting homework, but not asking about it at the next session tells clients it’s not important. There may be great reasons to start with more immediate concerns, but be sure to come back to the homework.
Now for those resources:
- First are Sue Johnson’s enrichment books, Love Sense (2013) and Hold Me Tight (2008). Love Sense emphasizes reflection and guided imagery that helps individuals increase their awareness of the role of attachment bonds ruptures and other experiences across their life span. Hold Me Tight is anchored by the conversations couples are directed to have to help slow down cycles, identify ‘raw spots’, repair relationship injuries, discuss sex concerns and needs, etc. Both are great resources for couples in treatment. I’ve also had a number of people call seeking EFT after reading one of Sue’s books.
- Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies (2013), by EFT trainers and researchers Brent Bradley and Jim Furrow, is typical of the Dummies series: very clear points in simple language, tips and activities and the narrative sections are kept brief. Many men in particular appreciate its concise, directive suggestions and homework. Another strength of this book is its focus on how emotions arise and unfold in the context of couple conflict and bonding. I’d say it focuses more on emotion than the attachment aspect of EFT.
- EFT trainers Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jenny Fitzgerald’s brand new book, An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples (2014) is, according to the publisher, ‘intended for couples currently working with an EFT therapist and follows the course of treatment so it can be integrated into the therapy’. The material and assignments are presented in a clearly structured way so couples can remain focused on the role of attachment in couple distress.
As you can see, there’s a growing pool of resources available to support couples’ work outside of therapy to integrate what they’re learning in therapy. Please share your own ideas and I’ll follow up with a list of additional suggestions and resources. It’s an important – and often neglected – way to increase the potency of what we already do so well.
Till next time,
PS. A reminder that the 2014-15 Core Skills Series begins October 10 & 11. You can still get in on the Early Bird Discount if you register and pay by September 12. More info here.