The Case for Individual EMDR Therapy for Couples Therapy Clients

Often times a couple might recognize that they need some help with their relationship and enter into “Couples Therapy”. Ideally, that time is not the night before calling the divorce attorney. Rather, the best time to begin couples counseling is when the couple recognizes that there are things getting in the way of a happy and healthy relationship. Common signs of trouble in a couple include Criticism, Contempt (including eye rolls!), Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, which is withdrawing and shutting down communication (see John Gottman’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/).

In couple’s therapy, although there are two (or sometimes more) individuals involved, the relationship is actually the client. What that means is that the treatment plan and interventions used are for the purposes of working through relationship issues. From time to time, an individual’s issues will block progress within the course of treatment and individual counseling may be recommended. When that happens, how do you know which therapist to turn to for those individual needs? One option is to seek out individual EMDR Therapy, also known as Eye Movement and Desensitization Therapy, which helps alleviate current distress connected to past experiences.

EMDR is a form of therapy, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which can decrease distress and symptoms related to earlier, disturbing events. When we experience disturbing things in our lives, we experience them differently than pleasant events. Our rational brain goes offline and the older part of our brain takes over to ensure our survival. You may have heard of the fight/flight response- this is what the older part of our brain activates when we experience a threat to our safety. Stress hormones are secreted and our body is ready to fight, flight, or freeze. Because of this activation process, our normal processing is blocked and these events are stored in their original, disturbing state, along with the sights, sounds, emotions, and felt sense that were experienced at the time of the event. This is why we can be “triggered” in our day to day lives when we are reminded of these earlier events- they were never fully processed and stored functionally in our brain the way other memories were. We pick up right where we left off, even though the actual threat has passed and we are no longer in danger.

When going through EMDR therapy, these earlier experiences will be given a chance to become fully processed, so they are no longer stuck in the stressful state. After the processing happens, the original memory may have changed somewhat in the mind of the individual, but it will not disappear. What may disappear is the fearful or unpleasant emotions, the uncomfortable body sensations, and the negative and limiting conclusions that may have been adopted in the mind of the individual (such as “I am not important’, or “I cannot trust anyone”). In their place will be calmer, more relaxed body sensations, positive emotions such as relief, and positive thoughts such as “I am important” or “I can choose who to trust” may feel more accurate. The original memory may have changed to be less disturbing, but it will not be removed from existence. This is because EMDR facilitates the transformation of a traumatic memory into a historical fact, so that we can be informed by our memories rather than controlled by them. We cannot change what has happened to us in the past, but we can change how those events affect us now and in the future.

Here are a Top 5 List of reasons to seek out individual EMDR therapy to help with relationship issues:

  1. Attachment Issues from Childhood– Sometimes a child’s primary care givers do not meet all of that child’s needs when they are young and learning about the world and how it works. These deficits can cause long-term core beliefs about self and others that will affect relationships. For instance, if a child was ignored or neglected, they may have trouble trusting others, managing emotions, and maintaining healthy relationships, among others.
  2. Sexual Trauma– When a person has been raped, molested, or experienced some other form of trauma associated with sex, there may be problems with intimacy and vulnerability in the current relationship that manifest as “problems in the bedroom”.
  3. Domestic Violence– First off, current Intimate Partner Violence or Domestic Violence is a no-go for couple’s therapy. Due to the level of vulnerability associated with couples work, the relationship must ultimately be safe for all involved. If Domestic Violence is occurring or has occurred recently, individual therapy is a must. It is likely that whatever is underlying the current violence in a relationship is connected to experiences of the individuals in the couple.
  4. Attachment Injuries in Current Relationships– These could be anything from infidelity to an individual not showing up for the other in their time of need. Often times these current hurts trigger older ones, and those can be processed through with EMDR.
  5. PTSD/Complex PTSD– When an individual has PTSD, it can affect an entire family, not just the couple’s relationship. Anyone with PTSD is encouraged to receive individual counseling to process through those experiences for greater emotional stability and management, as well as the ability to interact in a healthy way with their partner and/or family.

If you recognize any of these five occurrences in your own life and the affect they have on your relationships, call Coherence Associates, Inc. today to speak with a caring counselor who can help you find the right therapist to begin your healing journey, at 760–942–8663.

Connie Glenn, M.S.

Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, #87361

Clinical Intern, Coherence Associates, Inc.

The Case for Individual EMDR Therapy for Couples Therapy Clients


Originally published at coherenceassociates.com on April 13, 2017.

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