The ultimate goal of Emotionally Focused Therapy or Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, (EFT/EFCT), is to help partners safely turn towards one another in times of distress and to work through their problems from the past, the present, and the future. This is in line of turning to an individual or couple therapist when things go wrong. That said, working with a collaborative, supportive, Emotionally Focused Individual Therapist (EFIT) while the couple is in couples therapy can be effective. Working with an individual therapist who is not EFT trained can also be helpful except for some of the following reasons:
At times, challenges occur when partners do concurrent individual therapy while also seeking ongoing EFT/EFCT couples therapy, and each partner or one partner is still turning to their individual therapists for support, rather than taking the risk of turning toward their partner with their concerns. The individual therapist may think they are opening up in couples therapy but that may not be the case, stalling couples therapy instead.
When this occurs, each partner may have inadvertently attached to their individual therapist which is fine if the individual client needs that support but, when they are in couples therapy this is not recommended for a good outcome and may be a warning sign. This means when a couple hits a hard spot, their respective ‘go to’ for support is someone outside their relationship, not each other, or the couple’s therapist who can help them navigate these waters in session. This basically leaves the couple in the same place they were when they sought couples therapy, to begin with, and is counterproductive to the EFT/EFCT process, as we are working to have the couple safely attach to one another. This is where Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy can be different because we are working towards creating a safe, compassionate environment for both partners to work towards connection. If the partner does not feel safe turning to the other partner, this can be explored further in individual therapy within the context of couples therapy. In other words, the couples therapist does a breakout session for each partner, carefully balanced by exploring the blocks. When blocks are identified, we help the partner express the block and work it through with the safe other and the therapist. This, along with identifying the negative cycles, helps the couple work towards building their bridge of safe connection and secure attachment.
When is it recommended to see an individual therapist? There are some instances where it is recommended for one or both partners to see an individual therapist during ongoing EFT/EFCT couples therapy such as when there are substance abuse/dependence problems, also known as process addictions, that are not managed and create more distress for the individual and the relationship. Also, major depression with suicidal ideation as well as difficulty functioning with severe anxiety and highly triggering PTSD symptoms can benefit from individual therapy during EFT/EFCT. That said, depression and anxiety can be reduced through the process of good couple EFT/EFCT Therapy. Moderate to severe dissociation, as well as delusions and hallucinations, can also necessitate individual therapy during couples counseling. In these instances listed above, both the individual and couple therapist need to effectively collaborate and communicate with one another frequently, with the client’s consent, of course, to ensure all parties are ‘on the same page’ and working towards ‘similar goals’.
Beyond these exceptions, there are several other concerns one needs to be aware of when continuing individual therapy or pursuing individual therapy during ongoing EFT/EFCT couple therapy. There may be serious implications and complications, such as when the individual therapist and the couple therapist are working towards two opposite goals. An example of this conflict occurs when the individual therapist believes it is in the client’s best interest to leave the marriage or the relationship and this is being explicitly or implicitly shared with the partner in individual therapy. Or, even if the individual therapist doesn’t have an expressed opinion, but may be aligning with the individual client who has thoughts of leaving. Sadly, this desire to leave is not being shared in the couples therapy or with the couples therapist for long periods of time, causing the couples counseling to stall. This is usually based on a desire to help the individual partner, who complains about the other partner to the individual therapist, but can lead to an inaccurate perception of the relationship by the individual therapist, as they have not worked with the partner or are getting a one-sided view of the situation.
At the same time, the individual therapist is working with one partner who is on the fence about leaving, and the EFT/EFCT couples therapist is working to deepen the relationship and has no idea that one partner is seriously intent on leaving. This can be extremely confusing for the client and may lead to the client to act out by continuing an affair, medicating with substances or other process addictions, withdrawing as a way to cope, or not being fully engaged with the EFT process because they turn to their individual therapist as well as process addictions. This again, stalls the couples therapy and or can lead to failure for the relationship.
I have known some couples who started with a particular couple therapist, and then the couple therapist became an individual therapist for one of the partners because the other partners didn’t feel comfortable with the therapist. This can go on for years, ten years in one case. The individual client may believe they are working on the relationship without the partner present, which is not really individual therapy, it is relationship therapy, without the partner present and is ineffective. The rare exception to this dynamic working is when there is an EFIT Individual Therapist helping from an attachment framework. Otherwise, most individual therapists hear one side of the relationship, the one with the partner complaining about their non-present partner, and arrive at negatively biased conclusions that drive the marriage further apart, causing the relationship to end in separation or divorce.
Now, let’s say that the withdrawing partner has left the therapy and the remaining partner then decides to work with the couple therapist, who has now become an individual therapist but was a couples therapist. It turns out, there may not be any legal implications here, but there may be some ethical contraindications, because the therapist has allowed a couple to go from the client as a relationship, to the client as an individual, which changes the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is different because when a couple works with a certified EFT Therapist who is also a Marriage and Family Therapist, their relationship is the client. If one of the partners is uncomfortable, CHC will work with that partner to determine what is getting in the way and do what I can to create comfort and safety. If a partner decides therapy isn’t what they want, the couples therapy is terminated and referrals are made to other therapists, if that is what is requested. Why? Because, should the couple decide to return to therapy at CHC at a later time, the couple is the client once again and no significant alliance has developed between one of the partners which could cause bias and create a rupture in the therapeutic alliance should they both want to be seen again. As a couple therapist, it is not advisable to go from seeing a couple to seeing one of the partners for an extended period of time because this creates a bias. I do however, provide several individual sessions for each partner within the context of the relationship to learn more about the relationship with each partner individually, but this is kept in balance.
If however, access to the individual therapist by the couple therapist for one or both partners is not possible during ongoing couple therapy, the couple therapy may need to be terminated with referrals for another couples therapist or delayed until all therapists are able to be on the same page and or the individual client has worked to detached from their individual therapist in order to work towards safe attachment to their partner in couple therapy, which is the primary goal of EFT.
Working together, collaboratively, with an EFT Certified Therapist for couples work, while seeing an individual therapist, when warranted, is imperative for the success of the relationship. Signed releases with all parties allow for this open collaboration.