EMDR and Couples Therapy?

Traditionally thought of in the context of individual therapy, EMDR is a trauma treatment protocol in which healing can occur through tapping into the brain’s memory networks. The word “trauma” can be an intimidating one, as discussed in this blog, but really it refers to anything that creates a shift in how we respond to certain stimuli. This can be small, repeated experiences over time, or it can be something big, sudden, and unexpected. Again, in the context of an individual’s work, it can be easier to define: years of feeling dismissed by a parent, abuse, a car crash. Each of these experiences can lead to a significant shift in an individual’s feeling of worthiness, control, or safety.

So what about couples? Isn’t it true that couples similarly suffer shifts in their dynamic based on experiences both small and big? What about that couple that is stuck in the cycle of blame? That partner that so often feels misunderstood or underappreciated?

What about the individual that becomes quickly escalated at the smallest indication of disinterest or dismissiveness—that eyeroll, the sigh, the “you always (this)” or “you never (that)”? What about when a couple experiences infidelity, or a significant financial betrayal or loss? What about the fear and insecurity that is triggered with every outing with friends, business trip, or ‘ding’ of an incoming text message, despite all the attempts at repair? Seen through the eyes of trauma, it makes sense how each individual’s memory networks can so significantly influence the couple dynamic to create a dysfunctional dance.

On an even deeper level, one so often overlooked in couples therapy, are the triggers or traumas an individual can come into the relationship carrying. Trauma is so often relational, which means those triggers may not be noticeable when an individual is single, but come out when in a relationship. How one partner is extremely sensitive to feeling like the other partner isn’t listening, despite the other partner’s intention to do so. How one partner suffers from the fear of rejection or infidelity when the other partner has never given any indication of straying. What about the anxious/avoidant attachment styles? These stem from attachment relationships growing up, the relationships that create the foundation for how we interact with relationships as adults. Are relationships safe? What does conflict look like? How do we each expect to receive and show love? These are all examples of things we learn in our youth, things we experienced, things that were modeled for us by our parents, so much of which seems unimportant or goes unnoticed on a cognitive level but still effect our thoughts, feelings, behavior, and reactions.

Like fossils locked in amber left to be discovered millions of years later in their original form, these traumas become unearthed in the relational dynamic as if they are happening today. The memory networks effectively bring the past into the present.

What if that dysfunctional dance can be changed? Enter the Couples EMDR Intensive. The more time I have spent with couples, the more I have seen how beneficial it is to explore the patterns and themes that run under the surface of our everyday interactions. Having the space to label and investigate these patterns and themes, to support couples in building insight and awareness into them, allows for significant shifts in how each individual experiences their relationship. Not only does it create change in the memory networks themselves, empowering each individual to lead from their most grounded self in times of conflict, it also allows for understanding, empathy, and compassion within the dynamic itself. It is in our most heated moments, when we are the most reactionary, that we can learn the most about ourselves and our partners. This is where true connection is built. Building this insight, rewiring those neural pathways, the development of empathy through the experience of witnessing our partner’s vulnerability, hard work, and growth, this is where we create lasting change in a relationship. The fossil comes out of the amber to take a different form—one of healing and connection.