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Does Couples Therapy Really Work?

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Blog written by Jill Fischer of Positive on March 14, 2014

If you are thinking about putting time, energy and money into couples therapy, you’re probably asking yourself this question.

There are a lot of approaches to couples therapy out there. The only one with consistent research proven results, however, is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). Numerous studies over the past twenty years have shown EFT to be highly effective at helping distressed couples repair and strengthen their relationships, recreating the loving bond between them.

EFT has a success rate that is unmatched in the field of couples therapy. Between 70-75 % of couples recover fully from marital distress, describing their relationships as happy and reporting lasting change. Ninety percent show significant improvement. This includes couples at high risk for divorce.

News flash: EFT has been shown to alter the brain’s response to danger.

The most recent and highly impressive study at the University of Virginia by Jim Coan, Sue Johnson, and others, highlights the role of a loving relationship in coping with a threat while also proving the effectiveness of EFT at rebuilding a loving bond.

A group of couples who reported relationship distress were chosen for a three part study to look at the effect of EFT on the brain’s response to a threat or pain.

Part One: Before EFT

The female half of the couple was hooked up to an fMRI that showed the parts of the brain that register danger and anxiety. She was told that she would receive a shock to her foot shortly after seeing an X on a screen. This was done under three circumstances:

  1. While lying alone in the fMRI when she received the shock
  2. While holding the hand of a male stranger whom she’d never met
  3. While holding the hand of her husband (again, a distressed couple where the loving bond was shaky)

In all three cases, the fMRI showed the areas of the brain that register fear light up like a Christmas tree. Her description of the pain of the shock was the same each time: “It hurt!”

Part 2: Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

Each of the couples participated in couples therapy using EFT. With its proven road map and specific interventions, the goal of EFT is to teach couples to repair and strengthen their bond. Following the course of therapy the couples proceeded with the third part of the study.

Part 3: After EFT

The first part of the study was repeated as before with the following results:

  1. When anticipating the shock alone: no change. It hurt, and the brain lit up as before.
  2. When holding the hand of a stranger: the alarm response in the brain was somewhat less, as was the pain.
  3. When holding the hand of her partner: the results were dramatically different. There was very little fear response seen in the in the brain, and her subjective experience was that the shock was uncomfortable, but not painful.

This study shows two remarkable facts:

  1. The presence of a loving partner in the face of a threat has a powerful effect on how the brain encodes danger and pain.
  2. It provides yet another study proving EFT to be an effective model for helping couples to create a safe, secure, loving bond that acts as a buffer to threats from the outside.

About Jill Fischer

Jill Fischer, LICSW, is a seasoned couples therapist with thirty years in the field. She is a certified supervisor and therapist of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and is certified in the Gottman Method. Her private practice in Lebanon, NH, is devoted exclusively to couples.
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