EMDR with Couples

Article on couples and online work for EMDR newsletter

Written October 2014, and note that since this was included in the EMDR UK Association’s journal EMDR Now, I moved to using Zoom and Bilateral Base as my main platforms for online EMDR work.

Since then, I now also have a one-day online workshop exploring this topic in detail. If you’re interested, you can find out more about Working with Couples and EMDR here, including dates and booking information.

Francine Shapiro mentions couples work only briefly in her EMDR therapist’s bible, and in 2004 she certainly wasn’t talking yet about online therapy with Skype.

But as a former BBC foreign correspondent comfortable with long-distance communication and technology, as a transpersonal therapist since 2000, EMDR trained in 2004 and relatively recently qualified in couples therapy, I’m finding the two fit rather well together.

How on earth, I hear you wonder, can a therapist on Skype (or Google Hangouts, a technologically better if less-known platform for free internet video calling) work with a couple or an individual thousands of miles away, and apply the appropriate bilateral stimulation while staying tuned to body language, facial expressions and all the usual business of countertransference and therapeutic intuition.

Before I get into the mechanics, let me set out how and why I use EMDR in ordinary face-to-face couples work, which I note from searching on Google (“EMDR couples”) quite a number of therapists are beginning to offer in the US.

I suspect all of us would agree that how relationships develop, especially in crisis, is primarily determined by attachment styles laid down in childhood, and the small and big T traumas experienced at that time. So if 80 per cent of what we feel in any one moment has nothing to do with the present, as John Gray cogently argues in Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, couples will struggle to connect if the old stuff isn’t dealt with.

And as we know, to shift old and dysfunctional memory networks there’s no more powerful tool than EMDR

With couples in the room, I’ve used EMDR to drill down and release the trauma of the two individuals in turn, making sure that both get equal attention. I’ve also worked with one or other outside the joint therapy to resolve, using EMDR, some of the deepest wounding I’ve ever encountered. And with the tenderness that can come from witnessing one’s partner in their most profound vulnerability, and knowing they are taking responsibility for their past, relationships have flourished.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve also experimented very successfully using EMDR on Skype with individuals abroad. I don’t get my clients to do the butterfly hug, which several colleagues have described using on JISCMail, but have found Robert Yourell’s UpLevel CD very effective, which clients can buy or download for single use from my own website. There are also several EMDR bilateral sound apps available in the Apple iPhone or on Google Play for Android, where there’s also a very good EMDR for Clinicians app.

Individual clients don headphones, run the audio BLS locally and shut their eyes. I follow them closely on screen, instructing them (on their separate laptop loudspeaker) when to pause and take a breath and the rest. And, it works. Standard protocol. Laurel Parnell’s amended protocol. Interweaves. Whatever’s your EMDR flavour.

So, what about couples online?

Before I start using EMDR, I get them to fill out and discuss with me and together the usual genograms/trauma timelines/DES etc so that we all know they’re safe enough to start with direct processing.

I then get them to face each other closely, so they are both on screen, with my voice in their ears in their two separate headphones connected to their iPad or a simple splitter (check eBay or Amazon, they cost peanuts). It’s extraordinarily intimate.

I might do a safe place with the two of them together, but if their relationship is grounded enough, for all its tensions, that’s not always necessary. What matters is to target the roots of the distress being triggered in their relationship.

Having agreed whose turn it is, we might use the imaginary shape exercise (first part of the Lightstream, but without the concluding soothing part) as an affect bridge back into childhood to identify root distress, with usual picture, emotions and physical sensations.

And then – this is the magic – their partner does the BLS locally, not me nor any device, tapping the other’s hands gently, with initial tap-tap-tap audible instructions from me. They quickly get the idea, and I turn my attention to the recipient, with all the usual That’s Good, Notice That, Follow That, Well Done, Scenery from a Train verbal reassurances, for the usual lengths of set as if we were working in the room.

I have witnessed the deepest catharsis, with tears and snot and all the stuff we witness when EMDR really goes deep. It’s been profoundly touching to watch a partner wipe the difficult beloved’s tears and noses with a motherly/fatherly tissue.

I discourage them from trying this on their own between sessions, but do instruct them in the usual couplework skills of mirroring, reflecting back and holding to get them through to our next encounter.

Let this be enough, perhaps, to inspire you to experiment. Using EMDR online, and especially with couples, has been some of the most rewarding therapeutic work I’ve ever done. If you’re OK with the technology and are couples-trained, give it a go. If the former not the later, then risk it with an individual. If neither, get a colleague to introduce you to the simplicity of working online, whether Skype (as was my original article suggestion) or now Zoom, Bilateral Base, or any other preferred EMDR online platform. You might be surprised how well you can work.

For those who’d like a bit more support, you are also welcome to join our one-day Working with Couples online workshop. They happen once or twice per year, and you can find out more about them here.

Recommended book: EMDR – An Approach to Healing Betrayal Wounds in Couples Counseling

Frederick Capps, Helena Andrade, and Rochelle Cade

Dual Relationships in Couples Therapy and the Use of EMDR

Posted on: April 18th, 2012 by Maiberger Institute

  • First educate the couple on what EMDR is and how it will be used in the treatment. Make sure that you get a commitment from both parties for this work before proceeding. Remember that couples tend to choose partners who evoke family of origin qualities and are needing to heal these emotional wounds.
  • Begin by resourcing the couple through some exercises that will be helpful to them such as: Safe Place, Containment, times they have felt bonded, enjoyed each other, happy times, times they felt understood. This can be done using self tapping for each individual.
  • Make sure there is a level of safety in the room before proceeding to EMDR. Does the couple have the necessary skills for healthy communication, empathetic listening and reflecting and has the ability to self regulate? If not, you need to help them build these skills before proceeding onto EMDR.
  • Once these skills are in place then proceed to pick EMDR targets, that will be helpful to each individual, that are impacting the couple’s current day relationship. Usually the issues show up by the couple triggering each other. When you take the time to work with each person’s trigger, one at a time through using the floatback to find the “Touchstone” memory, each person begins to see the origin of their feelings, behaviors, thoughts and reactions to their partner. The awareness that comes from this can help a couple shift in knowing that the issue originated from each person’s family of origin and is being triggered in the present with each other. Do EMDR allowing the other person to be a witness and support in the room. This process can increase the bonding between the couple.

Note: If you feel that the issues are long term therapy for individuals or there is not enough safety for someone to do EMDR with the other person in the room, it is best to refer each individual to have their own individual therapist and you remain the couple’s therapist. Get signed released forms from the other therapists so that all therapists can work on best treatment for their clients.