Clients and counsellors alike, often tremble with fear at just the thought of relationship counselling. To be fair, most models of relationship therapy require an enormous investment of time, emotional energy and financial resources and that’s just for the therapist to learn the model! A similar requirement is then placed upon the clients and their personal resources. But what of those who can’t afford the time, let alone the money or emotional tenacity, for months, or even years, of therapy?
Is relationship therapy only truly available to the affluent and already privileged?
The majority of models for relationship therapy were created in the wealth of the predominantly white western world and maybe for that reason they appear stuck there. Stuck in the third wave of psychology, whilst individual counselling is riding the magnificent fourth wave with timely liberating outcomes for clients.
Dr Peta Stapleton, in her book The Science behind Tapping (2019), describes the four waves of psychology. The first wave being Freud and Jung’s psychoanalysis of unconsciousness conflicts. The second wave was made up of behaviour modificationists drawing upon learning theory to change self-defeating behaviours. Then came the third waves of humanistic, experiential and cognitive movements. Whilst contemporary psychotherapy still holds humanistic influences, it is the CBT’ers (the cognitive behaviouralists), who targeted a client’s cognitive interpretation of situations, that have dominated the third wave of psychological theory and practices.
But now there is a fourth wave forming, with most models including a neuroscientifcally informed somatic element, that more quickly and effectively tends to the client’s issues and Dr Bessel Van der Kolk with his book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014) is one of many leading proponents of that wave. These therapies also meet the financially driven brief therapy requirements of government and private insurance subsidisation schemes. So how can Relationship Counselling also catch this evolving fourth wave of brief somatic based psychological therapies, allowing it to also become more widely available to the general population?
Surely our societies, drowning in domestic violence statistics and heart wrenching relationship breakdowns that tear families apart, are crying out for such therapeutic approaches?
For me, the answer to this question was organically created when I tentatively wove those fourth wave somatic techniques within the well validated third wave of relationship theories and models. When I incorporated Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT or Tapping), within the attachment framework of Susan Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (bizarrely also known as EFT), the energy in the room miraculously shifted from blaming and accusation to vulnerable ownership and apology, and that was just within the first half hour of the initial 90 minute session! By incorporating simple body-mind somatic elements, the endless hours of talking to mentor and reliably create emotional co-regulation between the couple, now seemed superfluous. The wounded adversarial energy in the room miraculously dispersed the moment we all started tapping together!
You see us therapists often refer to the ‘energy in the room’ or ‘the energy between the couple’ but no relationship therapy specifically works with that problematic energy. The change in energy is a by-product of the therapy model. I found by having each partner use Tapping as an integral part of the relationship therapy, we were working directly on their ‘attachment energy’.
But what exactly is this ‘relational or attachment energy’? It all sounds a bit weird and indecisive and therefore, easily relegated to the realms of pseudo-science and quackery. Coming from the third wave of cognitive therapies that often consisted of precisely ordered steps, convenient for scientific measurement and therefore validation, I tread tentatively. This new fourth wave of somatic, bodily experienced therapies, does feel a little risky, a little ‘new wave’! But what I and my clients feel, sense and experience when we use Tapping within their relationship counselling, cannot be denied. The energy is electric and we all sense it and respond to it, but more often than not, my clients are unconsciously doing so!
When I reflect upon these experiences through the neuroscientific lens of Dr Stephen Porges’polyvagal neuroception (The Polyvagal Theory. Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-regulation, 2011.), it all begins to make a lot more rational sense to my western mind, strongly influenced by second and third wave psychological theories. The ‘energy’ I am sensing, is in fact my unconscious neuroception of the body language signals that the couple are giving to each other. As their body language changes, the ‘energy’ changes. Peer reviewed research now clearly validates that Tapping is a wonderful way of reducing stress and indeed cortisol levels (Stapleton, 2019, p36). There is also meta-analysis research showing that Trauma informed tapping is extremely effective in resolving symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Stapleton, 2019, p58-74). So as I introduce Tapping into the relationship therapy, running individual therapy parallel with couples therapy, the couples stress and trauma abates, allowing them to engage their ventral vagal nervous system so beautifully attuned for human connection.
The sympathetic fight or flight ‘energy’ and the dorsal vagal parasympathetic freeze ‘energy’, simply leave the room and the calm, connecting ventral vagal ‘energy’ enters the room.
Feeling greater emotional safety, my clients are then more able to access the entirety of their creative problem solving brain, and the session is easily guided towards what they both want, a safe loving connectedness. What I find most wonderful about this therapeutic relationship protocol, which I now call Tapping into Relationships - eft2, is that whilst I am mentoring the tapping interventions, I too benefit from a calmed autonomic nervous system. The tapping facilitates me to be the very best counsellor I can be and the whole process feels effortless. The 90 minute session flies past as clients and counsellor remain in the zone of safe ventral vagal connectedness. Far from it being arduous, I literally come out of session on an emotional energised high! That’s why a colleague and friend suggested my therapy be called not just eft, but eft2! They were so right, the power and potential of two emotionally regulated polyvagal nervous systems is exponential!
This whole eft2 protocol for relationship therapy means that clients need so much less therapy. They now have the tool to regulate themselves and will proactively introduce Tapping as personally needed in their second session! They remember so much more of the therapeutic process because they had a calm attentive brain during the session and best of all, their minds, bodies and spirits just feel safely regulated in a relational dynamic, sometimes for the first time in their life! This is what I think is most magical about the Tapping into Relationships’ protocol, it is trauma informed and I can use it with clients who often wouldn’t be able to access, let alone cope with, lengthy couples sessions. It really does allow me to provide relationship therapy to a greater range of people in a timely efficacious manner. The ‘borrowed benefits’ of collective Tapping also make it very suitable to be delivered in group settings.
So I’m loving riding my fourth wave of relationship counselling and if your relationship therapy doesn’t hold a strong element of somatic therapy within it, I would ask why not? By not offering somatic based couples therapy I would say we are now inadvertently prolonging a couple’s distress.
The fourth wave of psychology gives us access to techniques that can entirely change the relationship counselling paradigm.
Wishing you wonderful happy connected relationships.
Johnson, S. M., (2018) Attachment Theory in Practice, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples and Families, Guildford Press, NY.
Porges, S.W., (2011) The Polyvagal Theory. Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-regulation, WW Norton & Co, US.
Stapleton, P., (2019) The Science behind Tapping. A proven Stress Management Technique for the Mind and Body, Hay House, Australia.
Van der Kolk, B., (2014) The Body Keeps the Score. Mind Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Penguin, United Kingdom.