Intersectionality, Cultural Attunement & Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

April 30, 2017

 

I've been thinking a great deal recently about the concept of Intersectionality (for those of you unfamiliar this is the concept of appreciating how multiple identities of oppression and privilege intersect and influence our life experiences).   Using myself as an example, I have privilege in my identities as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied and cis-gendered person, and I experience oppression in my identity as a woman.  Another privilege I hold is the power, in certain contexts, to define what is "healthy" and "normal" and one of those contexts is in my work as a couples therapist.  If you have followed my blog for awhile, you know that I practice a form of couples therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) which I love!  One of the many reasons that I love this model is because of its values in taking a non-judgmental and empathic stance towards people and how we all struggle in our most important relationships.  EFT has 3 main theoretical roots - EFT is:

 

Experiential and Humanistic

  • Accepting, non-pathologizing, empathic towards all human beings and their experiences

  • Emphasizes the importance of our emotions and fully exploring them and honoring their messages

Systemic

  • Appreciates the interpersonal, and larger social and relational contexts of any one person's "individual" behavior

Adult Attachment

  • Honors the universal human need for close relationships from the "cradle to the grave" that help support our exploration of the world and help us deal with the overwhelmingness of life

  • Gives a non-pathologizing context for why couples become so upset and distressed with each other at moments where they feel abandoned, or disconnected from one another

In terms of honoring client experiences these fundamental concepts of the model would seem to really set up an egalitarian and collaborative relationship between the couple and their therapist, right?  Well, the problem historically with "universal" assumptions of the human experience is that "universal" was really based on a white, European and heterosexual "norm" of relationships and modes of communication with these being the jumping off point of what is/was viewed in the field of psychology as "normal" and "healthy".  Now we do have some great research on the neurobiology of attachment needs (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230669685_Toward_a_Neuroscience_of_Attachment) and EFT has been embraced all over the world but in order to make sure "universal" doesn't become mistaken with other privileged identities of the therapist in the practice of EFT, here are some important things to consider in our work with couples:

 

Validate the "realness" of the relationship

  • “Successful treatment must include the therapist’s validating the legitimacy of the relationship” (Tunnell, 2013).  American culture continues to marginalize non-heterosexual and non-monogamous couples making it more difficult to even be recognized as a couple!  In this context, partners may be even more reactive to feeling disconnected and may tend to feel more insecure, in general, in the relationship due to the lack of community support.   

All behavior makes sense

  • Assuming that all behavior makes sense in context, and is an adaptive attempt to cope with feeling threatened and/or disconnected from an important person is essential on the part of the therapist.

Ongoing work to identify "shoulds"

  • Work in an ongoing way to examine unacknowledged assumptions of how people "should" express themselves.  This is most obvious when as a therapist, you find yourself judging one or more members of the couple or struggling to understand them in some way - rather than judge yourself ("I shouldn't be judgmental!") embrace this as an opportunity to look at what your judgement has to teach you about your internalized "shoulds" and then get curious about that!

There is so much more that needs to be explored on this - so stay tuned!  But this is at least a beginning to a much needed conversation on practicing EFT in a culturally attuned and intersectional way, and truly honoring the roots of this wonderful model!

 

For more reading on this topic, check out The Handbook of LGBT-Affirmative Couple and Family Therapy:  https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-LGBT-Affirmative-Couple-Family-Therapy/dp/0415883598

 

For more information on EFT, click here:  http://www.iceeft.com/

 

If you are a psychotherapist in Chicago and interested in getting trained in EFT, don't miss the upcoming Externship!  Click here for more info: