Practically Speaking: Behind the Episode “Making Room for Emotion - Emotionally Focused Therapy for Military Couples”

Practically Speaking: Behind the Episode “Making Room for Emotion - Emotionally Focused Therapy for Military Couples”

Dr. Jenna Ermold

Let’s face it, romantic relationships can be challenging for many under the best of circumstances requiring attention and hard work to navigate the challenges that life can throw at any couple. Romantic relationships + military service? The challenges can feel like they are on steroids. Frequent moves, separation during training, long work hours, deployments… all very standard military-specific stressors that couples endure on top of the usual life stressors. It seems imperative that high quality, evidence-based, culturally-informed couples counseling be available to military couples, right? So how do we help? What do we do? Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) might be a great option.

In this week’s episode of Practical for your Practice, we sit down with certified EFT therapist Liz Polinksy who describes the theory behind EFT and provides several reasons that it is a good fit for military couples. EFT is an evidence-based psychotherapy that helps couples get better at understanding and accepting their emotions, to be vulnerable in communicating those emotions to each other, and to improve their ability to validate and support their partners. Polinsky explains “...basically our emotions get blocked. Emotions have a function in communication and when we are having a lot of feelings of insecurity, people have learned to protect those feelings in some way. And so then they show their partner their coping skill instead of using their natural feelings to communicate back and forth. And so the communication gets blocked and the flow of emotions gets blocked between the couple. So what we are helping couples do, we help them each get more in touch with their own emotional experience and then take risks to share about their emotions with each other.”

While this approach likely sounds promising, it may also seem like a challenge to implement with military-connected couples. For example, under the influence of military culture, many service members might have a tendency to shut down their emotions as a way to cope in stressful situations. As Polensky points out “ in a combat situation, or another sort of dangerous situation that the military might face, it is useful and often adaptive to be in a logical frame of mind, keep my emotions dampened, and to just be focused on functioning what has to happen. That does not work so great in a marriage, so oftentimes I am trying to help people re-access their emotions to be able to have the communication flow in the marriage, between the couple”.

So how can we help military-connected couples “re-access” emotions? Polinsky goes on to explain that in many ways, the process is similarly to exposure therapy. The goal is to help clients do exposure their own emotions, accept them, and then take the next step of sharing them with their partner. The process involves approaching vulnerable feelings and allowing for new learning to occur with the end goal of creating a more secure attachment bond within the couple. “So the mechanism is emotional experiencing…And you'll hear a lot of people talk about wanting to get limbic revision. So in my nervous system I now have a new experience where I'm not scared anymore to show you my deep feelings.”

If this approach sounds interesting and you’d like to learn more, come take a listen as Liz Polinksy shares some actionable intel related to her work with military couples and provides next steps to learn more about EFT to include the three stages of treatment, theories behind EFT, as well as additional resources for training.

Listen to the episode:

Resources mentioned in the episode:

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Jenna Ermold, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist working as the Assistant Director of Online Training, Technology and Telehealth for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Ermold oversees the development of online and face-to-face trainings for behavioral health clinicians to improve clinical and cultural competency in working with military members and their families.