On Homework In Emotionally Focused Therapy

Couples and families request “tools” and “homework” frequently in EFT and EFFT.  Often, these requests can evolve to demands reflecting frustration with their relationship or the seemingly slow progress of early Stage One work for some couples.  At times, the request reflects pain and emotional dysregulation, a sort of indirect reach to the therapist as if a partner is saying, “I am hurting and overwhelmed.  Can’t you throw us a life preserver?  Something to help us, help me get through another week of the negative cycle and this intolerable distance between us.”

So, in this short article, I share homework ideas that I have learned, developed or have been written by others:

1)  When a partner or couple asks for tools or homework in distress or frustration in session: 

a.  Respect the Request – Avoid Being Dismissive – Validate the Request

b.  Validate any Secondary Emotion or Reactivity Present in the Request in the Moment

c.  Look for a Doorway in to the Partner or Couple’s Experience through the Request

d.  This leads in to Step 3 Work – and then to Vulnerability (as in Sue’s “EFT Tango”)

e.  When the partner or couple softens and shows vulnerability – enact and process

f.   Let them know as they come out of that experience that “vulnerability,” or “vulnerable conversations” etc. is                 or are important “tools” in EFT.  Homework can build off of this as in, “the negative cycle seems to block your             vulnerability with each other.  This week can you pay attention to what happens to your vulnerability and                     come here and share that with me in session?”

2)  Awareness Homework:  The most common homework given early in E.F.T. is to invite couples to pay attention to when they feel caught in their negative cycle, distance, distressed or in conflict with their partner.  And to notice when the cycle is less present or absent.  And then build homework out from there based on their response to homework and progress in sessions.

To increase compliance and the gravitas of awareness types of homework, ask the couple or partner how the homework went.  This will also give valuable information about the utility of the homework to them.  Remember, there is research indicating that giving homework in therapy may be useful for creating new awareness or focus, even when clients don’t directly “comply” or do homework.

3)  Build Off Momentum Homework:  As Humanist and collaborative therapists, we honor couples who develop their own homework assignments, such as an end of session comment like, “Honey, let’s do try to hold hands more and hug more.”  Especially when both partners seem motivated or have energy for the homework.  Still, if you believe a couple is over committing to something that may be difficult, some normalizing of homework stumbles and struggles may be useful in these situations.

4)  Evocative Questioning and Responding Leading to Homework:  This is a favorite of mine that my couples taught me to use.  When your couple is feeling proud of a new step in session, they see vulnerability in each other, or begin to own their cycle at a deeper level for example, an evocative response or question can lead to homework.  Examples:

a.  Therapist to a couple who have turned to each other for first time in a session and shared with each other that they are both ‘hurting’ and feeling ‘beat up by the cycle.’  In doing so, this previously reactive, distant couple have a moment of connection and vulnerability toward the end of the session.  Therapist, “Bill and Paul, as you hold hands for the first time here in a session, I see you turning to each other.  It’s as if you are reaching across the divide, that divide of disconnect from your “whirlwind cycle” you talk about.  I find myself touched by this softness between you.”  They acknowledge this, perhaps enact this.  Therapist, “As we get close to ending today, what do you want to do with this moment as you leave the session and go in to your week?”  The answer to this question can lead to their own self-generated homework.   Again, if in the softness of the moment, you feel they overreach, a bit of normalizing and reminding them of the power and tenacity of negative cycles to disrupt vulnerability is in order.

5)  How Long Will the Vulnerability Last:  Another favorite that I use more frequently with couples in the middle to later part of Stage One work.  Please bear with me as I put it in context.  Earlier in Stage One, when they have their first tastes of vulnerability, openness, some success in getting hold of the cycle in the session with my support, etc., I often ask a Lisa Palmer-Olsen question, “Did you see vulnerability in your partner today?”  if yes, “What did it mean to you?” and if answer is non-reactive and they seem to still be vulnerable, I will say, “You know, a negative cycle and life can easily come between you and take this vulnerability away.  Sometimes early on, couples will tell me next session that the vulnerability only lasted until the elevator, to the car, or it faded away on the way home when they got triggered in to their dance.”  I say this to normalize.

Later in the process, I turn this into homework.  “You too have taken such risks today.  For the first time, I see you turning in a new way to say, I want to turn this negative music down and you said you like these vulnerable conversations, like today’s.  Will you do something, will you pay attention to how long this closeness you feel now lasts?  It may only stick until the elevator, or to your car, or the car ride home.  It may last through the evening or even a few days.  Please do enjoy the warmth of this while it lasts.  And, if possible, and this is advanced homework (I tell them this), would you pay attention to what’s happening when or if this warm feeling between you fades or gets disrupted?  So we can talk about that when you come back in next week?”

6) Homework – Worksheets for Couples from EFT Workbook, we are grateful to EFT Trainer, Doug Tilley, for these homework sheets that have been used by many EFT Therapists in the past 10 years!

Falling in the black hole – How Do You Know it’s Happening (Tilley, Doug, copyright 2005)

understanding your negative cycle (Tilley, Doug, copyright 2003)

understanding your negative cycle (Tilley, Doug, copyright 2005)

7)  Therapist Homework:  A Cautionary Note about Homework with Distressed Couples in an Experiential Model 

Until the bonding events occur, the couples dance of distress fueled by unexpressed fear (and possibly shame) limits their ability to reach to each other.  As a result, other systems such as caretaking, playfulness, creativity and sexual intimacy may be impaired by the anxious response of the attachment system.  They can be triggered in to “primal panic,” (Pankseep) easily.  So, what may seem like an innocuous suggestion or some homework we learned in another model could be unrealistic or just not helpful.

EFT Therapists avoid giving homework that requires couples to “push through their vulnerability,” to do something they have not been able to do in session successfully, or that will result in shame or blame if they cannot succeed or follow through on the homework.  Homework is not our primary intervention tool.

As an experiential model, we view homework as a supplement.  The core work occurs in session.  The core work occurs through the empathic responsiveness of the therapist.  Our dance of attunement, misattunement, learning to be more and more present with them is the most important tool we have.  If you find yourself wanting to use homework to replace work in session or if couple’s requests for homework or tools trigger your own anxiety, that is a great topic for supervision or consultation.  At times, the rush to give homework can be a sign of our own dysregulation, anxiety or an effort to stay distant from a couple’s distress or pain.

The homework of therapist self-compassion, having a support team, deepening our felt sense of attachment distress, learning the model’s basic map, moves and key change events and being patient with our learning process is perhaps the most important homework of all in EFT.

Jim Thomas, Copyright, 2014, All Rights Reserved, based on ideas from Jim’s own practice, EFT writings and working with couples, EFT therapists and fellow Supervisors and Trainers