We're taught to believe that our hope needs to be in either science or faith. We're even encouraged at times to keep the two separate, that they don't belong together. In the therapy office this is especially true. As therapists, we're told to leave religion out of counseling. After all, that's what priests and pastors are for, right? But what if bringing a client's religious beliefs and practices into the counseling process is actually helpful?
Ever since I opened my own therapy practice and started marketing myself as a Christian counselor, I have witnessed something pretty incredible. Combining Emotionally Focused Therapy and a client's religious practices has yielded positive outcomes. This is especially true when working with Christian couples. What makes this combination so effective? To answer that question, you first need to know what Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is.
EFT is considered the “gold standard” for couples therapy. Research (a.k.a. science) has shown when therapists utilize this modality over others, couples report greater success and for a longer time. EFT aims to help couples identify rigid and negative cycles that keep them stuck, leading to feelings of disconnect and ultimately relationship distress and dissatisfaction. Once couples are aware of their cycle and can explore deeper emotions that drive the cycle, they can share in a way that meets their needs and leaves couples feeling closer and more connected. So instead of Shelly screaming that Benny never helps out around the house, Benny getting defensive and pulling away, and both partners going to bed angry - knowing their cycle can actually help the interaction end differently. When Shelly and Benny are able to see this critical pursuit and defensive withdraw as their cycle, they can “call it out” while it’s happening. This helps slow down the speed of the cycle and turn down the intensity of the emotions driving it. They’ll know from previous conversations they had that underneath Shelly’s critical pursuit is feeling alone and underneath Benny’s defensive withdrawal is feeling not good enough. Sharing these feelings with each other in a vulnerable way leaves them both feeling better. This works - research has shown this time and time again. It’s an amazing thing to witness. So where does religion come into play?
Remember when I said that calling out the cycle turns down the intensity of the emotions driving it? I didn’t say it takes the emotions away. So when Benny is able to say, “I know this is our cycle - I’m pulling away and you’re getting angrier and more critical”, it’s Shelly’s turn to respond. Even though the emotional intensity is turned down, even though she knows Benny is probably pulling away because her criticism leaves him feeling not good enough, even though she knows she shouldn’t fire back something mean and hurtful - all of this understanding doesn’t mean it’s easy to respond in a way that’s helpful. It’s not easy at all. And this is where religion comes into play. We are weak creatures with sinful natures and doing and saying the right thing isn’t always easy. Scripture tells us “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). When we come to the crossroads of understanding and needing to choose, we can invoke the Holy Spirit for guidance. We can lean on Christ’s strength when we’re feeling weak. We can trust in the Lord that He sees our pain and our partner’s pain and wants to heal us and bring us closer together. In that moment when the cycle is slowed and we have the chance to choose (rather than react like we normally do), we can feel caught between choosing that jab in another effort to prove our point, or asking God for help. When we invite God to step in, things will improve. But we have to choose Him.
Choosing faith doesn’t have to come at the cost of rejecting science. When we combine the science of EFT with the faith that God is all powerful and all good, that’s the winning combo.