Encounter-Centered Couples Therapy (EcCT) is a type of couples therapy that seeks to help individuals fully connect with their partners in order to help them become more mature and creative as a couple.
This multidisciplinary approach to couples therapy combines philosophy, clinical experience, organizational methodology, and neurobiology, and it can be used to address a wide range of concerns in couples who are seeking treatment.
EcCt was developed by Hedy Schleifer, who was inspired to transform the way she worked with couples after realizing that she was experiencing dissatisfaction in her own marriage and that her current work with couples was not as effective as she envisioned. She first trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, incorporating the approach into her work with couples. Eventually, inspired by that technique as well as the work of author Martin Buber, she began to focus on helping couples come into what she called a state of “communion.” According to Schleifer, communion is a state in which two partners are able to feel every emotion in connection with each either, allowing for the establishment of new neuro-pathways in the brain, which in turn furthers better emotional connection.
As her work progressed, her sessions became longer to allow more time for partners to truly connect with each other. Schleifer's belief that having an authentic partner who is present in the relationship allows an individual to achieve greater healing led her to identify the concept she termed “three invisible connectors." These connectors—the space, the bridge, and the encounter—serve to draw partners close to each other and allow them to fully connect. According to Schleifer, when partners embrace the space between them, cross the bridge into the world of the other partner, and encounter their feelings, they will then be drawn to each other by a magnet-like force. The teaching of the principle of the three invisible connectors essentially led to the formalized beginning of Encounter-Centered Couples Therapy.
Essential to EcCT is the use of metaphor, and the guiding metaphor of the approach is that of the three invisible connectors. The approach's theory considers it crucial for each partner to bring their full and authentic presence into the world of the other, as this is what allows them to truly meet each other and have an “encounter” that can then provide the basis for a new or restored relationship that is both nurturing and fulfilling.
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Other metaphors emphasized in the approach include:
- The neighborhood, or a topic or issue between partner
- Survival dances, or the patterns that couples engage in, which are dissected and explored in session to help couples discover new, more authentic ways to engage with each other in order for their relationship to thrive instead of simply survive
- Being a visitor, or listening with compassion to one's partner and learning their particular culture
The specific sequence of events in which EcCT occurs is designed to allow a couple to move from a ruptured relationship to a repaired, connected one.
- The couple is initially encouraged to challenge the status quo of the relationship and imagine what it could be like, in an idealized way.
- Next, the couple is encouraged to identify and explore their adaptive patterns and then consider new ways of relating to each other.
- The members of the couple then, with the guidance of the therapist, explore their “neighborhoods," both those that inspire and those that frighten. This part of the process might involve exploring one’s childhood, and the past in general, in order to heal past traumas. Throughout this process, partners maintain a journal and engage in rituals in order to express their love and appreciation for each other. The end goal of this sequence is for the partners to become thoroughly connected with each other and to better understand the experiences of the other in the journey they have made together.
An approach designed specifically for couples, EcCT is practiced with a goal of helping partners build a more mature and connected relationship. It is implemented as an intensive two-day session rather than in the form of ongoing weekly therapy. While EcCT may be useful for any couple experiencing a number of different concerns that affect their relationship, the approach is specifically focused on helping partners connect with each other more fully and authentically. Therapists who practice EcCT serve as mentors and guides for the couples they work with.
The training protocol for EcCT, which was developed by Schleifer, is offered in live seminar format as well as through a video training series. The training includes demonstrations with couples and group discussions in addition to lecture and is open to counselors, couples therapists, relationship coaches, and pastoral counselors. Spouses and partners are also welcome to participate in the training.
Therapists who train in this approach have the opportunity to learn a pragmatic step-by-step approach for offering this type of therapy and are also taught the importance of the following essential distinctions:
- The distinction between communication and communion, with communion representing a state in which two people are fully connected and encountering one another
- The distinction between the couple having an insight and the couple following through with the integration of a positive change into their lives
- The distinction between content (the words the partners say) and process (the energy of the couple)
- The distinction between coping in isolation and living in connection
- The difference between seeing conflict as an obstacle and seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth in a couple
- The distinction between romance and true intimacy, where partners are able to truly see and understanding each other
Schleifer reports that she personally has witnessed the success of EcCT in her practice, and anecdotal evidence from Schleifer as well as the other clinicians she has trained in the approach support its efficacy.
However, limited empirical data backing the approach exists, and all of the research conducted has been done through either Schleifer’s own practice or the couples lab she created. As such, it has not yet been replicated by independent researchers.
- EcCT training content. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.eccttraining.com/ecct-training-content
- FAQs: From therapists, and about trainings for therapists. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.hedyyumi.com/therapists/faqs
- Schleifer, H. (2013). Encounter-centered couples therapy: A path to relational maturity. Retrieved from http://www.hedyyumi.com/2013/09/encounter-centered-couples-therapy-path-relational-maturity