The benefits of a new, possibly bogus therapy called "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing"
Your spouse has cheated on you. You've decided to stay, but sitting through years of talk therapy seems tortuous and unlikely to help. Repeatedly talking about what happened only makes you obsess more and forget less. There is a medical reason why that can happen. And there is a treatment that could possibly help you navigate the unfairly excruciating journey onward with your apologetic, lucky-as-hell partner.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that can help individuals who are "stuck," or unable to move past a painful event. Originally used to help veterans with PTSD, it is now also utilized in the treatment of more suburban traumas, including those beginning in the bedroom.
EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in 1990, and the first clinical research evaluating EMDR's effectiveness in treating civilian trauma took place in 1995. Even though the treatment has been around quite a while, it remains largely unfamiliar to the general public.
I had never heard of it when my therapist first suggested it to me last year as a possibility for moving beyond a past relationship issue that I had failed to resolve with other therapists using various approaches. In many ways, EMDR is drastically different from any other therapy I'd ever tried or learned about, and the novelty of it made me curious and gave me hope.
In case you're wondering if what your partner put you through counts as a "trauma," Shapiro considers any event that may replay in a person's head, appears in the form of flashbacks or thought ruminations, or, in the extreme, immobilizes an individual, to be a trauma. The umbrella is broad. So, yes, that image of your wife going down on another man that you keep seeing over and over while the two of you lie in bed next to one another is a reaction to a traumatic event, like (but less severe than) a veteran's night tremors or the inability of an individual to trust members of the opposite sex as a result of childhood abuse.
K., a friend of mine and a victim of infidelity, recently told me about how the trauma of infidelity continually haunts her. "It's been ten years [since my husband's infidelity], and I can still burst into tears after seeing something in a movie that reminds me of what he did. In fact, it happened not that long ago, right there in the theater—my mind started whirling, and within five minutes, I was reeling, like the affair had just happened all over again."
One explanation for why these negative thought loops occur relates to the way our brains process memories. Many believe that painful memories can wear a single neurological path on the brain, like a dog wears a dirt path through a yard despite having an infinite number of other alternate tracks to potentially trod. As Laurie Chapman, a licensed marriage and family therapist working in the San Diego area, explains: "When we get into negative thought patterns, we create a neuropathway in the brain that can become our dominant thought with repeated use."
And according to Shapiro, the painful resurfacing of emotions, like those that cause K. to burst into tears, can also be linked to the way our brain stores memories. Memories of disturbing events become "encoded with the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs experienced at that time." In other words, some emotional reactions are so strong that they actually become intertwined with the event itself once in our mind.
Technically, EMDR succeeds when, as Harvard researcher Robert Stickgold explains, "the meaning of the event is extracted and no longer contains the emotions associated with it at the time of the event." Many EMDR practitioners believe this happens as a result of physiologically rerouting neuropathways through the brain—essentially encouraging the old dog to wear a new path. Having different, more positive thought patterns and feeling less intense emotion towards what happened hopefully desensitizes a traumatic event's negative effect on an individual's life, and—in the case of infidelity—one's marriage.
According to Shapiro, there are three parts to dealing with relationship issues through EMDR. "The first step is to process the earlier memories that have set the groundwork for the interpersonal difficulties. Then, current situations that trigger negative responses are processed, and finally the appropriate communication skills are taught."
The process of "processing," which takes place in both the first and second steps, is the component that will likely look and feel the most strange to people who are considering EMDR for the first time. In order to stimulate different parts of the brain and reroute his thoughts, the patient briefly thinks or talks about the painful event or issue while different parts of the brain are "triggered." The triggering can happen as a result of periodic sets of eye movements, listening to headphone tones that oscillate from right to left, or from holding vibrating devices that alternate taps in each hand.
There is no way to get around the fact that this part of EMDR can feel a little hokey, in a carnival sideshow kind of way, for both patients and clinicians. "Strictly speaking, [EMDR] meets the criteria for an evidence-based treatment...[but still] I think just the notion of a therapist sitting in front of patient and waving a finger back and forth or using tappers is tough for a lot of therapists to accept, regardless of whether it is effective treatment," Jim Coyne, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist and University of Pennsylvania professor wrote. "Personally, I would feel ridiculous doing this."
Because of the potential skepticism from patients, Chapman often suggests EMDR as an option to those who have failed with other types of therapies. "When someone can't get over an issue no matter what they have tried, has dreams or flashbacks, or can't move forward in life since an incident took place, then I think about using EMDR," she said, inferring that desperation can get people to a point where "they are willing to try this out."
Ironically, I believe the gimmicky-ness of EMDR was one thing that actually helped it succeed for me where other therapies failed to provide any emotional relief. In past individual and couples therapy sessions, I found myself to be defensive, constantly overanalyzing the therapist's questions and second-guessing most aspects of the treatment experience. But with EMDR I had to make a conscious decision to set aside my cynicism in advance.
Before starting treatments, I told myself, "I am going to make a conscious effort to buy into this because nothing else has worked, and my desire to move on is worth feeling a little out of my comfort zone." The decision to accept the EMDR process immediately shifted my attitude from one of doubt and disillusion to open-mindedness.
After deciding to trust the tappers' potential, I found that there were many benefits to EMDR over other forms of therapy. First, it does not require individuals to repeatedly discuss disturbing events, which can be a lengthy and painful—and sometimes even shameful—part of other treatments. Secondly, the therapist does less pointed question asking and more guiding, saying things like, "Think about this aspect of what happened," which made me feel more in control and comfortable. And lastly, EMDR also takes significantly less time to administer than traditional psychoanalytic or cognitive behavioral therapies.
Chapman says that while each individual is different, in some cases treatment can be completed in as little as three sessions. (Chapman strongly recommends utilizing a therapist who is certified in the EMDR model—one important aspect of certification requires the clinician to maintain continuing education units to stay abreast of new research and to maintain the integrity of the approach. A list of certified therapists can be found through The EMDR International Association.) I was in and out in five sessions. And for at least one of Chapman's patients, A., brevity was an important factor in deciding to try the therapy. "Given that my current marriage was going in a bad direction, I needed to deal with my problems quickly," she said. Even with that expectation, A. was still surprised that "it would work as quickly as it did."
The short time span of EMDR is a huge selling point. Painful memories have power over our lives. Feelings such as resentment and jealousy take up mental space and time that could more productively be spent elsewhere. So not just moving on, but moving on quickly, can feel like an enormous, empowering victory in itself.
However, EMDR, like most forms of therapy, is not without its detractors. A clinical and research psychologist at a Veteran's Administration medical hospital in California said that she actually had an "emotional reaction" to my inquiries about the treatment (I don't think she was referring to positive emotions). Coyne believes that many of the negative opinions about EMDR stem from the fact that EMDR "is a therapy widely adopted by front-line clinicians ... outside of and in the face of opposition from academia."
The biggest criticism from academics seems to be that not everyone buys Shapiro's neuropathway rerouting theory, and thus the need for triggering. The National Center for PTSD notes in its official description of EMDR that while studies have shown that EMDR may help lessen PTSD symptoms, "research also suggests that the eye movements are not a necessary part of the treatment."
Still, EMDR is an empirically supported therapy, which means research has shown it can yield positive results. Even the skeptical VA psychologist conceded (albeit somewhat sarcastically), "There are studies showing people have decrease in symptoms after completing [EMDR]. I see flaws but I also see flaws in traditional academic medicine as well. So, I guess if it works for some, then go ahead and move your eyes, if that is what it takes."
For me, the bottom line is that for those who have tried and failed to work through traumatic interpersonal events in traditional talk therapy, EMDR offers an alternative solution that doesn't take years or require an anguishing digging up of the past. So when it comes to choosing between the certainty of living with chronic pain and heartache caused by a cheating partner and potentially moving on to a new reality where adultery is just one part of a much larger, more positive narrative of your life and relationship, then it's difficult to see what harm can come from giving it a try.