School of Ed's Robert Allan counsels a couple.

A New Approach to Therapy

January 31, 2020

With almost 50% of marriages ending in divorce, more and more American couples are choosing to enter therapy as a way to work on issues involving effective communication and trust. People often enter therapy because they are in a state of distress, experiencing heightened emotions of anger toward one another, a sense of betrayal, or they are simply seeking to improve their relationship. 

Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson in the mid-1980s, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) helps to reestablish positive emotional responses between couples, leading to secure bonds, and allows couples to develop trust for a healthier relationship. “I was drawn to practicing EFT because it just fit my understanding that we’re social beings, we’re meant to be connected to other people,” said Robert Allan, assistant professor of counseling, couples and family therapy, PhD, at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development (SEHD).  Allan is one of 70 EFT-certified trainers in the entire world. For 15 years, he has worked with community agencies and in his own private practice to help couples in complex situations – many with trauma in their history – work toward more positive outcomes in their relationships.

Taking practices that work for couples and applying them to individual therapy

Although having a healthy partnership is very important, being emotionally healthy as an individual allows for effective communication and positive change in that partnership. With this in mind, Allan is working with Johnson to conduct the first trial of Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT). “This is a first-in-the-world efficacy study and outcome-based research of EFIT,” said Allan. EFIT was developed by Johnson building on 35 years of research of EFT for couples, but it applies its principles to the individual, which is something revolutionary. According to Allan, EFIT is rooted in attachment and emotion theories. Through the new model, he hopes to understand “the ways in which people have created patterns in their life for good reason, but at some point that pattern to cope or survive becomes an issue. Clients will then create new, more adaptive ways to cope in a healthy manner. We not only look at how people relate to themselves but how they relate to others, and then use emotion as the motivator for change.” Allan wants to be practical in his research. He said, “I am just one of those people who is enriched by researching what I do in therapy and also what I teach.” He wants to use his findings to help other therapists become better at what they do, too.

Putting the theory to work in Denver

This summer, Allan collaborated with graduate assistants and SEHD alumni Lucas Schafer and Caitlin Edwards to administer a unique assessment of the EFIT theory. “It’s a three-site study with Ottawa and Victoria in Canada and Denver. I’m working with colleagues in each location,” Allan explained. In a SEHD classroom, local therapists versed in EFT and couples and family therapy gathered to evaluate a 65-minute recording of an EFIT session led by Johnson. They were provided no context about the session or client. This exercise was part of developing an adherence measure for EFIT. “I’ve been working with Sue for over the last six months or so … the work she’s done over the last 35 years is unparalleled in the field,” Allan said. Tediously pausing and starting the video, therapists assessed on a scale ranging from 1 to 5 if Johnson had adhered to the model’s skills and interventions while working with the client. The assessment required a lot of focus from the participants and heeded very positive feedback for Allan on his research on the EFIT approach. 

Allan expressed his excitement about the whole process, saying, “We are going to learn so much about EFIT. To be able to be involved in that with literally a world-leading psychologist is exciting.”

Guest contributor Serwaa Adu-Tutu, marketing coordinator, School of Education & Human Development