Therapists know that sociocultural contexts such as gender, sexual orientation, culture, race, and class are important, but most practice models offer few guidelines for how to actually address these issues. The newly released AFTA Springer Brief Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy: Bridging Emotion, Societal Context, and Couple Interaction is an exception.

What is SERT?

Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy (SERT) integrates recent advances in neurobiology with social constructionist understandings of gender, culture, personal identities, and relationship processes. The goal is to help couples envision and experience new, mutually supportive ways of relating that enable them to also address other important clinical issues. SERT therapists attune to the sociocultural experience of each partner and examine how inequitable sociocultural processes are present, reinforced, or modified in couple therapy.

How was SERT developed?

SERT began when Carmen Knudson-Martin and Douglas Huenergardt discovered a shared interest in how to work with gender, culture, power, and other larger context issues in the moment by moment of couple therapy. Doug had been part of a supervision group with Marianne Walters, a key voice in the Women’s Project that took on the impact of patriarchy on the practice of family therapy. Carmen had been writing on the politics of gender in couple therapy and challenging the applicability of some of the field’s dominant theories for women and people from less individualistic cultures. In 2008 we began an action research study designed to document and reflect upon the skills needed to practice socio-contextually aware couple therapy and teach it to others. Our diverse research group included 28 marital and family therapy faculty and doctoral students, with some participants leaving as others joined the team. We met weekly to conduct therapy and systematically examine our own practice. The result was SERT.

Each chapter in the new volume edited by Carmen Knudson-Martin, Melissa Wells, and Sarah Samman is written by members of the SERT study team. We describe what we have learned and experienced, offering specific practice guidelines and many case examples on topics such as how gender hijacks couple therapy, how to practice sociocultural attunement, how to work with power and engage powerful partners, and how to apply SERT to issues such as same-sex relationships, the influence of childhood trauma, infidelity, and relational spirituality.

What is the Circle of Care?

In order to resist taken-for-granted societal norms that are difficult to see and to avoid inadvertently following a more powerful partner’s definition of the problem, SERT therapists use a model of mutual support based on equality to guide case conceptualization and planning. We call it the “Circle of Care.”

Circle of care

Though what the Circle of Care will look like in practice will vary considerably depending on the couple’s context and preferences, focusing on reciprocity in each of these areas creates the conditions that enable couples to envision and experience new, mutually supportive ways of relating.

Why does SERT focus on power?

Power imbalances interfere with reciprocity in each of the four elements of the Circle of Care, limit a couple’s ability to flexibly respond to crisis, and are related to depression and relationship distress. Positive relational change happens when persons in powerful positions share responsibility for initiating connection and relationship maintenance.

What Clinical Competencies comprise SERT?


How can I learn more about SERT?

AFTA members may download Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy: Bridging Emotion, Societal Context, and Couple Interaction or obtain a code for a 33% discount on a printed copy by logging into the members only page at The book is also available to the public at or Amazon. Chapters are also individually available via search engines.

Other journal articles about SERT:
Knudson-Martin, C., & Huenergardt, D. (2010). A socio-emotional approach to couples therapy: Linking social context and couple interactions. Family Process, 49(3), 369-384. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2010.01328.x

Knudson-Martin, C., Huenergardt, D., Lafontant, K., Bishop, L., Schaepper, J., & Wells, M. (2014). Competencies for addressing gender and power in couple therapy: A socio-emotional approach. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12068

Pandit, M., Kang, Y. J., Chen, J. Knudson-Martin, C., & Huenergardt D. (2014). Practicing socio-cultural attunement: A study of couple therapists. Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy, 36, 518-528.

Williams, K. (2011). A socio-emotional relational framework for infidelity: The relational justice approach. Family Process, 50(4), 516-528. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2011.01374.x

Williams, K., Galick, A., Knudson-Martin, C., & Huenergardt, D. (2013). Toward mutual support: A task analysis of the relational justice approach to infidelity. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(3), 285-298. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00324.x