Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

When working with couples, I use Emotionally Focused Therapy to help each partner sink below the surface emotions he/she may be feeling and begin to get in touch with the “primary” emotions and relationship, or “attachment,” needs that underlie his/her reactions to his/her partner. An attachment need may be something like, “I need to know that you accept me, even when I screw up,” or “I need to know that I won’t lose you.”

Once I have helped the partners understand how their surface, or “secondary,” emotions and related behaviors have been driving the cycle of negative interactions which has brought them to therapy, I help them learn to communicate on the level of their primary emotions, a level on which their deepest needs are much more likely to be met. Via this process, partners are often learning to speak to each other in a way that is completely new in their experience of each other, and likely in their experience as a whole.

The following information on Emotionally Focused Therapy is excerpted from the website of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy:

EFT is a structured approach to couples therapy formulated in the early 80’s by Drs. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg…. A substantial body of research outlining the effectiveness of EFT now exists. Research studies find that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements…. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples…and many different cultural groups throughout the world. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness…. EFT is based on clear, explicit conceptualizations of marital distress and adult love. These conceptualizations are supported by empirical research on the nature of marital distress and adult attachment.

Goals of Emotionally Focused Therapy

  • To expand and re-organize key emotional responses – the music of the attachment dance.
  • To create a shift in partners’ interactional positions and initiate new cycles of interaction.
  • To foster the creation of a secure bond between partners.

An Example of the Change Process

In a therapy session, a husband’s numb withdrawal expands into a sense of helplessness, a feeling of being intimidated. He begins to assert his need for respect and, in doing so, becomes more accessible to his wife. He moves from “There is no point in talking to you. I don’t want to fight.” to “I do want to be close. I want you to give me a chance. Stop poking me and let me learn to be there for you.” His wife’s critical anger then expands into fear and sadness. She can now ask for and elicit comfort. She moves from “You just don’t care. You don’t get it.” to “It is so difficult to say – but I need you to hold me – reassure me – can you?” New cycles of bonding interactions occur and replace negative cycles such as pursue-withdraw or criticize-defend. These positive cycles then become self-reinforcing and create permanent change. The relationship becomes a safe haven and a healing environment for both partners.