Should I Try EFT Therapy For My Relationship?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Have you been experiencing arguments in your relationship and wondering if emotionally focused therapy or EFT therapy could be the kind that tends to help? This process focuses on emotional bonds and a structured approach to attachment disorders and distress in relationships. Sessions with a trained therapist in EFT can help couples and families learn more about their inner child, emotional control, behavior patterns, bonding interactions, and emotions in relation to their partner.

Can emotionally focused couples therapy help us reconnect?

What is EFT?

Emotionally focused therapy, EFT, is a form of short-term therapy or treatment designed to help address problems in adult relationships including marital distress and struggles with developing strong bonds. It's based on research on how adults love and form emotional bonds. EFT tends to also be quite expansive, and one can use these techniques for family situations, relationship conflict, or just for people who want to improve their intimate relationships. Emotionally Focused couples therapy is often an effective therapy method for partners trying to overcome obstacles and who are functioning but want to strengthen their bonds and understand one another better. EFT as a therapeutic approach or couples therapy is sometimes called emotionally focused couples therapy. 

Emotionally focused therapy is not a form of individual therapy; it’s intended for couples and families. It can be used as a form of short-term support, or it can be used for the long term as well, depending on the needs of the individuals involved.

The goal of emotionally focused therapy is to help individuals in relationships to establish a stronger bond and take the parts about each other they like and reinforce them. The ultimate goal is to help bring a couple together with a better connection and more strong attachment than they had before using self-reinforcing techniques.

Emotionally Focused couples support tends to focus heavily on adult attachment needs and the many kinds of reactions to emotion and distress.

For example, an adult with an anxious attachment style may feel anxiety or depression when they sense their partner is distant. A partner with an avoidant attachment style may have substantial body sensations of fear or disgust when others try to connect to them. These intense emotions and responses are purely responsive and can be worked on through the couples therapy process or via emotionally focused treatment.

History of EFT couples therapy

Dr. Sue Johnson, a Canadian mental health professional and psychologist, originally developed the EFT model. In the 1980s, she developed it to help relationships, and many therapists use it today in hospital clinics, typical one-on-one practice, and university training centers for psychology students. Sue Johnson also founded ICEEFT, or the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Developed in 1998, ICEEFT helps to develop training materials and train EFT therapists in emotionally focused therapy through Johnson’s research.

Johnson wanted her technique to focus on the positive and negative emotions of her clients in their day-to-day lives. In interventions at the time, particularly those in relationships, the emotions felt by a couple were often ignored. Instead, more logical choices were presented. While logic can be important, the emotional experiences a couple feels are considered even more important, and the goal is to let couples feel them. By growing in emotional intelligence the couples learn to manage struggles with empathy and move forward together. 

A related but different form of therapy is emotion-focused therapy, developed by Dr. Robert Elliot and Dr. Leslie Greenberg. Emotion-focused therapy focuses on individuals and the dynamics of emotion. This type of individual treatment may help people understand their emotions and discern what emotional responses may improve their lives. Emotion-focused therapy can also be used with romantic couple relationships and families.

Principles of emotionally focused treatment

One theory used in emotionally focused treatment is attachment theory. Attachment theory states that a person can be healthier by being emotionally attached to someone, fulfilling their need for safety and a safe connection. 

EFT is also based on the idea that fear of being abandoned can cause arguments and emotional distress in intimate relationships. When someone fears they will be abandoned, they may have an intense emotional response, and the unmet attachment needs can make them respond in a way that just makes the problem worse. When both parties can't meet their own needs emotionally, this can lead to emotional disconnection and make the problem much worse, and they can become stuck in the same negative patterns. It can be a self-destructive cycle that reinforces negative behaviors, especially if neither party can express their emotions well due to not having a secure attachment.

Another principle of emotionally focused treatment is the idea that partners fight due to their insecurities. For example, someone who has insecure attachment issues due to past trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may ask their partner over and over again if they truly love them, or if they can trust their partner. This can make their partner annoyed and feel like they aren't trusted, which can create relationship distress and unhealthy emotional responses.

EFT for relationships aims to create a safe haven and help those who are experiencing insecurities about themselves and have unmet attachment needs, as well as those who are having problems interacting with their partner in a way that is loving and emotionally connected, ultimately aiming to help them create a secure attachment bond. A therapist may also support individuals in relationships living with trauma or post-traumatic stress. 

Another principle of emotionally focused couples treatment comes from person-centered therapy. Developed by Carl Rogers, person-centered counseling typically aims to provide unconditional positive regard and give people more self-understanding. They talk to a therapist, and the therapist listens as empathetically as they can. 

This model also expands on person-centered techniques and focuses on the theory of adult bonding and adult love. This can help a couple understand one another's emotions and strengthen their attachment even in the face of relationship distress or new interactions. Often, a couple in an intimate relationship has a problem understanding their underlying emotions, and EFT can often help with that and create a safe bond and secure connection. Therapists have training in current research on secure attachment and can help you find your way back to a healthy relationship and positive change over time. 

How a session works 

EFT has nine different steps used to treat people. The first four steps typically involve looking at a couple’s interaction patterns or how a couple interacts. Then, for steps five through seven, the couple and the therapist work together to find better ways to form stronger bonds. The remaining steps typically focus on taking those changes and making them even stronger by reinforcing healthy communication patterns. 

As a session begins, the couple may learn how to de-escalate a fight. When a fight is going on, emotions are typically flying high, but a couple can learn how to put their emotions aside for when this happens. There can be a healthy way to experience emotional disconnection, and that’s if it’s voluntary and serves to de-escalate conflict—not add to it by stonewalling.

As both individuals learn more, they can figure out how to manage their problems and express their feelings that conflict covers up. When a conflict or heavy emotional experience arises, there may be problems with trust. By facing these problems head-on, they can learn compassion and create bonds that are deeper. In the final stages, the therapist can help the couple find attachment problems and bond further. Books, like Hold Me Tight, may also be useful tools for therapists and clients working with the EFT modality. 

Stages of emotionally focused therapy

For EFT to be a success, a couple usually needs to experience a changed pattern of interaction. Let's look at the three stages and see how this typically works.

Stage one: De-escalation

Stage one of the three stages is known as cycle de-escalation. Step one of this stage usually involves finding the key concerns the couple may have. Step two then looks at how negative interaction patterns can make the problem worse. In step three, the therapist typically identifies the fears and other underlying emotions that are related to the patterns of negative interaction. In the fourth step, the therapist can take key issues from the negative cycle and reframe them in a way that shows the couple's needs and underlying fears so that new interaction patterns can be formed in the next stage.

Stage two: Changing interaction patterns

The second stage tends to focus on changing interaction patterns. Restructuring interactions begins with step five, in which the therapist typically helps the couple talk about their underlying emotions and attachment problems. In the next part of the change process, step six involves coaching partners to be able to accept one another for their needs. Step seven typically involves the couple learning a new way to discuss key concerns that does not involve the underlying emotions.

Stage three: Consolidation and integration

Stage three is the final stage and is known as consolidation and integration. It begins at step eight. This step typically involves teaching the couple how to communicate in a new style to help create new solutions to old problems. In the final step, step nine, the couple can learn how to practice these techniques outside of their sessions and make a better plan to interact.

What about families?

As mentioned above, EFT can help families to repair family bonds as well, and it works the same way—by utilizing the three stages and nine steps to identifying the hidden emotions family may have, (e.g., a parent fearing the loss of their child, a child being jealous of their siblings, a partner feeling anger over a situation). By identifying these emotions in family therapy, it may help a family communicate and cope in much healthier ways and improve emotional control. It can be especially helpful when there is a big change in the family, such as a move, a child becoming a teenager, and so on.

Can emotionally focused couples therapy help us reconnect?

Try online therapy

If you and your partner would like to try EFT or couples counseling in general, you can search for a local therapist experienced in this modality. If you don’t feel comfortable going to a therapy office, you might consider online couples therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as in-person treatment. With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can connect with your therapist via phone, videoconference, or in-app messaging. 

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing concerns about your relationship, you don’t have to face them alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist experienced in EFT and other modalities for couples. Take the first step toward a healthier relationship and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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