Could My Relationship Use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Even the "fairytale" couples have fights, disagreements, and stresses that come to a point where change is needed if they want to continue the relationship. There are many couples' counseling approaches out there, and today we will be looking at one known as emotionally focused couples' therapy. Also just known as emotionally focused therapy, or EFT, as we'll often be referring to it.

The EFT process focuses on emotional bonds and a structured approach to attachment disorders and distress in relationships. Sessions with a trained therapist in emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) can help couples and families learn more about their inner child, behavior patterns, and emotions in relation to their partner.

Can Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Help Us Reconnect?

What Is EFT?

EFT, or emotionally focused therapy, is a form of therapy designed to help address problems in adult relationships. It's based on science that has studied how adults love and bond. EFT therapy is also quite expansive, and one can use techniques from EFT for family therapy as well, or just for people who want to improve their relationships. EFT works well for struggling couples dealing with obstacles and for couples who are functioning but want to strengthen their bonds and understand one another better. As you can guess, EFT is not a form of individual therapy, and it’s intended for couples and families to participate. It can be used as a form of short-term therapy or it can be used for the long-term as well, depending on the needs of the relationships.

The goal of EFT is to help those in relationships be able to have a stronger bond that can take the parts about each other a couple of likes and reinforce them. The ultimate goal of EFT is to help bring a couple together with a better connection than they had before.

Emotionally-focused family therapy focuses heavily on adult attachment and the many different kinds of reactions to emotion and distress. For example, an adult or parent of a family with an anxious attachment style may feel anxiety or depression when they sense their partner is distant. A partner with an avoidant attachment may have substantial body sensations of fear or disgust when others try to connect to them. These responses are purely responsive and can be worked on through the couples therapy process. 

History Of EFT

Sue Johnson, a Canadian psychologist, originally developed EFT. In the 1980s, she developed it to help couples, and many therapists use it today in hospital clinics, regular private practice, and even in university training centers for psychology students. Johnson also founded ICEEFT, or the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Developed in 1998, ICEEFT helps train therapists in EFT through Johnson’s research.

Johnson wanted her technique to focus on the emotions of her clients in their day-to-day life. In interventions, particularly those in relationships, the emotions felt by the couple were often ignored. Instead, more logical choices were given. While logic is important, the emotions a couple feels are even more important, and the goal was to let couples feel this.

One form of EFT, developed by Dr. Robert Elliot and Leslie Greenberg, focuses on individuals in the same way, by allowing the individual to understand their emotions and to discern what responses may improve their lives.

Theories And Principles Of EFT

One may wonder how exactly emotionally focused therapy works, what type of principles it runs by, and how a therapist helps people using it. One theory used in EFT is attachment theory. Attachment theory states that a person can be healthier by being emotionally attached to someone, fulfilling their need for safety and having a secure connection.

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

Another principle of emotionally focused therapy is the idea that couples fight due to their insecurities. They may have security problems with themselves and with how they are attached. For example, someone who has insecure attachment issues may ask their partner over and over again if they truly love them, or if they can trust them. This can make the other partner annoyed and feel like they aren't trusted, and thus create conflict and unhealthy emotional responses.

EFT couples therapy helps those who are having insecurities about themselves and have unmet attachment needs, as well as help those who are having problems interacting with their partners in a way that is loving and emotionally connected. The idea is to figure out how the bond between couples dealing with these issues can be improved and how a secure attachment bond can be formed.

Another principle of emotionally focused couples therapy comes from person-centered therapy. Carl Rogers created this, and it involves treating people by giving them more self-understanding. They talk to a therapist, and the therapist will listen and be as empathetic as they possibly can. The EFT model also expands on person-centered therapy techniques and believes in the theory of adult bonding and adult love. This can help a couple understand one another's emotions and strengthen their attachment bond even in the face of relationship distress. Often, a couple in an intimate relationship will have a problem understanding the underlying emotions, and EFT can help with that and create that secure bond.

How An EFT Session Works

EFT has nine different steps used to treat people. The first four steps involve looking at how a couple interacts. Getting a feel for their communication style is important if the couple wants to succeed in couple therapy. Then, for steps five through seven, the couple and the therapist can work together. This can allow them to find better ways to form stronger bonds than what they were doing. The remaining steps deal with taking those changes and making them even stronger by self reinforcing healthy communication patterns. This allows them to conclude the treatment.

As a session begins, they may learn how to de-escalate a fight. When a fight is going on, emotions are typically flying high, and a couple needs to learn how to put their emotions aside for when this happens. There is 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 they learn more, they can figure out how to deal with their problems and be able to express their feelings that conflict covers up. When a conflict or heavy emotional experience arises, there may be issues such as no trust. By facing these issues head-on, they can learn compassion and be able to create bonds that are deeper. In the final stages, the couples can help find attachment problems and be able to bond further.

For emotionally focused therapy to be a success, a couple needs to be able to have a changed pattern of interaction. Let's look at the three stages and see how this typically works.

Stage One

Stage one is known as cycle de-escalation. Naturally, this first stage begins with step one, which is finding the key concerns the couple may have. Step two then looks at how negative interaction patterns can make the problem worse when discussing the key issues in step one. In step three, the therapist 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 new interaction patterns can be formed in the next stage.

Stage Two

The second stage is known as changing interaction patterns. Restructuring interactions begins with step five, in which the couple is assisted with being able to talk about their underlying emotions and attachment issues. In the next part of the change process, step six involves the coaching of partners to be able to accept one another for their needs. Step seven involves the couple learning a new way to discuss key issues that do not involve the underlying emotions.

Stage Three

Stage three, or the final stage of emotionally focused couple therapy, is known as consolidation and integration. In this third stage, it begins at step eight. This step 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 and key moves outside of their sessions and make a better plan to interact.

What About EFT for Families?

As we mentioned before, EFT can help with families as well, and it works the same way by utilizing the three stages and nine steps to identifying the hidden emotions families may have. A parent fears the loss of their child. A child being jealous of their siblings. By identifying these emotions, it allows the family to be able to communicate in much healthier ways and improve emotional regulation. It's especially helpful when there is a big change in the family, such as a move, the child turning into a teen, and so on.

Effectiveness Of EFT

Can Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Help Us Reconnect?

EFT is quite effective and has many studies to back it up. It's been found that how a couple interacts and identifying those key emotions, is important when treating a couple for the problems they may have. EFT research has shown that couples have been able to maintain positivity and attachment after the therapy is over, and this can last for years. This isn't to say that the couples have never had a problem again, but that they can be able to manage the problems in a much healthier manner than they would have without EFT.

Couples are going to disagree, experience intense emotions and even fears in their romantic relationships, and even strong couples can benefit from therapy at a private practice or online. Speak to a therapist today and learn how couples' counseling may help you.

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