The Benefits Of Emotion-Focused Therapy

Updated December 16, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Emotions are an integral part of relationships. They’re usually what attracts us to our partners and what binds us to them throughout the relationship. They’re what provide us with the feelings of dependability that should accompany familial ties and unconditional love. 

But just as they can forge healthy bonds, strong negative emotions can cause difficulty in relationships. Sometimes, emotions are stronger than what counts as “rational thought,” and they may cause misunderstandings and conflict in those relationships. In those cases, emotion-focused therapy (EFT) can help.

Relationships Can Be Complicated

EFT therapy is centered on the individual, their emotions, and the response to those emotions in the context of their relationships with others. Also called process experiential therapy, it was first developed in 1985 by psychologists Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg as a response to the unusually high divorce rates in the 1980s. 

The therapists aimed to find a better way to help couples solve their differences. This led them to the discovery that, in the case of their clients, most of the problems they faced came from a cycle of reinforcing emotions between them. 

As an emotion-focused approach, EFT has been evolving since the first manual was published 30 years ago in university training centers, with many new steps added since then. EFT also can be used for family and even for individuals. Clients of therapists who use EFT find it helpful because they learn to understand each other's emotions, as well as acquire self-awareness of their own emotional responses. 

The EFT model operates on the concept that sometimes relationships can devolve due to a variety of issues, even if they aren’t outwardly apparent. If these issues are unaddressed, the problems in the relationship can become much larger, resulting in separation and/or intense mental health issues outside the relationship. 

The Theory Behind The EFT Method

EFT focuses on the attachment theory of human functioning. Attachment theory originally focused on infants and their primary caregivers, but it was soon discovered that adults also have attachments. Attachment theory studies the effects of interpersonal relationships and emotional experiences between humans. Many humans develop adaptive emotions as babies and feel safer when they're around a loved one. This helped develop the theory behind EFT.

Almost everyone has experienced emotional attachment of some type to another person. Even those with serious antisocial personality disorders can at least understand the nature of emotional attachment. One of the most common, and sometimes painful, issues that can cause problems in relationships is fear of abandonment from those we’ve formed emotional bonds with. 

Another focus of EFT therapy is the concept of change and the cycle of negative emotional patterns that may occur in relationships as a result. Sometimes the complications of change are harder to cope with within the framework of a relationship than they may otherwise be as an individual; EFT can help sort those issues and help clients move past them. 

Whether it’s because of insecurity, resentment, miscommunication, or another situation that is causing problems in your relationship, a therapist who will listen and empathize with you and your partner/family can provide you with helpful tools to potentially move forward and resolve those issues. 

What Does Emotion-Focused Therapy Treat?

EFT isn’t only effective for helping couples, it can also be beneficial for treating individuals with a range of mental health challenges such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, or other issues. It’s also helpful for families to resolve attachment and communication issues. Whether it’s for individuals, families, or couples, benefits of this therapeutic approach can include:

  • Greater emotional awareness, management, and well-being 

  • Greater coping ability with unhelpful emotions and certain mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and personality disorders

  • Greater impulse control

  • Effective restructuring of interactions in love relationships that may have prevented the couple from forming a bond

  • As a component of family therapy, EFT helps build empathy.

The Steps Of EFT

As with many treatments, the techniques of EFT are broken down into steps:

Phase One: De-escalation

Whatever the situation, before EFT can work, the therapist needs to try and calm anger and the arguments that sometimes come with them so they can proceed with phase one of treatment. This phase is divided into four steps-

  • The therapist identifies the concerns the couples have. Be it finances, insecurity, aging, and so on.

  • Then, the therapist identifies how those concerns can create negative emotions and negative interactions that damage the relationships. These usually appear in patterns.

  • The therapist looks for fears and emotions that may be hiding beneath the conscious mind and may be causing those negative interactions.

  • The therapist then explores with the couple how the main conflict is connected to those underlying emotions.

Phase Two: Changing Patterns

In this phase, couples are taught how to interact better and express their emotional needs. This is divided into three steps-

  • The couple can discuss their deep-rooted emotions, as well as their wants and needs.

  • Each partner is taught different ways to empathize and accept their other partner's needs.

  • The partners are then taught to express their emotions and needs, and how to discuss these needs without leading to conflict in the future.

Phase Three: Integrating

This phase includes two steps-

  • The therapist presents the couple with ways to communicate with their partner and help to create better solutions for problems in the past, present, and future. 

  • Couples leave therapy prepared to use the coping strategies they’ve learned. In this step, the therapist may ask the couple to make a concrete plan for better interaction should a difficult situation arise. 

Relationships Can Be Complicated

Does It Work?

No kind of therapy is 100 percent effective. Some couples find they can't settle their differences without separating, but EFT is found to be effective for most people. 

Part of EFT’s effectiveness is due to its thorough, continuous influence on the couple’s relationship beyond the initial treatment. There are typically follow-up appointments, and most couples keep using the techniques throughout their relationship. 


EFT was initially developed to help couples overcome difficulties, and cultivate a lasting, healthy relationship. But with time, therapists discovered that EFT can be used in a variety of applications beyond couple’s therapy. 

Some couples choose to see a therapist in-person at an office, but with the rise in popularity of online therapy, many are opting to speak with a therapist from home instead. Online therapy has many benefits, including more flexible scheduling options and comfort. Couple’s therapy can be an emotional experience, and for many, addressing those issues is much easier from the comfort of home. 

Online therapy platforms such as BetterHelp provide avenue to experienced therapists specializing in using EFT and other therapy methods to help couples repair and maintain healthy relationships. 

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