Benefits Of Emotion-Focused Therapy

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated September 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Emotions are usually an integral part of relationships, playing a crucial role in forming a secure attachment with our partners. They're often what attracts us to our partners and what binds us to them throughout the relationship. Emotions also tend to provide us with the feelings of dependability that often accompany familial ties and unconditional love. 

However, just as emotions can forge healthy bonds, strong negative emotions can cause difficulty in relationships, leading to negative interaction patterns. Sometimes, emotions can become stronger than “rational thought” and can cause misunderstandings and conflict in relationships. In those cases, emotion-focused therapy (EFT) may help.

Relationships Can Be Complicated

EFT therapy, often applied in couples therapy tends to be centered on the individual, their emotions, and the response to those emotions in the context of their intimate relationships with others. If you're curious about the difference between emotion-focused therapy and somatic therapy, the former focuses on emotion regulation as the key component while the latter emphasizes the connection of mind and body.

Also sometimes called process experiential therapy, EFT was first developed in 1985 by psychologists Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg to address relationship distress and high divorce rates in the 1980s. This therapy, backed by a substantial body of empirical research, focuses on creating a secure attachment between partners and helps to repair family bonds when necessary.

The EFT therapists aimed to find a better way to help couples dealing with their differences. This led them to the discovery that, in the case of their clients, most of the problems they faced came from negative patterns 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 the change process involving many new steps added since then. Clients of therapists who use EFT may find it helpful because they learn emotional regulation and understand others' emotions, in addition to acquiring self-awareness of their own emotional responses. 

The EFT model operates on the concept that sometimes relationships can devolve for a variety of reasons, even if they aren't outwardly apparent. If these attachment needs are not addressed, the problems in the relationship can become much larger, resulting in separation and/or intense mental health problems outside the relationship, further affecting the secure bond between partners. 

The Theory Behind The Emotion-Focused Therapy Method

EFT typically 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 is related to 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 adult attachment of some type to another person. One of the most common, and sometimes painful, challenges that can cause problems in relationships is fear of abandonment from those we've formed family bonds with. An EFT therapist, who practices emotionally focused family therapy, may be able to help you identify and address any potential fear of abandonment.

Another focus of EFT is the concept of change and the cycle of negative emotional patterns that may occur in relationships. 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 may help address those concerns and help clients move past them. 

Whether there is insecurity, resentment, miscommunication, or another situation that is causing problems in your relationship, a family therapy specialist who listens to you and your family members may be able to provide you with helpful tools to move forward and resolve concerns related to attachment.

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, and trauma. It can also be helpful for families to resolve attachment and communication problems. Whether it’s for individuals, families, or couples, the benefits of this therapeutic approach can include:

  • Greater emotional awareness, management, and well-being 
  • Greater ability to cope 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 couples from forming a bond
  • Greater empathy

The Three Stages Of Emotion-Focused Therapy

As with many treatments, the techniques of EFT are broken down into stages. The following are the typical three stages of EFT, but they may vary depending on the individual therapy approach, individual practice preferences, and the needs of the couple or individual involved:

Stage One: De-escalation

Whatever the situation, before EFT can work, the therapist often needs to try to calm anger and related arguments so they can proceed with stage one of treatment. This stage is divided into four steps:

  • The therapist identifies the concerns the couples have, whether they are related to finances, insecurity, aging, etc.
  • Then, the therapist identifies how those concerns can create negative emotions and negative interactions that damage the relationship. 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.

Stage Two: Changing Patterns

In this stage, couples are typically 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 partner's needs.
  • The partners are then taught to express their emotions and needs and to discuss these needs without conflict in the future.

Stage Three: Integrating

This stage includes two steps:

  • The therapist presents the couple with ways to communicate with their partner and 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. 

Does Emotion-Focused Therapy Work?

No kind of therapy is 100% effective. Some couples find they can't settle their differences without separating, but EFT research indicates that it has been effective for most people. 

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

Relationships Can Be Complicated


EFT was initially developed to help couples overcome difficulties and cultivate a lasting, healthy relationship. However, 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 to focus on the family process, but with the rise in popularity of online therapy, many are opting to speak with a therapist from home instead. Couple’s therapy can be an emotional experience, and for many, addressing those emotions is much easier from the comfort of home. 

Online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy, and you can usually choose how to communicate with your therapist. With BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist via phone, videoconference, or in-app messaging. Take the first step to a stronger relationship and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Explore mental health and healing with a therapist

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started