When searching for couples therapy, there are a lot of options out there, including Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). It can be challenging to determine what type of therapy or therapist is right for you and your partner.
Many therapists working with individuals do not have specialized training to work with couples beyond the generalized courses offered in graduate school. And, to be honest, those courses really don’t teach us enough to be truly competent couples therapists. They provide more of a general overview of couples issues but lack the specifics needed to become truly artful and skilled.
Therapists who pursue more intentional advanced training to work with couples, gain experience working with common real-life relationship concerns and develop an advanced skill set that equips them to help couples get to the core of their issues and make lasting changes in their relationship. I (Shawntres Parks, LMFT) am trained in a particular type of therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).
The couples I work with love EFT because it helps them experience greater feelings of security in their relationship by teaching them how to meet one another’s attachment needs. This is huge when it comes to creating and maintaining a healthy long-term relationship. If you don’t already know about the importance of attachment style, check out our blog on that too. Ok, now back to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.
What is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?
Emotionally focused therapy for couples, or EFT, is a short-term approach to couples therapy typically lasting from 15-20 sessions. You might think that sounds like a lot of sessions but, in the world of therapy, it’s actually pretty brief. Emotionally Focused Therapy was created in the 1980s by researcher/practitioners Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. EFT pulls from several therapeutic approaches that address how and why people connect with each other. Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples provides steps and language to help couples communicate and experience each other in healthier and more satisfying ways.
EFT is an attachment-based therapy. Attachment theory was developed upon the understanding that human attachment, beginning in childhood, continues throughout the lifespan and has a huge impact on our romantic relationships. While attraction, shared beliefs, values, and experiences are all important when we look for a partner, creating a secure attachment is what’s truly important if we want to maintain a healthy relationship.
A securely attached relationship provides a safe harbor to retreat to when life and circumstances are difficult and a safe base to launch from to help us grow and take risks. Couples experiencing the distress of constant conflict, lose that feeling of security that is necessary for each of them to thrive as individuals and a couple. Not feeling securely attached is intensely painful and scary for both partners. Sometimes, it may even lead to one or both partners seeking attachment outside of the relationship, resulting in various types of affairs that only further deteriorate feelings of security in the relationship. Secure attachment can also be impacted by other types of competing attachments such as over-focus on children, friends, extended-family, work, and electronics among other things.
Emotionally Focused Therapy seeks to repair injured attachment by first helping couples recognize what they are doing that threatens the secure attachment. How couples handle conflict is one of the major problem areas addressed in EFT by mapping the “cycle” of behaviors and emotional responses that trap the couple in unhealthy conflict. Once they’ve mapped their conflict cycle, couples are able to unite and fight against it as a team. This mapping process helps the couple become more collaborative, increase positive interactions, and shift away from damaging high-conflict interactions.
Facing your conflict cycle together, rather than facing off against one another, reduces the impact of the conflict and helps it become much more manageable. A therapist trained in EFT will help each partner approach conflict without negativity, criticism, advice, or neglect and respond to each other in a secure and loving way. This different approach to conflict helps repair and strengthen attachment leading to greater relationship satisfaction and safety.
EFT is broken down into 3 stages:
- Stage 1 – Assess and De-escalate: In this stage, couples will experience an epiphany when their therapist helps them identify the deep-seated attachment needs that are behind their ongoing conflict.
- Stage 2 – Restructuring the Couple’s Bond: In this stage, couples will learn and practice skills to have more positive communication so that they can share unmet attachment needs with one another rather than getting caught in their conflict cycle and fighting.
- Stage 3 – Consolidation: In this stage, couples will use their newly learned skills and apply them to any old issues that may still be lingering. They will also look at ways to further integrate their EFT skills and apply them to addressing future fears and concerns.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Who can benefit from EFT?
Couples who are experiencing detachment from their partner due to loveless relationship, infidelity, lack of trust, difficulty communicating, and high conflict all can benefit from working with EFT counselors. EFT counselors work with couples who are actively considering divorce, experiencing infidelity, and/or struggling with excessive or unproductive conflicts. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy can help to re-engage avoidant, withdrawn, and burnt-out partners by assisting the couple in re-creating enough safety to be emotionally vulnerable with each other.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is a thoroughly researched and effective form of couples therapy and has been shown to be successful with many couples regardless of race, age, religion, or sexual orientation. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based in attachment, which is a HUMAN survival need, making it applicable to all of us. According to John Bowlby, the creator of attachment theory, “The need to connect with another human being is the most basic need of the mammalian brain.”
How Can EFT Help?
Emotionally Focused Therapy can help couples by giving them the skills and ability to be more accessible, responsive, and engaged with one another. The goal of EFT is to help couples repair attachment. One of the ways we accomplish this is by teaching you how to manage conflict in a healthier way.
Sue Johnson, creator of EFT, details 3 types of conflict cycles that couples experience: Freeze & Flee, Protest Polka, and Find the Bad Guy.
Freeze and Flee happens when both partners are disengaged and avoidant. No meaningful communication or connection is happening and both partners are left feeling helpless and hopeless. When I’ve worked with couples in this cycle they’ll tell me “I’m not sure that I’m in love anymore,” and “I don’t know if there is any hope for this.” It’s intensely painful for couples in this cycle to live with the emotional distance from one another.
Protest Polka is the cycle that I encounter most frequently in my work with couples. In this cycle, the longing to connect with your partner, and the fear of losing them, causes you to act in critical ways or to shut down, effectively shutting yourself in and your partner out. The way that each partner is trying to get emotional needs met, is the very thing creating and maintaining the disconnection between them. The cycle is so powerful that it easily sweeps the couple away and leaves them feeling more and more helpless and farther away from the love and intimacy that they crave.
Find the Bad Guy is a mutual attack cycle where each partner is always expecting the worst from the other. By expecting an attack, each partner is in a constantly defensive position and ready to launch a counterattack at a moment’s notice. This emotionally exhausting cycle keeps each partner in opposite corners, like boxers in a ring. They’re looking for a fight even when there isn’t one coming. It’s a perfect recipe for conflict and disconnection.
Along with helping you identify and heal your conflict cycle, EFT therapy also teaches you to be more secure partners for one another, resulting in greater emotional balance, the ability to safely express emotional needs, greater flexibility and adaptiveness to each other’s needs, and the ability to give and receive comfort.
Secure partners are more supportive and understanding of one another and are able to safely navigate the inevitable challenges of life and relationships together as a team. Working with an EFT counselor provides couples with a relationship blueprint for security that will benefit them throughout the lifespan.
What to Expect in an Emotionally Focused Therapy Session?
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy sessions can range from 50 minutes to several hours depending on the needs of the couple. Couples typically participate in EFT therapy once weekly, though there may be cases where couples attend sessions more or less frequently.
Because Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy focuses on recognizing and feeling emotions, you may experience yourself feeling emotions you previously felt disconnected from. Many of us shut down or minimize our own (and our partners’) emotions without even realizing it. This is especially true if we grew up in a family where vulnerable expression of emotions was not modeled or encouraged.
As you start to reconnect to your emotional self, you might notice some feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. This is completely normal and all part of the process of becoming a healthier and more whole human who is in touch with their emotions. EFT counselors can handle the intensity and complexity of the emotions that couples bring into therapy and will teach you how to handle it too.
EFT counselors are trained to use their emotions to tune into yours. They will use empathy and compassion, alongside their specialized training, to help you and your partner engage and connect in more loving, supportive, and vulnerable ways. This act of gradually ‘turning-toward’ each other creates feelings of attachment between you and your partner that may have felt impossible at the start of therapy.
Does Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Work?
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a well-researched form of couples therapy used internationally to help couples achieve more connected, attuned, and satisfying relationships. Research studies have found that 70-75% of couples undergoing EFT successfully move from distress to recovery, and approximately 90% show significant improvements.
Many couples who experience EFT report that it transformed their relationship beyond what they thought was possible. One such couple I worked with shared that it saved their marriage. They were married for 8 years and it had recently come to light that one partner was unfaithful. While infidelity was the impetus to seeking couples therapy, it was clear that their conflict cycle was the primary issue. Together, using EFT, we were able to identify that each partner’s childhood and adolescent traumas had influenced the use of unhealthy attachment behaviors.
One partner would become emotionally abusive and critical when in distress, while the other would often leave the home for hours, or days when distressed. Over time, these behaviors within their conflict cycle had a polarizing effect, leading one partner to seek out a competing attachment (the affair partner).
Through the use of EFT, the partners were able to establish an agreement that the affair would end, and the marriage would become the primary and only attachment again. Once establishing that safety, we were able to work on turning toward one another in distress and identifying their need for each other, rather than getting caught in the unhealthy conflict cycle. This couple went from having a sex-less and disconnected marriage to establishing renewed and healthy connections emotionally and physically.
Finding an EFT Therapist
Reading this, you may be thinking about your own relationship and realizing Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is right for you. Perhaps you and your partner struggle with communication because discussions often turn into fights. You may feel like no matter what you do to try connecting with your partner, you can’t seem to say or do the right thing. You struggle to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who you really are. The relationship may feel more like pain than pleasure.
I want to assure you that even in the most hopeless of places, transformation is still possible. Emotionally Focused Therapy goes beyond the visible conflict, frustration, and disappointment to uncover the real problem source: the conflict cycle and the impact on your attachment. Together, we can unite and fight against the cycle that is eroding your relationship in such painful ways.
I am passionate about helping couples find their way out of the hopeless wasteland of disconnection and into a space where they are able to love, support, and be vulnerable with one another again. If this sounds like something you need, I encourage you to book a free consultation. As an online couples therapist, I provide EFT online as well as in my Upland, CA office.
Online couples therapy is an incredibly effective and convenient way to fit therapy into your busy schedule and be able to connect with each other from the comfort of your own home. Another great way to start working on your relationship from home using EFT is by reading the book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. If you find that or anything I’ve written above resonates with you, I would love to support you in using Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to restore your relationship.