Relationship researcher and developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), Sue Johnson, boils trust down to this question; “Are you there for me?” Many people have an innate need for emotional connection and secure emotional bonds. Yet many people do not get that primary need met in their romantic partnerships.
Emotionally Focused Couples therapy is an evidence-based model of therapy for couples that can offer corrective experiences that positively impact models of self and others and shape effective, lasting change.
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?
EFT is a Humanistic and Systemic approach to psychotherapy that employs principles of Attachment Theory. EFT is non-pathologizing and doesn’t believe either of the partners is the problem but rather frames the dysfunctional relational patterns that couples get stuck in as the problem. EFT is Experiential which means it looks at your relationship right here and right now and gives you a framework to understand the cycles you get stuck in. It goes beyond the content of the presenting problem into the process of the relationship.
EFT is a short-term (usually 8 to 20 sessions) structured approach, which was originally developed for couple therapy in the 1980s by Sue Johnson. This model also works with individual therapy and family therapy. EFT provides a map that makes sense of the cyclical fights and interactional patterns that you and your partner may get into and helps you understand it from an attachment bond perspective.
EFT has 3 stages: Assessment and De-escalations of negative interactional cycles, Re-structuring couples’ interactions to create positive bonding experiences and Consolidation which is about integrating new solutions to old patterns and co-creating a healthier and more conscious narrative for the relationship.
Strengthening Emotional Bonds Through EFT
EFT prioritizes emotions and emotion regulation as the key organizing agents in individual experience and key relationship interactions. Your couples and family therapist will assist you in taking the history of your relationship from an attachment perspective. Attachment patterns directly impact strategies people employ to self-soothe or manage emotions and mental health when faced with relational threats. They also influence communication patterns in terms of how hesitant, confident, or guarded one may be in expressing their needs.
An EFT therapist promotes emphatic attunement and validation of all emotions within and in between partners. Any history of attachment injuries where one partner may have felt like they couldn’t count on the other gets addressed. The unrepaired rupture may be contributing to why one partner may have been pulling away.
You will learn how to address the blocks to secure attachment and emotional engagement within yourself and with your partner. During EFT sessions, your therapist is constantly trying to make sense of your emotional reactivity, your perception of yourself and your partner’s behavior, and your secondary and primary emotions in addition to your attachment needs and longings.
The Benefits of EFT for Couples
Understanding your attachment style in regards to habitual ways of how anxiously or avoidantly you deal with emotional intimacy and conflict and the patterns you display in regulating your emotions will build a more conscious awareness of how you and your partner manage your need for soothing and connection. Some of the more specific questions an EFT therapist might ask you in your couples therapy session can include:
- Who did you go to for comfort when you were young?
- Could you count on this person for comfort?
- What did you learn about comfort or connection from your family of origin?
- Who seeks closeness more often in your current relationship?
- What does each partner do when the other is distressed?
- Do you usually get triggered in an avoidant way or in an anxious way when you’re facing conflict?
Secure attachment often offers a safe haven that provides comfort and security in relationships. Any perceived inaccessibility of our attachment figures creates distress in our internal system and sometimes leads to post traumatic stress. To cope, we brilliantly adapt and either employ hyper-activating strategies or de-activating our attachment needs.
Hyperactivating strategies keep a person focused on the search for love and security, so such folks may be more alert for threats or separation cues. While the more avoidant partner may consciously and unconsciously keep the attachment system deactivated to avoid emotional pain and further disappointment by the attachment figure’s unavailability.
This likely happens because historically that environment wasn’t a safe place for them to rely on either in the current relationship or based on their childhood experiences. So, they may deny their emotional needs or avoid closeness or dependency.
Deactivating strategies may include behaviors such as focusing on their partner’s flaws more often than not or fantasizing about an ex-partner and remembering how easy things were while forgetting why that relationship didn’t work out in the first place.
Relationship Dynamics & Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
A common dynamic with couples is a Withdrawer/Pursuer dynamic when dealing with conflict. In such dynamics, one partner tends to get triggered in a more anxious way when facing conflict while the other one feels triggered in a more avoidant way. Both the pursuer and the withdrawer are doing their best to regulate their nervous system.
The pursuer is better with co-regulation which involves their partner so they may be chasing their partner from one room to another to try to talk things through. The withdrawer on the other hand is better at self-regulation where they typically need more time and distance to process things and may feel flooded when the anxious partner seeks closeness.
Your EFT therapist will assist the Withdrawer to become more accessible and stay emotionally engaged with themselves and their partner by accessing deeper emotions and tapping into their vulnerability while being able to stay regulated and feel intentional about asking for space if that’s what they need. On the other hand, the Pursuer learns ways to self-soothe and regulate their nervous system.
EFT is one of the best empirically validated modalities that uses a practical approach to help couples break through barriers to achieve greater understanding, connection, and intimacy in their relationship. Your EFT therapist will assist you in creating more accessibility and responsiveness in your relationship to promote more secure emotional bonds.
Through Emotionally Focused Therapy you will learn to have more empathy for your own and your partner’s experiences and find new interactional patterns where you both feel seen and understood even when you’re facing conflict.