Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?
EFT or Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples therapy and relationship counselling was developed in the 1980’s by Dr Leslie Greenberg and Dr Susan Johnson. It is a highly effective and evidence-based approach to couple therapy that has been validated by over 20 years of empirical research, and one used at Mindworx Psychology by Olivia Shorten, one of our family and relationship counsellors.
Research studies find that 70-75% of couples who have undertaken EFT move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements in relationship satisfaction.
Studies have also shown that significant progress continues after therapy is completed. EFT is also used with individuals and families and has been shown to be effective with couples who experience issues such as depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and chronic illnesses.
EFT is based on attachment theory that points to our inbuilt need to seek and maintain connection with others, in particular, to specific “attachment figures”. When we are a child, this is usually a parent or parents. As adults, it is usually an intimate partner. We have expectations that our partner will be emotionally responsive, accessible, and available to us, and will be there when we need them. Distress in relationships is a normal and understandable response to feeling disconnected to our partner, perceiving that one’s partner is inaccessible and unresponsive, and subsequently feeling alone and isolated.
Emotions signal to us what our most significant desires and needs are and what is important to us. Unmet attachment needs, such as the need to feel loved or that one matters, and attachment fears, such as the fear of being abandoned, are a primary cause of emotional distress in couple relationships. Our strongest and most intense emotions are usually experienced in our attachment relationships. It is these powerful attachment emotions that fuel and organise the rigid negative cycles in which couples become stuck.
How Does EFT Help Couples Experiencing Relationship Difficulties?
Olivia notices that couples often present for relationship counselling saying, “we can’t communicate”. They find themselves becoming caught in a repetitive, negative cycle of interaction that is painful and distressing and leaves each feeling emotionally unsafe in the relationship. This cycle becomes rigid and leaves each partner stuck and unable to respond differently in the moment, or even knowing how to.
For example, a common cycle is where one partner “pursues” the other with reactive anger and criticism while the other partner shuts down and withdraws. The “pursuing” partner feels lonely and abandoned by their partner while the “withdrawing” partner feels criticised and inadequate. Both feel hurt and emotionally distressed. The angry pursuer is desperately trying to reach her/his partner and the withdrawer is trying to protect both himself/herself and the relationship. The more one partner pursues, the more the other withdraws. The more this partner withdraws, the more the other pursues…and so the cycle goes on. The lack of safe emotional engagement threatens the security of the couples’ bond and makes attempts at “communicating” or “negotiating” extremely difficult as each partners’ emotional responses, such as hurt or fear, will undermine attempts at talking about issues.
EFT moves beneath the reactivity of these cycles to get to the core of what couples are really fighting about – the security of their emotional bond, and their partner’s emotional accessibility and responsiveness. It identifies the deep attachment longings, needs, and fears underlying the couple’s negative cycle and provides a roadmap to help couples clarify the emotional signals they send and receive from one another.
EFT looks both within each individual – at how people experience their partner, and the relationship, and also at what is happening between the couple – at how partners interact with and impact each other. It also checks in on how these factors impact each other.
The aim of EFT is to help each partner explore and understand their emotional reactions, behaviours and thoughts within the relationship and be able to express their emotional needs more clearly in ways that evoke different and new responses from their partner instead of triggering the old cycle of interaction that perpetuates distance and pain. For example, being able to clearly express needs for closeness or support instead of reactive anger, pulls for a new emotional response from one’s partner, who instead of withdrawing or shutting down as usual, is then able to be emotionally responsive and supportive. This then enables the “angry” partner to ask for what she/he needs in a softer, more vulnerable way rather than attacking in anger, which in turn enables the other to remain engaged and responsive. And so, this new interactional experience starts to redefine the relationship for both as secure, safe, and a source of comfort.
EFT also addresses “attachment injuries” or relationship traumas, which take the form of abandonments or betrayals by one’s partner at crucial moments of need that create or exacerbate insecurity in a relationship (Johnson, 2004). If these injuries or traumas are not addressed, they continually impair trust and intimacy and will also block progress in couple therapy.
Couples usually find that EFT gets to the heart of the issues with which they are struggling rather than just staying with the “content” or surface issue such as disagreements over finances, parenting or household chores.
For more information on EFT see the following websites:
www.iceeft.com International Centre for Excellence in EFT
www.aceft.com.au The Australian Centre for Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
Article by Olivia Shorten – Psychologist, Couples, Families and Relationships Counsellor, Mindworx Psychology, 2018.