Therapy Approaches: Emotionally Focused Therapy
The second in our series on therapy approaches highlights Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). As one of several approaches I use in my practice, EFT can be especially beneficial for couples who are struggling with communication issues.
What is EFT?
EFT is an approach to couples therapy rooted in more than 50 years of research on bonding and attachment theory. Its developer, Dr. Sue Johnson, has applied it for the past 30 years in her own lab where she works with couples who are dealing with everything from mild disconnection to serious relationship distress.
In Dr. Johnson’s words, “The EFT therapist has a map: a map to what matters in intimate relationships, how they work; a map to how they go wrong; and a map to what is needed to put them right.”
In her acclaimed books, “Hold Me Tight” and “Love Sense,” Johnson describes the frustration she felt early in her career that psychology professionals treated adult intimate relationships as “rational bargains.” She retorted to one colleague, “They’re not bargains. They’re bonds. Emotional bonds. Just like the ones between mother and child.”
She began her research with the idea that adults need to feel safe, secure and attached to their partners, much the way children need that emotional bond and safety from their parents. She writes:
“I found myself part of an amazing group of academics who were bent on actually cracking the code of romantic love. We had the help of pioneering psychologist John Bowlby, who changed all our ideas about bonds with children and parenting, but died in 1990 before his vision could be applied to adult lovers. In the last 20 years, the map he gave us to the bonds of love has shown us the patterns, the organizing structure of connection and disconnection that my childhood self knew was there but could not see.
Surprisingly, this new knowledge, that some of my colleagues call ‘attachment theory’ and others the ‘love secret,’ knowledge that seemed to me to be as momentous as the discovery of gravity or DNA, met with a resounding silence. It remained a faint whisper in all the noise about sex and sentiment that constantly told us all how mysterious adult romantic love was. The clichés about love seemed to drown out all the studies…”
EFT, rooted in science and respected research, moves beyond the clichés. It changes the conversations between couples to uncover, acknowledge and honor each partner’s emotional needs.
The goal of EFT
Over the course of EFT couple therapy, one key goal is to help couples change the way they approach conflict. To break old patterns that leave couples stuck in attack/blame or retreat/shut down patterns, EFT helps partners:
- Identify attachment styles. Personal temperament, childhood experiences and more help shape each person’s attachment style. In general, attachment styles fall into three categories: secure, avoidant or anxious. Understanding your attachment style gives you important insight into how you react in your love relationships.
- Tap into “soft feelings.” The word “soft” itself might evoke a vulnerable reaction in you, and that is part of the beauty of EFT. When you can remove the veneers of anger and a combative stance in your relationship, you and your partner can connect on a deeper level. Soft feelings are the ones we often keep hidden from the world, but they can help strengthen and solidify your intimate relationship with your partner. Feelings of rejection, fear of loss or abandonment and worry about not being “enough” are common soft feelings.
- Communicate needs. Once you can express your soft feelings, you can also share your true needs with your partner. When you can achieve this level of sharing, you can relax into your relationship to feel safer, more connected and more supported.
In this blog, Dr. Johnson outlines a great example of a common couple conflict – sexual rejection – and how an EFT approach can change the outcome of the conversation. She concludes:
“Now a whole new conversation opens up. New safer moves are suddenly possible. Both partners help each other with their softer feelings and everything feels safer. Simple. But difficult if you are not used to looking at…the pattern between you.”
Key aspects of EFT
Old habits can be difficult to break, and that can be especially true in romantic relationships. Long-term couples tend to repeat the same arguments and patterns over and over. EFT provides a structure for understanding those patterns, and their roots, and then walks couples through changing them.
As you work with your EFT therapist, he or she will focus on:
- Stabilization. Your therapist will help you assess your current negative patterns. During this phase, you will also begin to tap into your softer feelings and underlying emotional needs.
- Restructuring the bond. This phase will help you dive deeper into understanding your emotional needs, help you express them to your partner and help both partners create a safe space for the other to communicate.
- Integration and consolidation. The third phase focuses on creating new, positive habits and ways of interacting as a couple. This phase opens up a new world of intimacy for partners as they learn to see past the surface of conflicts.
EFT can be a powerful approach to changing your couple dynamic. It empowers each partner to understand and communicate feelings and needs, and it helps you work together as an in-tune couple in a true partnership.
If you would like to learn more about EFT, couple therapy and creating a deeper, more connected relationship, please contact me for a free, 50-minute, in-person consultation. I am a Denver therapist located near the Cherry Creek, Washington Park, Virginia Village, Lowry, Montclair, Hilltop and Congress Park neighborhoods.