Understanding Emotionally Focused Therapy

By Dorette Green, LMSW

In honor of Valentine’s Day day tomorrow I decided to focus this particular post on relationships. As a therapist who not only works with individuals but also with couples, I find relationships fascinating! Relationships are imperative because engaging interpersonally is one of the most important parts of human development and the human experience.  Romantic love relationships are an important aspect of human advancement and growth from both a social aspect, as well as an evolutionary perspective. This has much to do with individual attachment styles and whether those attachments are secure or insecure (but I will save that discussion for a future post).

For this post I want to provide some information about one of my favorite modalities for working with couples. For some couples, relational issues can become so overwhelming that they make the relationship difficult to navigate. Couples in relational distress can at times repair their relationships, or begin the process of amicably ending their relationship through the assistance of couple’s therapy. While there are several different approaches to therapeutic work with couples, one of the most well studied, empirically validated, and by far my favorite approach is Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT.

Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT is a therapeutic modality developed by Susan M. Johnson and Les Greenburg in the 1980’s. EFT as a therapeutic intervention focuses on couples’ abilities to “deal with their emotions and, how they send emotional signals to their spouse, and how this emotion becomes the music of their interactional dance” (Johnson Interview, 2011). EFT can be utilized with individuals, couples, and families in relational distress. This distress usually has some relationship to attachment, as EFT is firmly rooted in attachment theory. As an attachment approach, EFT works on the assumption that individuals have a great need and desire “for safe connection and emotional contact,” the lack of which results in people becoming “stuck in very negative interactional patterns” (Johnson Interview, 2011). As such, EFT examines the adaptive and maladaptive emotional responses and patterns that are usually underpinned by basic attachment issues that keep individuals, couples, and families trapped in these negative patterns of interaction.

EFT has been described as “an intervention explicitly designed to improve a couple’s relationship satisfaction by making their attachment to one another more secure” (Benson, 2013). The ability to identify attachment style as well as a couple’s interactional patterns or “dance” is integral to the effective use of EFT. Couples often cannot recognize their own attachment issues, such as attachment “injuries” for instance. Attachment injuries are incidents related to attachment in which one partner did not provide support to, or betrayed the other partner during a time of need (Halchuk, Makinen, and Johnson, 2010). Attachment injuries can precipitate the negative cycles of interaction which inhibits the couple from beginning the process of repair in their relationship.

Repairing relational issues is an amazing benefit of engaging in EFT, but it is far from the goal. The goal of EFT is not necessarily working through relational problems with a focus on salvaging the relationship, but rather, as a way to work through relational issues based on poor and insecure attachment styles. First we work to understand these attachment styles and how they are represented in our interactions with our partner, and next we work to be able to articulate these patterns, the underlying feelings behind them, and how these feelings perpetuate a cycle of negative interaction. Often it’s these destructive and negative interactional patterns that are an indication that individuals are seeking to feel both safe and fulfilled in their relationships. What EFT does is “teach people communication skills so that they can problem solve and bargain better.” Given this understanding, what people ultimately learn is how to communicate their emotions and needs for safe connection (Johnson Interview, 2011). The ability to engage in relationships where communication becomes a tool utilized for better interaction, as opposed to one of the primary issues within the relationship, allows the couple to improve their attachment and overall relational satisfaction.

While it is clear that EFT works, it is also important to understand why and how it works. In part, EFT works because it is sustainable. Once couples are able to resolve their attachment issues, they are more cognizant of when they have reversions back those negative patterns and are better able to work through those issues. Couples learn to communicate more effectively and are better able to not only trust but forgive each other when there are negative interactions.

Ultimately, relationships can be difficult to navigate, but they are not impossible. It is important to understand that the people we engage in relationships with are bringing unique experiences, perspectives and beliefs into the dynamic.  Understanding those things, but also effectively communicating our own as well, is integral to the quality of the relationships in which we engage. In the end, we find that everyone is trying to meet the same basic needs for love, connection, safety, and understanding.

References / Sources:

  • Benson, L.A., Sevier, M., Christiensen, A. (2013).  The Impact of Behavioral Couple Therapy on Attachment in Distressed Couples. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(4), 407 420=
  • Halchuk, R., Makinen, J.A., Johnson, S.M. (2010). Resolving Attachment Injuries in Couples Using Emotionally Focused Therapy: A Three Year Follow-Up. Journal of Couples and Relationship Therapy, Vol. 9, 31-47
  • Yalom, V. (Interviewer) & Johnson, S. (Interviewee).  (2011). Sue Johnson on Emotionally Focused Therapy [Interview Transcript] Retrieved from Psychotherapy.net: http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/sue-johnson-interview

Dorette Greene is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.