What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?

Woman asks question during EFT counseling session
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What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy?

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is a type of short-term therapy that is used to improve attachment and bonding in adult relationships. This approach to couples therapy was developed by doctors Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in the 1980s and is rooted in research on love as an attachment bond.

While often used for couples, it has also been adapted for use with families. This treatment can help couples and family members form a more secure emotional bond, which can result in stronger relationships and improved communication.

Techniques

The change process through EFT has been mapped into a clearly defined system consisting of nine steps across three stages that help guide the therapist and track progress. The three stages of EFT are:

De-Escalation

This step is focused on identifying negative interaction patterns that contribute to conflict, identifying negative emotions related to attachment issues, and reframing these issues. This process helps couples better see how insecurities and fears may be hurting their relationship.

Partners begin to view undesirable behaviors (i.e., shutting down or angry escalations) as "protests of disconnection." Couples learn to be emotionally available, empathetic, and engaged with each other, strengthening the attachment bond and safe haven between them. 

Restructuring

During this stage, each partner learns to share their emotions and show acceptance and compassion for each other. This step helps each partner become more responsive to their partner's needs.

The process attempts to reduce a couple's conflict while creating a more secure emotional bond. Couples learn to express deep, underlying emotions from a place of vulnerability and ask for their needs to be met.

Consolidation

During the final step, a therapist helps the couple work on new communication strategies and practicing skills when interacting with each other. This process can help couples see how they have been able to change and how new interaction patterns prevent conflict.

New sequences of bonding interactions occur and replace old, negative patterns such as "pursue-withdraw" or "criticize-defend." These new, positive cycles then become self-reinforcing and create permanent change. The relationship becomes a haven and a healing environment for both partners.

What EFT Can Help With

Emotionally focused therapy can benefit couples who are struggling with conflict, distress, and poor communication. While often used in couples therapy, EFT can also be helpful in individual therapy and family therapy.

With individuals, this approach can help people improve emotion-related problems. It can also help family members form more secure bonds with one another. 

The couples who may benefit from EFT include those where one or both partners have:

EFT has also proven to be a powerful approach for couples dealing with infidelity or other more traumatic incidents, both recent and past. Neuroscience intersects attachment theory and EFT. More recently produced MRI studies demonstrate the significance of secure attachment. Our attachments are potent, and our brains code them as "safety."

EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers, and hospital clinics. It is also quite useful with various cultural groups throughout the world.

Benefits of Emotionally Focused Therapy

There are a number of benefits that couples and families can gain from EFT. Some of these include:

  • Better emotional functioning: EFT provides a language for healthy dependency between partners and looks at key moves and moments that define an adult love relationship. The primary goal of the model is to expand and re-organize the emotional responses of the couple.
  • Stronger bonds: EFT is based on attachment theory, which suggests that attachments between people typically provide a safe haven—a retreat from the world and a way to obtain comfort, security, and a buffer against stress.
  • Improved interpersonal understanding: EFT helps people become more aware of their partner's needs. Because of this awareness, they are also able to listen and discuss problems from a place of empathy instead of a place of defensiveness or anger.

Emotionally focused therapy can unwind automatic, counter-productive reactions that threaten relationships.

Effectiveness

EFT has many strengths as a therapeutic model. First, it is supported by extensive research. Second, it is collaborative and respectful of clients. It shifts blame for the couples' problems to the negative patterns between them, instead of the couples or individual partners themselves.

There is a substantial body of research outlining the effectiveness of this treatment. It is now considered one of the most (if not the most) empirically validated forms of couples therapy.

Emotionally focused therapy can be an effective way for couples to form stronger bonds and build better relationships. Research has found that EFT can improve interactions between partners and reduce the amount of stress that people experience in their relationships.

A 2019 systematic review found that EFT was an effective treatment for improving marital satisfaction. This recovery is also quite stable and lasting, with little evidence of relapse back into distress.

Things to Consider

Because emotionally focused therapy involves exploring the negative emotions and patterns that contribute to conflicts in relationships, it can be challenging. The therapy process itself may lead to difficult or intense emotions.

It is also important for each individual to participate in the process. EFT may be less effective if one person is less willing to participate.

Due to insecure attachment, any perceived distance or separation in our close relationships is interpreted as danger. Losing the connection to a loved one threatens our sense of security.

Because of this, people go into a self-preservation mode and rely on the things they did to "survive" or cope in childhood. This is the reason people are triggered as adults in romantic relationships to repeat unhealthy patterns from their formative years. While the process can be difficult at times, the goal of EFT is to help change these patterns and replace them with more helpful ones.

How to Get Started

During an EFT session, a therapist observes the dynamics between a couple and then acts as a collaborator to coach and direct new ways of interacting. Unlike some other forms of therapy where the therapist is more of a passive listener, EFT therapists take an active role in guiding the conversation. The therapeutic approach also focuses on addressing emotions and interactions within the session rather than focusing on things like worksheets and homework.

Therapists are empathetic and help couples recognize their emotions as valid. They help couples and individuals recognize behaviors and patterns that they may not even be aware of and see how these actions contribute to conflict in a relationship.

If you think this form of therapy would improve your relationship, you can find an EFT-trained therapist through The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) website.

EFT Books

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