What is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is also known as EFT. In the UK there are other therapies that use the same acronym, but these therapies are completely different. It is therefore important to be clear about which EFT is being offered.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is a collaborative, short-term approach to working with relationships that aims to nurture the creation of secure relationship bonds. Drawing from research about couple distress, human bonding and emotional processing, EFT integrates systemic theory, attachment theory and humanistic experiential theory in a focused, structured approach. The approach has a high success rate in achieving secure, resilient relationships, whatever the sexual orientation.

When relationships are distressed

When relationships are under stress, couples tend to develop their own pattern of managing the tension between them. Every couple is of course different, but there are some commonly occurring cycles of distress.

It is not unusual for one partner to feel that they are fighting to make the relationship better by trying to get across what is wrong with the relationship, (but in exasperation and desperation is coming across as critical).  On the other hand, their partner may think that they are protecting the relationship by not responding and by backing off to prevent further problems, (but are then coming across as not caring about the problems in the relationship). In this pattern, the more one protests, the more the other withdraws -  and inevitably the more the first then protests. It is easy to see how that then leads problems to escalate.

EFT focuses on helping couples change these cycles of distress so that there is a different kind of communication. By exploring, clarifying and better understanding their own pattern there is much greater choice for couples about how to respond to each other.

What does emotionally focused mean?

When a relationship is working well, partners will feel they have someone they can depend on to be there for them and someone who is responsive to them. With the support of a caring understanding partner life’s problems become more bearable and our well-being is good. However when a relationship becomes tense, the emotional bond between the couple is stressed and there is inevitably an emotional reaction.

EFT recognises the importance of emotions in how we make sense of what we experience and in how we interact in relationships. It is important not just to understand the emotions that are affecting the individuals in the relationship, but it is crucial to create a safe environment that helps partners communicate their feelings in a way that helps their partner be more able to listen, understand and respond with empathy. Although the therapy is called emotionally focused it is not just about emotions: behaviours, perceptions and attachment needs are also recognised as important in cycles of distress. However emotions are fundamentally important in our relationship with others and ourselves and EFT therefore understands how emotions play a key part in helping transform the couple relationship.

Attachment and Couples

This therapy was developed over thirty years ago, has been extensively researched and found to be effective. The approach draws from the research evidence about human bonding and how attachments can become distressed. Dr Sue Johnson is one of the originators of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and in the clip below she is describing how relationship behaviours can be affected by the attachment system that is present throughout life.

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