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What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) — And Who Can It Help?

Photo: Unsplash: Toa Heftiba
What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy? How EFT Uses Attachment Theory To Fix Broken Relationships & Marriages
Love, Self

Most couples in therapy say they have communication problems, but what's that really about?

If you're struggling within your romantic relationship or marriage, wondering what happened to the feelings of love you both had early on, you are far from alone. This is the emotional state many overwhelmed and unhappy people find themselves in when they first consider couples counseling of any kind, including the method known as emotionally focused therapy (EFT).

What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?

EFT is an approach to couples therapy developed in the 1980's by behavioral scientists Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg.

The two decided they were going to break the hidden code of why relationships succeed or fail. Backed by their knowledge of attachment theory, and after observing hundreds of hours of video recording of couples in therapy, they found patterns of communication that lead toward healing or destruction in relationships and marriages.

RELATED: Why Understanding The 4 'Attachment Styles' Takes The Uncertainty Out Of Your Love Life

You may be feeling ignored or shut out, as though your partner just isn't listening to you. You may feel that, at this point, you're better able to communicate with even your mother or your dog than you are with the person you've chosen as your life partner.

Worse yet, you may have been betrayed by the person you love most.

They've pleaded for forgiveness, but you can't seem to move on. You spend your day fighting through heart palpitations, sweating, and shortness of breath, and nightmares rob you of the sleep your body craves. You've become vigilant, scanning the world around you for any signs of trouble in your relationship, always preparing yourself for the "inevitable" next act of infidelity. Your head tells you it will all be okay, but your heart insists that no, it is not.

In short, you no longer feel safe in what should be your safest space on Earth — your relationship with the person you love.

When individuals or couples finally reach out for professional help. they are often at their wit's end — feeling alone, ashamed and desperate. Their stories of heartbreak and heartache are all unique, yet typically contain one common thread: emotional disconnection, which is exactly why emotionally focused therapy can be many people's best resource for healing and reconnection.

As practiced today, EFT methodology is now backed by 30 years worth of scientific research testifying to its effectiveness.

Research shows that 70-75 percent of couples move from distress to recovery, and approximately 90 percent show significant improvements. Studies have also proven this method to also be effective when conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder are part of a couple's problem.

How and why does EFT work?

There's really no magic involved in the way EFT works. The methodology was birthed and built on science. It often takes years of scientific investigation to understand human behavior.

It's interesting to note that understanding how humans love was once a topic scientists did not want to take on.

Thy believed the emotions of love were too difficult for scientific research to make sense of, preferring to study specific behaviors and how they could be reinforced. Or how thoughts could be changed through cognitive behavioral therapy. Or they wanted to spend years helping clients understand their unconscious through psychoanalysis.

EFT works differently than therapies based on these assumptions.

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Nearly every couple that comes for couples therapy says they have a problem with communication.

There is nothing new about this. Most everyone knows problems with communication cause problems in relationships. Many types of therapy attempt to improve communication, and a wealth of research has proven that certain communication issues are sure-fire predictor of divorce. Dr. John Gottman, for example, is well-known for his research on this topic, as well as his subsequent Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships theory.

Unfortunately, most forms of communication skills-based therapy aren't particularly effective at sustaining long-term loving emotional connections.

Sure, couples can change their pattern of communication with the right kind of coaching, but left to their own devices, they typically slip back into the destructive patterns that caused them to seek help in the first place.

This happens because the therapy they receive doesn't help them to go deep enough into the emotional roots of their most fundamental fears and longings for love.

Johnson and Greenberg discovered that it's emotional, not cognitive, communication that unlocks the hearts of couples, allowing them to heal and connect.

Real, long-lasting changes begin to happen when therapists help couples to talk to each other from their deepest emotions. It's vulnerable emotional expression that creates trust and allows couples to feel safe helping each other escape their destructive cycles of conflict.

The link between emotional expression and bonding which forms the basis of what's known as attachment theory was first discovered in the 1960s by researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In the 1970s, they found that it was the emotional communication between mother and child that created both secure and insecure attachment bonds. Researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver then discovered that adults have the same kinds of emotional fears about getting close that children do.

Sue Johnson connected the dots, using attachment theory to explain why people become so emotional and afraid when they feel their relationship is threatened.

EFT is rooted in the belief that secure bonds are created not by expressing romantic thoughts or behaviors like date nights, but when couples speak to each other with warmth and validation.

Emotional validation is a big part of what makes EFT so effective.

Researchers now believe adults pair bond in order to help each other soothe and regulate our emotions. In fact, neuroscience has shown that couples in secure, emotionally connected relationships are less afraid in the presence of danger than couples who are not as well connected.

The fear of abandonment and rejection is at the root of most angry arguments in relationships.

Couples trigger each other's fear responses, causing what EFT therapists call a negative cycle argument. This is the kind of argument we can all relate to where we spin out of control over something truly meaningless, such as, "Why did you burn the toast?!?"

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One partner's tone of voice or facial expression can lead to an angry response from the other that then triggers a negative reaction in the first.

Most people aren't particularly conscious of how their non-verbal cues and body language trigger the person they love, so it's easy for partners to get stuck defending the nuances of what they said, which only makes arguments worse.

Therapists trained in emotionally focused therapy are skilled at helping couples get more in touch with the emotional signals they are sending. Couples in EFT sessions practice feeling their hurt sensitive emotions and expressing them with softness and vulnerability rather than with reactive anger.

When partners learn to tell each other when they feel anxious, afraid or needy, it makes it easier to respond to one another with kindness and compassion.

There are three stages couples work through in emotionally focused therapy (EFT):

1. EFT teaches couples how to de-escalate conflict and repair injuries

In stage one, couples learn to de-escalate their negative cycle arguments in the following ways:

  • They learn to slow their arguments down
  • They learn what their emotional triggers or raw spots are
  • They learn to recognize when their partner is hurt and validate their emotional pain
  • They learn that they do not have to agree with their partner about why he or she is hurting in order to have compassion about the pain they're in
  • They learn how to respond to their partner in a non-defensive way when they have hurt their partner whether they intended to or not

There is a saying in EFT that it is the cycle, not each other, that is the enemy of any relationship. When couples learn to recognize and head off negative cycle arguments, they have achieved de-escalation.

De-escalation is necessary to repair attachment injuries.

We bring the relationship wounds of childhood and later life into our adult love relationships. These affect our ability to stay close and connected. The beauty of EFT is that it works effectively to heal past relationship trauma. It also helps with anxiety and depression.

There's no one in the whole world that we need to know understands our trauma, depression and anxiety more than the person we love.

By talking about our emotional struggles in the presence of our loved one's understanding and compassion, we have a new emotional experience. Bruce Ecker calls this new experience memory re-consolidation. The old fearful emotional memory is exchanged with the new experience of being loved and cared for.

This is how EFT powerfully heals emotional injuries. In individual therapy, the therapist acts as a representative for the client's love relationship. In EFT, the most important love relationship is in the room, giving the wounded partner directly what he or she needs to hear from the primary love relationship.

When couples learn to de-escalate conflict by helping each other stay out of their negative cycle, they are ready for stage two, which is all about building attachment bonds.

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2. EFT helps couples restore and build new attachment bonds

Attachment bonds that are the glue that hold relationships together for life.

Authors Segal, Glenn and Robinson define attachment bonds in childhood as, "The emotional connection formed by wordless communication between an infant and their primary caretaker."

Babies communicate their hunger, pain, fear and happiness to their parents with emotional communication. They have no other way of letting their parents know what they need. Loving secure parents instinctively emotionally respond to the emotional communication of their children. They make emotional sounds and faces when their baby is happy and provide comfort when their baby is hurt or afraid.

This emotional mirroring creates the emotional connection bond that reassures the children that they will be heard and responded to when they are trying to express themselves.

In the last 30 years, thousands of research studies found that emotional communication is the key for sustaining secure lifelong adult love relationships.

Sure, (most) adults don't gurgle and coo with each other the way parents do with infants, but every emotionally connected couple has their own emotional love language, expressed in pet names, reassuring voice tones and facial expressions.

All emotionally secure adults want the person they love to reassure them when they are in pain and celebrate with them when they are happy.

Emotional mirroring is just as important for adults as it is for infants. Humans are biologically wired to pair bond and to help their partner navigate the emotional ups and downs of life.

EFT therapists help coupes establish the emotional communication that creates adult attachment bonds. Once these bonds are established, adults no longer feel abandoned or alone. They carry the love of their partner in their hearts, knowing their partner will be present and responsive when they need them most.

Couples in crisis have unmet needs for love they are afraid to express. They fear they will be too much or not enough for their partner.

EFT therapists help couples take the risk of expressing these unmet needs. They learn to turn to their partner and express their deepest fears and longings. The adult attachment bond is established when the lover repeatedly responds with understanding and compassion.

I have been present during hundreds of these sacred moments when the truth of a partner’s need is spoken with deep sincere emotion and is caught in the emotional embrace of the other.

This connection creates an understanding of being loved that is beyond words. It is nothing short of amazing to have another person you know you can turn to — one who will care for you and understand your emotions.

When adults are securely attached, they are ready for stage three.

RELATED: Why Your Attachment Style May Be Keeping You Lonely

3. EFT helps couples problem solve

Many couples therapies are not effective because they try to help couples problem solve before they are emotionally connected.

This is a recipe for failure. You have to feel emotionally safe and listened to before you can solve any problem of significance. Problem solving is easy when you know you are loved and that your partner will take the time to understand what you are trying to communicate.

EFT therapists spend the least amount of time helping clients with this stage. Couples quickly learn to solve problems on their own once a secure emotional connection is established.

To find the right EFT therapist for you, you can visit the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT).

The therapist directory will give names of therapists in your area, as well as information on the level of training they have received. As in most things, the more training the better. Therapists who are certified in EFT often spend hundreds of hours videotaping couples sessions and having them reviewed by a supervisor, and most take several years to get certified.

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Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. is a highly trained and experienced clinical psychologist, Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, CA, who, along with his wife Paula, co-authored Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love. Learn more about the services he offers on his website.