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What Is Emotionally Focused Relationship Therapy (EFT)?

Can EFT really help? Questions answered for prospective partners in pain.

The quality of relationships is the quality of life. Along with EMDR therapy and mindfulness, EFT for close and romantic relationships is a deep passion of mine, around 30% of my current clientele. EFT conceptualizes relationship conflict as a cycle of negative interaction rooted in emotional processing from our need for close relationships. Thus, in EFT, the therapist privileges emotion because it communicates our needs, motives, and priorities.

Emotions are fundamental in orienting our perception, creating internal models of self, i.e. as a loved, worthy person (Johnson, 2009), and viewed as responses that help us predict, interpret, and respond in significant relationships.

You can skip below to the questions if you're not interested in the technical background underlying EFT.

With romantic partners especially, emotionally charged exchanges can evolve so fast and become so chaotic that it's too easy to miss what actually happened and how partners could have reacted differently to prevent them. They can become deeply distressing to the point where it feels like your life is on the line. Our need for close relationships, and the powerful emotions accompanying them, tend to arise sharply and suddenly.

Focusing on the content of arguments (i.e who forgot to close the garage door) misses the forest for the trees from an EFT perspective. EFT therapists build an understanding of the dilemmas underlying the content struggling partners bring to therapy.

What fights are really about is the emotional safety in the relationship, each partner's subjective sense of the other’s caring from them (or being there for them), and fear they will get hurt in the relationship(s).

In this sense, the EFT relationship solution is accessibility and responsiveness, and the therapist actively collaborates with partners to rebuild accessibility and responsiveness. In doing so, emotions (the music of the dance between partners) are the targets and vehicles of change.

Because attachment needs are naturally healthy and adaptive, partners seek therapy because their interactive patterns leave them feeling stuck and disconnected. In EFT, these patterns are demarcated as the relationship's "negative cycle," in which partners and the therapist thus ally to combat as a team.

Therapy is an opportunity to create new emotionally-bonding experiences of vulnerability and closeness instead of the stuckness from the negative cycle. In this sense, the problem partners come to therapy with is the pattern of responses clients get stuck in when their attachment bond feels threatened. Thus, relationships fail not because of increased conflict, but lack of connection, decreasing affection, and reduced emotional responsiveness because of partners’ stuck responses in their "negative cycle."

Effectiveness of EFT and how it was created

EFT was formulated in the mid-1980s by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. It developed in tandem with the science of intimate relationships. It views human beings as innately relational, social, and wired for intimate bonding with others. This is why EFT prioritizes emotion as the key organizing agent in individual experience and key relationship interactions.

EFT is best known not only as a highly effective relationship intervention but also for individual depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health issues.

Three-plus decades of ample research shows it works well. It has consistently helped 73-90% of relationships, even the majority that tolerated up to seven years of distress before trying therapy.

Here's what you can expect in EFT sessions:

Will your therapist be finding the "guilty one” in the relationship?

No one wants to feel blamed for problems in the relationship and the truth is, they aren’t. Partners get caught in negative patterns where each responds and reacts in ways that perpetuate problems. With your therapist's help, you will be understanding the negative cycle blocking closeness with your partner(s), and thus create new patterns of healthier, positive interactions were you feel connected, loved, listened to, and understood. This works much better than pointing fingers or assigning blame.

Will your therapist let you fight?

Partners know how to argue and get stuck in their negative patterns just fine on their own. EFT therapists don’t want to waste your time, money, and hope if they let you argue as usual. They will interrupt you, firmly yet politely, slow things down, and help you understand and share your feelings in a way that invites listening instead of defensiveness and rigidity.

Will your therapist teach you communication skills?

Contrary to what you may think, your therapist won’t be teaching them to you often. Most people in struggling relationships generally know how to communicate. You likely communicate quite well with friends, coworkers, strangers, etc. So, why do you have a hard time communicating with your partner(s)? The answer is that you are caught by a negative pattern of reactions, feelings unspoken, and confusing or hidden ways of trying to get your needs met. There’s a lot more going on underneath the words that isn’t being communicated.

In EFT, your therapist knows that teaching you communication skills won’t get to the root of the issues or fix them long-term.

Research on partners arguing shows that they don’t use communication skills in the heat of an argument. It’s great to learn them, and in EFT you may even improve communication overall. Still, in reality, when you’re upset and you need good communication the most, you likely react from your gut at lightning speed. You typically don’t stop to think about using “I-statements” and "reflecting" or "validating" the statements your partner just made.

So, how will you communicate better and stop arguing all the time if we don’t learn communication skills?

Your EFT therapist will figure out the negative communication pattern damaging your relationship. Then, you will be looking closely at what’s underneath your arguments and fueling that negative pattern. You will be identifying the blocks getting in the way of sharing those underlying feelings with each other. They will help you practice reaching out to each other with those feelings.

After a while, you will begin to see your negative pattern coming and know how to slow down and reach out with your partner(s). Your relationship will be improving when you have successes staying out of your negative cycle, and especially when you start to see it coming and learn how to get out of it.

Every relationship has its issues. In love, it’s all about your ability to repair, learn, and grow from them.

What should I expect in EFT?

For a while, you are likely to feel like you're working hard and will probably feel exhausted during and after sessions. I recommend a relaxing playlist for after-sessions and calming activities.

That said, you can also expect feeling a sense of relief from new emotional experiences of connection understanding with your partner(s).

Most of the time, it will be well worth it and maybe the most meaningful endeavor you will have ever engaged in. Ultimately, the reason partners end up in counseling is simple. They aren’t turning to each other and having vulnerable conversations. As you progress in treatment, when you are no longer escalating in arguments, your therapist will ask you to practice turning to one another coming from your heart. This is what ultimately assuages the negative cycle and creates a new positive pattern of bonding, closeness, and understanding.

In conclusion

EFT cures our widespread vulnerability-phobia so we can be more authentic with each other, which dampens the negative cycle and creates a secure bond over the long-term that can weather short-term headwinds. This softer, more vulnerable sharing can feel downright scary and profoundly uncomfortable.

Turning toward each other vulnerably is hard work, but it is worth it. Good relationship counseling is a deep bonding experience that lasts months and years after therapy ends. You may be nervous, but starting therapy may just save your relationships(s) and change your life. Too many partners start therapy up to seven-plus years too late.

We don't only exercise when we're sick, so why not work on your relationships before they're deteriorating? By the end of the day, what matters more than your relationships?

It’s common to be nervous about starting relationship work and EFT can help you with it. Losing the love(s) of your life or hurting in your most important relationship(s) is way more costly than working on them. It may just be the best investment you'll ever make. EFT therapists like myself have got your back.

Copyright Dr. Jason Linder. The word "couple" is intentionally avoided here to account for the broad gamut of relationship diversity, such as polyamorous couples.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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