Understanding Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) for Couples
For clients who aren’t familiar with Emotion Focused Therapy, it places an emphasis on… you guessed it… emotion. However, it’s not just about identifying your emotion (ex: I feel “annoyed” when you “don’t take out the garbage”) it is also about experiencing your emotion, slowly and patiently, with your partner IN THE MOMENT to encourage empathy and change your style of handling conflict.
This communication practice is facilitated by your therapist who is familiar with EFT— asking questions about your experience, validating and normalizing your emotion, encouraging and reflecting on interaction patterns—all during your couples’ therapy session.
One of the most informative parts of my experience at the 2017 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference was spending 3.5 hours with Dr. Sue Johnson (author of the international bestseller “Hold Me Tight”) and the creator of EFT, Emotion Focused Therapy for couples. Here is some basic information about EFT and how she is helping couples:
Why is focusing on emotions important for couples?
By allowing yourself to be present with your feelings + acknowledging your partner’s emotional experience you can create a platform for rebuilding a safe and loving connection. It is much easier to listen to what your partner has to say if you are “tuned into” them and they are less likely to attack or withdraw from the conversation if they feel heard. The fastest way to facilitate this connection is by relating to and empathizing with your partner’s experience (getting on the same team vs. feeling like opposing parties). Of course, being vulnerable and showing emotion isn’t easy so establishing trust and safety with your partner is goal #1 in EFT… before you get to the hard stuff.
Most couples therapists talk about emotions. What does a EFT therapist do specifically?
“An observer watching an emotionally focused therapy session with a couple would see the therapist continually engaged in three tasks: 1) actively monitoring and creating a safe alliance with both partners, 2) focusing on and expanding emotional responses, and 3) linking these responses to the pattern of interaction that lead that couple into therapy.” The idea is for both partners to feel “safe and seen” by the therapist and the couple.
So what would that look like in couples therapy?
EFT focuses on the underlying emotions (vs surface emotions) and “the dance” of the couple. For example, in a beginning session, the EFT therapist might note that a husband speaks of needing to “push ” his wife to understand him and that she seems to “pull away.” The therapist would encourage the couple to consider this negative push-pull “dance” and its consequences for their relationship. The therapist would then support one partner to explore their emotional response, perhaps by processing the husband’s “irritation” (surface emotion) and helping him link it to an underlying “desperation” (deeper emotion) about not being able to connect with his wife. The therapist would help the husband express his irritation directly (rather than simply blaming his spouse for being uncooperative) and would also support the husband as he connects with his underlying emotion, the desperation, and shares it with his wife.
Next, the therapist would work with the wife to discover how she hears and responds to this communication. The expression of deep, attachment-oriented emotions (like desperation) has the potential to change their pattern of connection and each partner’s understanding of the emotional reality of the relationship. The therapist works by reflecting these patterns and reframing them in terms of attachment and “stuck” cycles that are the “common enemy” in the couple’s relationship.
My partner says I’m “too emotional,” like it’s a bad thing. Are emotions really bad?
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions are the difference between life and death. They encourage us to quickly “tune into” our environment to avoid harm. If you didn’t feel fearful, you risked being killed by something or someone dangerous. Relationships are also based on our evolutionary need to bond to survive and thrive. Emotional cues like feeling abandoned, rejected, or jealous were important for maintaining protection for ourselves and our children but can be confusing for modern-day relationships.
What could I learn about myself and my relationship from EFT?
- Emotion has two parts: 1) how you experience / interpret it and 2) how it affects / influences others
- We typically can tune into our personal experience of the surface emotion but struggle to understand the “bigger picture,” the underlying emotion, or how our emotion is impacting the relationship resulting in negative conflict patterns
- Typical conflict patterns in couples include:
- Withdraw/withdraw: Both partners avoid confrontation or retreat from argument without resolution
- Attack/attack: Both partners blame/finger point with long, drawn out arguments
- Demand/withdraw: One partner pursues communication while second partner eventually stops listening/participating
- According to Sue Johnson, whether you are disagreeing with your partner about the kids, sex, or laundry… feeling emotionally disconnected at the end of the conversation is the virus that will erode a relationship, not the issue itself
Why is emotional understanding or “attunement” so difficult for couples?
Emotion is fast and impulsive. It is communicated quickly (verbally and non-verbally) and can be difficult to understand or “pin down.” Many people struggle to not react emotionally, especially when their partner is reacting emotionally or are unsure how to manage their negative emotions within themselves. Having a third party to recognize and teach these skills of regulation and understanding can make all the difference in a couple’s relationship.
What should I say to my partner when emotions are high at home?
As the listener, the most important part is understanding the speaker’s experience, rather than blaming or reacting. Ask questions like:
- What does that feel like for you?
- Where did you go?
- What do you see/hear?
- What are you telling yourself?
- How would you describe it? What color is it?
- What is this like for you? (ex: when you became emotionally distant or upset)?”
The second part is regulating or sending signals to your partner when emotions are too high:
- I am feeling threatened or I am feeling overwhelmed / flooded.
- I am having a hard time listening or remaining calm.
- I need a break.
- I would like to discuss this when we have both calmed down (20 minutes+)
And if you keep having the same argument over and over again or struggle to calm down:
- I think we are getting too heated or not making any progress when we try to discuss this. I am feeling frustrated and think we should seek professional help to gain skills to better understand each other’s perspective.
Who might struggle with an EFT approach?
Individuals who are very rational, fact-based, or struggle to “let go” of control. Type A’s, intellectualizers, “macho” types might struggle with emotional understanding or empathy and may find this process very foreign or slow moving. Certain populations such as trauma survivors, may also be fearful of experiencing the intensity of their emotion but can benefit greatly from this approach in a safe and structured environment.
What do we know about the effectiveness of EFT?
Attachment theory and EFT have been studied for the past 20 years. While it is a relatively young style of therapy, it is very popular and has proven to be effective in recent research findings for various populations and personality types. It is also known to be an excellent companion technique for the Gottman Method to soften and bring down emotional walls prior to engaging in more structured conversations and homework.
For more information or questions about EFT, feel free to contact Ciara Braun MA LPC NCC
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