What is EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy)?

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) was created by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in the 1980s and is one of the most empirically validated therapy approaches for couples and relationships. Rooted in attachment theory and science and shown effective by numerous scientific studies, EFT helps couples move from distress to recovery and increase connection and security in their relationship. In the lens of EFT and attachment, distress occurs when couples are stuck in negative patterns of communication that create disconnection and distance and separation from one’s partner is coded at danger and the fight, flight or freeze response is activated. Often the pattern is one partner pushing in or “fighting” and the other withdrawing or shutting down, “flying or freezing.” It can also look like criticize-defend. When these patterns ensue and continue in a relationship, emotional safety and secure connection cannot exist or be maintained.

We humans are all hardwired for connection, we are social beings and not made for isolation. Connection with others is even more important than food or water for our very existence, required in order for us to thrive. Research shows infants that are given adequate nutrition but no physical touch or comfort, often die.  They do not thrive and survive. As adults, we still are very much in need of connection, touch and love and when we have a relationship where we know we can get those needs met, we feel secure. On the other hand, if we cannot count on our partner to meet those needs and those needs are not met in the relationship, we feel insecure in the attachment. EFT gives therapists a road map to help couples understand their behaviors, thoughts and emotions that come up in the negative cycle of communication and see them as protests to disconnection and the cycle that happens between them rather than faulty, negative, bad behaviors or character flaws. The goal is for couples to have new, healthy, loving patterns of interaction that reinforce safety and a secure emotional bond. Let me give you an example of a common negative cycle of communication between a hypothetical couple, Susie and Jim. Susie usually criticizes and brings up issues and pokes at Jim when she is not feeling seen, heard or connected to him. Before EFT her partner Jim would feel attacked, belittled, controlled and feel like he was inadequate and his feelings of shame would lead him to shut down and close off and reinforce Susie’s worry and fear that he did not care about her, she was not important to him. After working with a therapist doing EFT, the couple now can see this negative cycle as the common enemy, rather than one another, and Jim can begin to see and understand that Susie’s pushing and criticizing is because she is protesting disconnection and separation from Jim because he is so important to her and she wants to feel close. This is a very different feeling than feeling attacked, inadequate, and now he may be able to turn towards Susie and let her know he is here for here and she is important to him. Susie then may be able to soften and let Jim into her primary emotion through vulnerability and show him that part of her that really needs to be seen and heard and feel important to him. Jim may then be able to be vulnerable and show his primary emotion of inadequacy and shame and ask for his need to know that he is enough for Susie. These new patterns of interaction that are positive create healing, safety and connection. After gaining empathic understanding through work in EFT couples therapy, Susie begins to see Jim’s quietness, shut down, withdrawal and disengagement as ways he keeps himself safe and protects his heart when he feels inadequate and overwhelmed. This makes Susie want to reach for him in softer, safer ways. Studies show that 70-75 percent of couples move from distress to recovery in EFT and 90 percent show significant improvements and long-lasting change. The length of treatment varies for each relationship based on many factors, however 8-20 sessions is the typical length of treatment. Length of treatment and progress often depends on frequency of sessions, commitment to the therapy process, length and intensity of negative pattern, past injuries and trauma and desire, therapeutic alliance and clients’ motivation to grow and change.  What I love most about EFT is experiential and the work is done with the present process, meaning we are working with what is coming up right then and there in the session, and also how it is a path to not having to feel like we are in it alone, but with our beloved. When this occurs, we do not have to weather the storms of life or experience the rainbows alone, but we can share this with another. This is called co-burdening and coregulation, we help each other carry the burden and load does not feel as heavy and the security of togetherness enables us to regulate our body and our emotions when we experience one another as accessible, responsive and engaged. An experienced and trained EFT therapist can be an amazing asset to your relationship and helping you grow in ways you cannot always do on your own and take you to a deeper level of connection. If your relationship is in distress or you would like to get out of repetitive negative patterns of communication, EFT would be a great therapeutic approach for you and your partner or loved one. Please reach out and see how I can help you get and give the love you desperately want and deserve today!   Written by: Athen Fisher, MAS, LMFT, ICEEFT Certified EFT Therapist