What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy, And Can It Benefit My Relationship?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated November 20, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Many types of therapy are available for those seeking help, either for themselves or their relationship. Although not every method is a perfect fit for every person or situation, emotionally focused therapy (EFT) can benefit those struggling with attachment or relationship-related emotions. Learning more about EFT can help you decide if it would benefit your relationship.

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What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?

Many couples experience a dynamic where one partner feels like they are chasing and the other feels they are avoiding. These dynamics can occur in a relationship between an individual with an avoidant attachment style and someone with an anxious attachment style, which are both insecure attachment styles

When one partner believes they must avoid conflict and the other fears abandonment or loss, it can cause arguments, hurt feelings, and miscommunication. Emotionally focused therapy was developed to address these common relationship challenges. As both anxious and avoidant patterns are considered unhealthy, EFT can help couples learn to foster a secure attachment style together instead of apart. 

This type of therapy is often concerned with establishing profound bonds between partners, allowing them to feel safe within their relationship and to change their reactions to healthy ones that respect each other's boundaries and needs.

In addition, partners can learn to become more empathetic towards each other, improving trust and openness and focusing on "negative patterns" as the culprit for their relationship troubles rather than blaming others for their issues.

Emotionally focused therapy was initially developed by Sue Johnson, a Canadian psychologist, who believed in the importance of attachment theory and how it applies to adult romantic relationships. She also looked at the significance of emotions in the context of therapy and repairing relationships between those who may be emotionally closed off or have difficulties with expressing themselves. When done in the context of individual therapy, emotionally focused counseling emphasizes analyzing and understanding the client's emotional responses to their challenges and using that insight to help them make the changes necessary to improve their quality of life.

EFT therapy is often short-term, offered within 10 to 20 sessions or less, and has been proven highly effective in helping relationships improve over time. In one study, EFT was found 90% effective, and up to 73% of couples continued to report a stress reduction when study researchers followed up with them. 

What Situations Are Best For Seeking Emotionally Focused Therapy?

EFT can be beneficial for individuals, couples, or families. Couples can improve their communication skills within their relationship while learning to understand themselves and their partner during the process, bolstering and solidifying their bond. EFT is most commonly used in couples therapy due to its approach to adult relationships and attachment. You might benefit from EFT if you experience the following in your relationship: 

  • Fear of abandonment 
  • Feeling that your partner is distant and doesn't communicate with you 
  • Fear of losing your partner 
  • Difficulty telling your partner how you feel 
  • Feeling put off when your partner worries about your love for them 
  • Craving deep connections but not understanding how to create them
  • Constant arguments about communication, love, or connection 
  • A lack of boundaries 
  • Disrespected boundaries
  • Childhood adverse events that impact your current relationship 
  • A lack of emotional intimacy 
  • A lack of physical intimacy
  • Secrecy 
  • No conversations about emotions 
  • Insecure attachment styles 

Emotionally Focused Counseling Techniques

Emotionally focused counseling helps couples and individuals in several ways, including the following. 

Discussing Past Emotions 

When analyzing their current emotions, the client may tap into past emotions contributing to their present feelings and responses to certain situations. Often, when an individual has had an unpleasant or traumatic event in childhood occur, they might experience emotions, memories, and behaviors due to it. For example, an individual who grew up in a household where emotions were considered "bad" might fear their own emotions and develop an avoidant attachment pattern due to it. 

In EFT, couples can discuss their attachment styles and how they formed during childhood. Understanding each other's pasts can lead to empathy, compassion, and connection as both partners realize unhealthy patterns were developed early in life as a coping mechanism and can be changed.

Becoming Aware Of Emotions 

Emotionally focused counseling can also help clients become more aware of their emotions. For example, denial may lead individuals to insist that they don't feel an emotion or aren't acting unhealthily. However, engaging in one's emotions and becoming fully aware of them allows the person to learn how to cope with them and change their thought patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors. EFT teaches couples that feeling all emotions is normal and healthy and that suppressing emotions can lead to mental and physical health challenges. In addition, couples can learn to separate emotions from behaviors and habits. 

Learning Healthier Patterns 

Once an individual has a thorough and honest understanding of how they think, feel, and react to the world and the people around them, they may be guided by their mental health professional into learning healthier methods of expressing their emotions, controlling them, and using their emotions for more productive purposes.

Increased awareness of one's emotional state also helps couples counter unhealthy thoughts and impulses attached to these sentiments. The awareness may offer them a chance to step back and see which of their thoughts and emotions are most appropriate for the given situations and which they may need to modify to better their circumstances, whether the thoughts and feelings apply to themselves, their partner, another person in general, or a specific situation.

Getty/jeffbergen

Accepting Emotions 

Some people become overwhelmed by their emotions and think of their feelings as "bad." They might judge their partner's emotional responses or feel the urge to run away if their partner cries or expresses distrust. Others might put all of their investment in their emotions into the relationship, believing that they "cannot live without their partner" or that they won't be happy or content unless their partner reassures them throughout the day. Both patterns can be signs of an insecure attachment style, and both can benefit from therapy. 

Rather than allowing patterns to fester, emotionally focused counseling helps individuals learn to express emotions healthily, self-control when needed, and balance connection and self-sufficiency. This process allows them to discover the source of their concerns and why those issues impact them so significantly and acknowledge these details as a way of beginning to cope. 

How Does EFT Work For Couples? 

Stemming from attachment theory, emotion-focused counseling emphasizes healthy adult bonds to prevent distress and unhealthy relationship patterns. When a couple seeks EFT therapy for their relationship, they may follow a step-by-step process, including the following steps.

Step One 

When a couple meets with an EFT therapist for the first time, they may discuss their primary areas of concern or conflict. The mental health professional mediating the sessions can also encourage them to identify the unwanted patterns connected to these challenges. They may assist the partners in recognizing how their fears, insecurities, or other adverse emotional reactions are affecting the issue at hand, as well as how they are interacting with their partner regarding conflict arising. The therapist may also teach the couple about attachment theory. 

Step Two 

Once the therapist and the couple have a clear picture of how each partner feels, the problems they must tackle, and the underlying emotions at play, they can begin changing their current, unhealthy patterns to benefit the relationship long term. This portion of the therapeutic process encourages the two individuals to express themselves honestly and clearly to each other, improving their communication skills. 

Both partners can learn what a secure attachment style looks like without blaming the other partner. Instead of making statements that paint one person as "the bad guy," each partner can take responsibility for their role in the dysfunction. This process may benefit them in future conflicts, as they can start to feel empathy for their partner and reduce blaming during arguments. 

Step Three 

As the conclusion of therapy approaches, the couple may have learned the information and techniques necessary for devising an effective game plan for when their professional mediation is no longer present to help them with their relationship troubles. The therapist can help both partners outline their goals for the next few months and years and how they might react if similar challenges arise. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Are You Seeking Help With Your Relationship?

Counseling Options

Therapy can be beneficial if you're experiencing any difficulties in your romantic relationships. EFT is not the only form of couples therapy, and therapy can be a personalized and unique experience for every client. In addition, you can choose whether to see a provider in person or online. 

Many couples appreciate the convenience of online therapy, as it allows them to meet with a therapist from separate locations, at times outside of standard business hours, and in ways that reduce pressure. One study found that couples preferred live video therapy over in-person counseling because it allowed them to feel safer and more connected with their professional, as they were in an environment they understood and felt comfortable in. 

However, if you don't want to do video therapy, you can also choose phone or live chat sessions with a licensed therapist. If you're interested in trying this method or learning more about how online couples therapy works, consider signing up for a platform like Regain that offers over 12,000 licensed couples therapists, with many specializing in EFT and other popular couples therapy methods. 

Takeaway

EFT is a form of therapy developed based on attachment theory and how individuals interact with each other within their adult relationships. If you're struggling with a "push and pull" dynamic or struggle to communicate emotions with your partner, consider contacting an EFT therapist for guidance. 

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