Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is an approach to working with couples, which we adopt at Better Couples Therapy as our primary approach to strengthening relationship bonds between partners.
The approach was invented by Susan Johnson and Les Greenberg, two prominent psychologists and researchers in Canada, who argued that emotions are our most fundamental way of communicating with each other.
One of the things I really like about Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is that it works with people without introducing what can often seem like silly or artificial exercises.
I have always had a distaste for couples therapy approaches that teach you rules for how to communicate or tell you to follow a certain model or go through certain steps. Why? Because a relationship should not feel like a communication exercise. It should feel natural, and you should be able to talk with your partner in a way that feels like you are being yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Does Not Feel Artificial:
Instead of imposing some contrived rules on a couple’s interactions, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy helps partners interact as who they really are.
The truth Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy teaches us is that what is important is not really what to say or how to say it, but how to communicate from a particular place inside that is more genuine and more accurately represents how we really feel.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is about Creating Safety to Be More Fully Ourselves:
The problem in most relationships is that we gradually become less and less safe to open up and show each other who we really are. Over time, as we increasingly begin to hide our hurt, our disappointment, our sadness, our fears, or our pain of rejection, we get stuck in a very limited repertoire of emotional interactions that tend to include only our anger, criticism, contempt, or defensive walling off. Gradually we shrink from our full authentic self, to become a narrow and guarded version of ourselves.
What we need is therefore not a set of rules for how to communicate or respect each other’s feelings more, but a way to feel safe enough with each other, to really show our partner who we are beyond our anger and beneath our self-protective walls.
To accomplish this, the emotionally focused couples therapist helps us first to get in touch with what we really feel underneath our anxious distress or need for self-protection. As we increasingly get to know ourselves and find the place to explore our genuine feelings and reactions to what is happening in our relationship, we also get in touch with the healing source that will help us communicate our most genuine self.
Accessing New Emotions Changes Our Relationship:
As new emotions get accessed and communicated to our partner, we also get new responses from our partner. Whereas I formerly might only have communicated my resentment at my partner for being forgetful and not paying attention, I can now instead speak from a place of my loneliness and my wish for more closeness. Because of this change in my self-awareness and my attempt to communicate what I really feel, my partner is likely to feel more tender and soft feelings toward me. Instead of feeling criticized and not good enough, my partner can now hear that they are wanted and special, and can therefore feel safe enough to provide me with the closeness I want.
In this way the emotionally focused couples therapist is always helping partners spot and get in touch with what they are really feeling, and helping them turn to each other to speak from this more genuine place.
A Happy Ending and A New Beginning:
As couples get more comfortable with being who they really are, rather than hiding behind a wall and keeping their real feelings to themselves, the entire relationship begins to change. Now, instead of leading with anger, I can lead with my softer emotions, and this brings my partner closer, rather than makes my partner want to hide or defend. And now, instead of hiding and defending, my partner can feel more comfortable accessing and expressing their need to feel valued and their fear of not being good enough, which previously made them shut down and pull away.
With access to these new emotions, couples can begin to talk about the real issues that underlie most of their everyday arguments. They can now talk about their relationship proper, instead of why the other partner left the milk out, or why the other partner never seems to be pleased.
With access to a fuller spectrum of emotions, couples can now talk about their longings for closeness, and express when their pride feels wounded. When both partners feel supported by each other to be more fully who they are, differences in styles and personal preferences can be negotiated without breaking the fundamental bond that makes both feel like they are valued and loved.
If you would like to learn more about increasing your emotional awareness to improve your marriage or relationship, check out Sue Johnson's not-so-artificial self-help book: Hold Me Tight:
For more information about emotionally-focused couples therapy, check out my other article:
Does couples therapy really work? Learn about Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT): One of the most well-researched approaches to couples therapy