What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a short-term, research-based approach to treating relationship problems with individuals, couples and families. Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson of the Ottawa Couples and Family Institute, EFT is based on attachment research which shows that humans, like other higher primates, have an inborn need for reliable attachment figures to whom they can turn for comfort and support.

The need for secure attachments is lifelong and serves the same survival function for adults as for children. Secure attachments between partners can ideally provide the nurturing and protection which is needed throughout their lives. However, many people have difficulty trusting others and expressing their most vulnerable feelings and needs, due to their early or more recent relationship histories.

When partners do not show their vulnerable parts, it is easy for them to misinterpret each other’s signals for attachment and get caught in a negative “dance” or cycle. For example, a partner who is feeling alone or neglected may pursue the other with angry criticism, which may triggers the other’s sense of inadequacy or rejection. The latter may withdraw defensively, leading the pursuer to feel increasingly abandoned, in an ever-escalating cascade of angry emotion and behaviors.

These negative patterns of interaction can become repetitive, gradually putting distance between partners. The cycle causes unnecessary emotional pain in relationships and makes it difficult to resolve everyday problems involving money, sex, or child-raising. Usually couples argue excessively about such issues when they have unspoken needs for connection or fears about trusting and being vulnerable with each other.

It is normal for both children and adults to feel distressed and “protest” if they perceive that their attachment figure is not available or responsive to their needs for connection and support. When feeling insecure over periods of time, anyone can become anxious and irritable, or numb and detached.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy, I provide a safe, nonjudgmental place for couples and families to focus on identifying and changing their negative interactional cycle . The primary goal is for the relationship or marriage to become a “safe haven” in which you can turn to each other for support and comfort in a vulnerable way. Through EFT, people are quickly able to understand how their negative “dance” gets triggered when their “raw spots” or vulnerable places are touched. They soon see how their angry or withdrawn reactions are hiding their unspoken needs to be valued and protected.

As therapy proceeds, you will begin to trust and take the risk of expressing your needs and fears in ways that can be heard and responded to by your loved one. Couples and family members begin to listen not just to the literal meaning but to the feelings beneath each other’s words and behaviors. This ability to listen “with the heart” and express feelings “from the heart” represents a dramatic shift in the relationship dance, leading to ever-increasing trust and responsiveness, and increased connectedness.

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With greater trust and less defensiveness, you will be better able to send clearer messages and hear each other’s perspective. In turn, you will find it easier to collaborate to solve problems and compromise. You will be better able to manage the occasional conflicts and difficult feelings that inevitably arise in any close relationship. Your relationship will become the safe haven that you both have been longing for.

Research on the benefits of EFT:
EFT has been shown to be effective in helping three out of four couples recover from significant distress. An amazing 90% of couples report that EFT created improvements in their relationships. EFT has been studied in both inpatient and outpatient settings. It has been shown to be as effective as pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder, and the gains are long-lasting. EFT has also been studied with trauma survivors; not only does the couple’s relationship improve, but trauma survivors are better able to deal with symptoms of trauma, such as flashbacks and nightmares. EFT research also shows positive gains with couples where a partner is suffering from chronic illness.