Lots of people have been asking me what couples therapy is all about lately. I wanted to share this piece I wrote for My Wellbeing* that explains the type of couples therapy that I practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).
*This piece has been clipped! Check out the My Wellbeing blog to see the full version.
How would you describe Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?
EFT is an evidenced-based therapy approach that focuses on the ways in which our interpersonal interactions get organized into patterns and cycles. Though the approach is traditionally used for couples therapy, the concepts can be used with families and individuals who want to explore important interpersonal relationships and relationship patterns.
The goal of EFT is to work toward what’s called “secure attachment.” That is, the idea that each partner can provide a sense of security, protection, and comfort for the other, and can be available to support their partner in creating a positive sense of self and the ability to effectively regulate their own emotions.
This is different than other types of couples therapy where you might be teaching skills, tools, and scripts to a couple to use to improve their communication. EFT folks are kind of under the impression that when our emotions are heightened during an argument, it’s too hard to remember those tools and they get tossed out the window. It’s really about restructuring and finding an understanding about why and how we get into those patterns in the first place so that we can interrupt them.
The ultimate outcome of treatment involves a new sense of self and a new way of relating to your partner, which in turn, evokes new responses from that partner.
How hands on is the therapist in a EFT-style therapy?
The EFT therapist is definitely more hands-on and is characterized as active, engaged, and flexible. The role of the EFT therapist is to serve as a “process consultant,” a “choreographer,” and most of all, an egalitarian collaborator who works with the couple to discover the possibilities of the couple’s relationship right alongside them.
The EFT therapist is definitely not a detached blank slate or passive observer; nor do they act as coaches or experts of the couple or their needs.
The EFT therapist style is intentional, validating, powerfully empathetic, which is exactly how it is possible for partners to feel accepted and safe to explore their emotions.
Please share three or more issue areas EFT is particularly helpful in working through. Why do you think that is?
Lack of intimacy/connectedness
Stress brought on by life transition and/or family change
EFT is particularly helpful in these areas because helps get to the core issues underlying the conflict and the relationship distress and helps couples to understand why their emotions are heightened as a result of such stress, rather than shame them for “getting so emotional about it.”
How should a therapy-goer prepare for a EFT session? What type of work is entailed?
Because so much of successful treatment outcomes have to do with the therapeutic relationship, one concrete recommendation for preparing would be for a client to try to have a consultation call prior to the session and get a feel for their initial comfort level with the therapist. If the conversation feels safe, comfortable, and somewhat natural (given the inherent constraints of brief phone calls with strangers), that would be a great preparatory task.
After that, I would encourage EFT-bound therapy-goers to come with an open mind. Depending on your past experiences with individual or couple therapy, EFT might look a little different than what you expected. There are going to be less worksheets, prompts, and homework, and more feeling, expressing, listening, and interacting throughout the session.
Of course, one might also prepare, like any other therapy session, by spending some time thinking about the issues you would like to work on, improve, or areas where you’re feeling stuck.
What is your favorite thing about EFT?
My favorite thing about EFT is the style of the therapist. When I was trained in the technique, the therapist presentation and style is a mix of being both incredibly warm, yet also very talented in using warmth and understanding for gentle confrontation that helps clients bring heightened awareness to strong, important feelings that inform recurring behaviors and interactions.
I also love how the attachment theory framework allows the therapist to reframe clients’ defensiveness, hurt, anger, shame, etc. as a natural reaction, rooted in how much they care for and need their partner for safety and security that is necessary to nearly all humans, and is hard-wired in us from infancy.
What advice might you give to a therapy-seeker wondering if EFT is right for them?
I would first encourage anyone who’s wondering to start by reaching out to a potential EFT therapist for a consultation call. This can really be a low-risk/low-investment way to get a feel for the therapist and ask any questions that are coming to mind. As mentioned above, so much of EFT has to do with the way in which the therapist relates to the client and how the therapist works to make the client feel comfortable in the therapy experience.
If the consultation feels good and you are able to get some initial questions answered in a way that feels comfortable for you, trying out a first session with the open mind.
What I wouldn’t do is let all this talk about “emotions” throw you off. Some might have a negative association with that word and can possible deter people who might feel that they aren’t an “emotional person.” The degree to which you see yourself as outwardly emotional or connected with your feelings before trying out EFT is really not important. It is the task of the therapist to spend the initial phases of the treatment focusing on relationship-building and creating a safe bond with the therapist for all individuals in the therapy room, which forms the foundation for safe exploration and understanding of emotion.
Interested in trying couples therapy with your partner?