Emotionally Focused Therapy



Emotionally Focused Therapy is a structured approach that aims to address relationship problems encountered mainly by couples, but also by families and individual[1]. The principles behind this form of treatment are based on attachment theory[2] which asserts that humans are seeking strong emotional bonds with others. When these bonds are threatened, a vicious cycle of criticism and anger and other negative emotions leaves the couple struggling to re-establish their connection. EFT seeks to strengthen the bond by using a multi-phase program.

Goals of Emotionally Focused Therapy

This form of therapy was developed by Sue Johnson in the 1980s. Back then, Johnson was a doctoral student assigned to see couples for therapy. She found it difficult to work with people having relationship problems because they were either very angry or distant and not willing to open up. She began taping them. After analyzing the recordings, Johnson came to the conclusion that most of the issues the couples were dealing with were related to the attachment theory described by John Bowlby.

Her findings suggested that behavior which to the outside world looked provocative, negative and even outrageous was fueled by the need of connection. The goal of EFT was to decode this behavior and reframe it. The main goals EFT are to expand and reorganize key emotional responses. By creating new cycles of interaction, partners can form a secure bond.

When is Emotionally Focused Therapy Used?

The attachments formed between people who are involved in a close relationship are so intense that the human brain codes them as “safety”. The brain will label any perception of distance or separation will as dangerous because it jeopardizes the partner sense of security. The fear center of our brain, located in the limbic system, is always on guard. If the information it receives is unfamiliar, it will go into a state of alert and anxiety level rise.

“Throughout our lifetimes, our limbic systems do not mature. As a result, when our emotional ‘buttons’ are pushed, we retain the ability to react to incoming stimulation as though we were 2 year olds, even when we are adults”, explains neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor. As a result, our perception of attachments as a way to stay safe does not diminish in time.

Furthermore, every couple is bound to experience missteps in their relationship. In the beginning, the connection is intense, but, over time, the level of attentiveness naturally drops, creating a feeling that the connection has been damaged. Couples begin to fight and if they don’t manage to find common ground, the fights will take over the relationship and leave the partners feeling alone. EFT is believed to offer a road map that can help them understand how to avoid letting the fights surface and take the wheel of the relationship, therapists argue.

EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centres and hospital clinics and many different cultural groups throughout the world. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness.

How Emotionally Focused Therapy Works

Practitioners who use emotionally focused therapy follow the three-phase, nine-step program. Before engaging in the program, the therapist must establish a good relationship with both the clients and create a supportive environment for the couple to open up and be comfortable with expressing strong emotions freely.

The first phase is called “asses and deescalate”[3]. In these sessions the couple must identify the conflict, the cycle where conflict is expressed. Then they are urged to access unacknowledged emotions. The final step of this phase is reframe, become allies against the cycle, not its victims.

In the next phase, the couple must change events, more specific, they must create corrective emotional experiences. The steps to achieve this are: promote identification of disowned needs, promote partner acceptance and facilitate expression of needs and wants.

The final phase is aimed at change and consolidation. Clients must find new solutions for solving old problems, which should be easier since the emotional attachment conflicts have been resolved.

Beth Levine, a private practitioner of EFT says that working with couples is complicated.

“Without a theory, you can’t see the one thread that ties the picture together. EFT gives you an idea of where to go and what to do. It offers a road map for understanding human relationships”, she argues.

Practitioners of EFT say the method is highly effective and has been empirically validated. An impressive 90% of couples experienced at least some improvement in their relationship[4].


[1] INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR EXCELLENCE IN EMOTIONALLY FOCUSED THERAPY (ICEEFT) – What is EFT. Retrieved August 19, 2013 from http:// iceeft.com

[2] MARGARITA TARTAKOVSKY, Emotionally Focused Therapy: Bolstering Couples’ Emotional Bonds. Retrieved August 19, 2013 from http:// http://psychcentral.com/

[3] Lynn K. Jones, Emotionally Focused Therapy With Couples — The Social Work Connection, Social Work Today Vol. 9 No. 3 P. 18

[4] Chicago Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy – For clients. Retrieved August 19, 2013 from http://chicagoeft.com

Help Us Improve This Article

Did you find an inaccuracy? We work hard to provide accurate and scientifically reliable information. If you have found an error of any kind, please let us know by sending an email to contact@theravive.com, please reference the article title and the issue you found.

Share Therapedia With Others