Switch to Accessible Site
baby's hand being held by adult hand

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

 I often incorporate the use Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFCT) sometimes referred to simply as “EFT” into my method of helping couples. This method helps couples to re-create the trust and closeness they once had for each other. 

EFT, developed by Susan Johnson and Les Greenberg, is based on John Bowlby’s Attachment research over 60 years ago. Bowlby found that humans and higher primate animals appeared to have an innate need to feel attached to and comforted by significant others.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is a treatment approach whose goals are:

to reduce distress in relationships

create reconnection between partners

create a safe environment for couples

create more secure attachment bonds between partners

 A Theory of Love and Adult Attachment

 We are genetically programmed to want to be close and intimate with someone. This is easily seen in children with with their caregivers. Adult attachment relationships are believed to have the same survival function as the mother-child bond, since ideally these attachments can provide the same love, comfort, support, and protection throughout the lifespan. However, due to our relationship histories, and the negative interaction cycles we get into with our partners, many of us have difficulties with trust and expressing emotion to those who mean the most to us.

Attachment theory suggests we all have this innate and motivating force, to be securely connected to significant others. While society often denigrates and negates our needs for other people, belittling "dependency" needs, attachment is actually a sign of health that fosters autonomy and self-confidence. The more we can depend on others in a healthy way, the more secure we feel and therefore, the more independent we can be.

In Attachment Theory the bond between parent and child is determined by the parents’ capability to be responsive to their child their child’s physical and emotions needs. Depending on the ability of the parent to create safety and how the child reacts to it, the bond can be secure or insecure. A child needs to trust in its parent in order to feel that the relationship is a safe haven and by extension that the world is a safe and secure place. Children need to innately believe that their parent will be there for them when they are in need. This need for attachment is evolutionarily hard-wired in all humans.

We often don’t think about attachment in adult relationships, yet it is equally important. Of course an attachment in adulthood is different in that it is reciprocal. A parent does not typically expect their child to reciprocate a sense of safety but a significant partner looks for reciprocity, even if they are not entirely aware of it.

Another difference in adult relationships is the fact that there is a sexual component. Here too we see that the need for safety and security determines just how comfortable the sexual relationship is between partners. “No safety, no sex” is a common refrain within adult relationships.

This means that adults, like children have a basic need for a secure connection to a significant other. The classic Winnie the Pooh story conveys this need to feel sure a significant other is there for us:

Secure Base

The second aspect of attachment love is called a “secure base.” It means that when people develop an attachment love with someone they feel more secure. Children don’t want to leave the presence of their parents. Adults feel secure when they are in each other’s presence. They begin to live their lives around each other.  This is very different than being solely dependent on your partners.  The attachment, that is being referred to is a healthy attachment.

Simply put, a secure base is someone who gives us added confidence to explore the world, turning back to that person for strength and comfort because we know he or she is there in times of need. In addition, a safe haven is someone we can return to during times of distress for soothing comfort. In adulthood, we need our significant other, rather than a parent or caregiver, to be a source of soothing comfort. EFT focuses on this "circle of attachment," that is, we need to be able to confidently launch out into the world from our secure base, explore the world with a sense of confidence and safety, signal to return to our significant other when we are distressed, and, ultimately, return to our significant other for soothing comfort.

In fact, among these above three ingredients, emotional responsiveness best predicts couple stability and satisfaction. In EFT language, couples need one another to be, accessible during times of need, emotionally responsive when they reach out for soothing comfort, and fully engaged, that is, focused, attuned, and attentive to each other.

At the very heart of a marriage or significant romantic relationships is the question “Are you there for me?” Can I count on you to be physically there if I am in need, can I count on you to be there for me if I am in need emotionally? Can I count on you to acknowledge my need for safety and security in our relationship so that I can feel free to show my true Self? Can this safety allow me to explore the world and find my place in it? In relationships each partner’s accessibility and responsiveness to the other’s emotional cues determines whether or not there is a sense of a secure base from which to move

Safe Haven

The third aspect is called “safe haven.” When a child skins its knee, he or she will go running for a parent. The parent will hold the child and soothe the child until he or she calms down. The parent is a safe haven for the child. Similarly with adults, couples are safe havens or “best friends” for each other. They go to each other when there are problems or when they need someone for comfort or reassurance.

Once this safe haven and feelings of connection are reestablished, you will be better able to manage conflict and the painful or difficult feelings that will inevitably arise from time to time in a close relationship.  Each of you will be able to send clearer messages and will be better able to hear the other's perspective.  You will be better able to collaborate, problem-solve and compromise, in short, you will be more of a team

How Attachment Love Develops


Adult attachment love, in our culture, generally develops in the falling-in-love process. During it, couples share painful or embarrassing things, become vulnerable to each other and receive support and re-assurance from the other. In the process, they discover that they can rely on their prospective partner. Trust is created and an intimate, close, fulfilling attachment relationship is born.

When Couples Argue…

When couples argue about such issues as jealousy, sex or money, the origins of these arguments are usually some form of protest from one partner about not feeling connected, not trusting, not feeling safe or secure with the other partner. When those we are attached to are not available, or are not responding to our needs to feel close or supported, we feel distressed. We may become anxious or fearful, numb or distant.These behaviors can become habitual or rigid modes of reacting to our partners. Furthermore, these toxic behavior patterns seem to take on a life of their own as they cycle into repetitive couple’s interactions that cause much pain, injury, and/or despair.

When there is a lack of trust problems can exists:

The basic ingredient of adult attachment love is trust. So as you might guess, the problems occur when trust is:

Lost (through an affair, for example)

Doubted (through a series of lesser events)

Not very strong to begin with (when a partner is predisposed not to trust because of past experiences).

When trust is not strongly present, couples tend to have negative, repetitive communication patterns. These are characterized by anger, withdrawal, defending one’s position, attacking the partner or combinations of these things. In the end both are angry or resentful, feel more distant and emotionally withdrawn, and feel sad, hurt, lonely and/or anxious. And on top of that, they never really are able to discuss the issue at hand or solve the problem, which started the argument. As this “ war dance” continues partners view each other in increasingly negative terms.

The War Dance

Most often couples trigger each other into repetitive, cyclical arguments, which end up in anger, resentment, distance and distrust. It is a maddening cycle of “dance”, which can be triggered by little, seemingly unimportant events. But it keeps couples from talking about the things, which matter most. My goal is for you to become more connected to your partner, and finding more helpful was to communicate so both you and your partner’s needs are met.

Couples often do not know how they got into the argument. One person says something, the other almost automatically responds. It is as if a computer virus has taken over. Neither one seems to be able to respond differently until the cycle runs its course. Each one is triggered by the responses of their partner.

It works like this. Frank does not call Olivia to tell her he will be home late for work. Olivia is not sure she can trust Frank (for whatever reason). She expresses her frustration to him for not calling.  Frank feels an attack (a sign that he is not sure about her) and reacts by going into a defense mode. Olivia translates this to mean that he is discounting her concerns, as an example she becomes angry and complains harder.  Frank becomes angry and defends more or attacks her. It ends when one or both of them walk away.

So there is a trigger, a reaction that is a trigger for the other partner, a reaction, which is the trigger for the first partner and so on.

Sometimes the war dance varies in pattern. Every couple has a somewhat different pattern. But this war dance is the major problem. Couples tend to blame each other. And while no one is perfect, the war dance is what destroys relationships.

We focus on these patterns and work on changing these negative interaction cycles in a non-judgmental environment.

EFT works on changing negative interaction cycles in a non-judgmental environment

In a relatively short time, couples begin to recognize and eventually express their needs for love, support, protection, and comfort that are often hidden or disguised by the harsh or angry words used in repetitive self-defeating patterns of conflict or arguments with each other.

Partners begin to “listen with the heart,” one of the cornerstones of EFT – which means listening not for the literal meaning of a partner’s words, but for the feelings that lie beneath. In return, the other partner is better able to respond from their heart in kind. This is the emotional focus of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.

 I view the building of “a safe haven” in your relationship as our primary task, and we will try to focus on your primary needs, to feel close, secure and responded to, which probably underlie most of your couple’s conflict.

 Once this safe haven and feelings of connection are reestablished, you will be better able to manage conflict and the painful or difficult feelings that will inevitably arise from time to time in a close relationship. Furthermore, without so much defensiveness, each of you will be able to send clearer messages and hear the other’s perspective, collaborate, compromise, and problem, solve.

 A Clear Direction

Strength of EFT is a clear sense of where we are going.  The primary goal is help couples become “best friends” with each other and to become a source of security, protection and comfort for the other.

How is this done? There are actually two different focuses. One focus is on slowing down the war dance and focusing on what a person thinks and feels. Between the trigger and the reaction, there is a complex reaction including:

Interpreting what the partner is saying

Feelings about this

Interpreting what the partner is saying about me

Feelings about this

My interpretation of myself

 Feelings about this

Reasons for my reactions

The idea is to help each person to slow down in order to experience and describe their full range of thoughts and feelings. As a result, a person tends to feel some relief and gains understanding about what why they are reacting. It also gives valuable clues about the attitudes and beliefs they hold about intimate relationships.

Another focus of the therapy is helping each person to express thoughts and feelings directly to their partner. During the course of the war dance, partners tend to communicate only one thing: anger and distrust. Yet they are experiencing a wide range of emotions, which they keep hidden. Couples often begin by talking almost exclusively to the therapist. The therapist will sum up the person’s feelings and thoughts and ask the partner to respond. As time goes on, each partner expresses more and more directly to their partner what they are going through. This can bring the partners closer together.

A part of this focus might be called emotional responding. Often a person hears that his or her partner is sad, for example. He or she might respond by trying to talk them out of it, by distracting them, by telling them what to do, by trying to solve the problem or by telling them about a similar situation they experienced. Emotional responding is none of these things. It is telling your partner what your emotional reaction was to his or her communication. “I am happy you are relieved.” “I feel bad when you told me that story.” Almost invariably, this kind of communications brings partners closer together.

This Method Works

Published studies show that about 90% of the couples suffering marital distress improved after EFCT. By contrast, most mainstream therapies record between 40% and 50% success rates, with significant numbers of couples falling back into the old, unhappy patterns. In short, EFT for couples work.

 EFT is considered the most  “empirically supported” methods for working with couples, which means a lot of research has shown clearly that EFT works. EFT Couples Counseling can change your relationship for the better.  90% of distressed couples that complete EFT experience significant improvement in their relationship. Almost three-fourths can be classified as “recovered” by the end of treatment, having made gains so significant they no longer qualify as distressed.

 Perhaps most importantly, EFT Couples Counseling appears to create lasting change. Unlike in other forms of couples therapy, where the positive effects begin to drop off almost immediately at the end of treatment, couples who complete a course of EFT maintain their gains–and even continue to improve on them–over the next 24 months, without any additional treatment.

EFT Couples Counseling isn’t for everyone. If there is ongoing violence in your relationship, EFT is not advisable form of therapy.