Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples - An Effective Short-term Approach to Relationship Problems

Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples is a short-term (8-20 sessions) structured approach that was originally developed in the 1980s by Dr Leslie Greenberg and Dr Sue Johnson in North America. There is significant research on this approach and it has been found that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and that the gains are sustained for months to years following the end of treatment. As such, Emotionally Focused Therapy is an evidence based treatment protocol.

It is a humanistic and experiential approach which draws substantially from the principles of emotion theory and attachment theory. It is underpinned by the belief that emotions have an inherently adaptive potential which, if activated, can help the couple change their difficult emotional states and experiences.

Emotions are associated with our key needs and can alert us to situations important to our development and well-being. They can also steer us in these important situations to take action towards meeting our needs. Attachment theory views emotions as essential in the experience of self; in both adaptive and maladaptive functioning and in therapeutic change.

Attachment is sustained by responsiveness and availability of the partner or attachment figure, and by emotional engagement and contact. When those are felt to be uncertain, attachment becomes insecure and partners will fall into a pattern of protest, clinging, depression or despair and detachment. This is why interactions of distressed couples are usually characterized by negative cycles where one partner is pursuing while the other withdraws. These interactions can soon become stuck in rigid, dysfunctional patterns and stay that way until the underlying need for secure attachment is identified and addressed.

One of the therapist’s key tasks therefore is to help the couples identify and understand the underlying emotions that keep them stuck in those rigid positions and negative interaction cycles. Once these have been identified, the therapist facilitates the development of a different kind of interaction within the session which leads to change a reactive emotion with positive emotions of attachment. By transforming emotion with emotion, the Emotionally Focused therapist supports each partner in the exploration and expression of emotions that elicit compassion and connection, promotes soothing and helps clients deal with unstated and unmet attachment needs.

Clients are helped to better identify, experience, make sense of and flexibly manage their emotional experiences. The progressive change in the couple’s interactions happens by means of awareness, regulation, reflection, and transformation of emotion taking place within the context of an empathetically attuned relationship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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