What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?
Introduction – the distressed couple
Falling in love is the exciting part, but staying in love can be challenging. As the ebbs and flows of making a living and life fill up our time and space, forming a deep and long-lasting bond takes work. As couples clock in their time together, trouble can surface on the horizon, from communication challenges to carving out one-on-one time.
The excitement of the relationship that brought you together starts to dwindle, and one partner may feel disconnected and the other lonely. As more time passes, the pain of being emotionally distant gets stronger and stronger. Eventually, when both partners feel disconnected or perceive distance or separation, partners fear losing each other and the relationship. Each partner will protest this disconnection in different ways.
One may show anger and contempt while the other may be withdrawn and non-responsive to bids of connection, secretly hoping by staying withdrawn it will help the relationship. Or both can show anger and will fight with increasing velocity and volume. Your arguments revolve around the same thing, or your statements go around in circles. Partners start to feel unheard or misunderstood, causing more distress and disconnection.
You are trying to navigate back to the love and connection you once had, but when you express your needs, it is ignored or dismissed. Finally, when attempts to be heard and understood fall on deaf ears, the other option is to withdraw from the argument and try again later. When repeated attempts to reconnect fail yet again, withdrawing from the relationship may be the only option. Partners are left wondering, 'where did we go wrong, we use to be so in love'. How can I/we move from feeling hopeless and lonely to a hopeful and loving relationship again?
Can Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) help?
The simple answer is yes. At the end of the day, all couples want to know:
- Are you Accessible when I need you?
- Are you able to Respond when I call?
- Can you Engage with me when I miss you?
- ARE you there for me?
- Do I matter to you?
The message of EFT is simple: Forget about learning "communication skills", analysing your early childhood in great detail, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, it is important to recognise that in close relationships, you are inevitably emotionally attached to and depend on each other in difficult moments. This is very much in a way that a child is relying on a parent, for caring, soothing, support and safety.
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?
At the heart of EFT is 60 years of attachment theory. Attachment theory says humans are mammals that are hard-wired for bonding. When we feel love and closeness, we feel safe in our relationships. When we feel disconnected, we experience fear of abandonment and rejection, and we long for connection. We respond to separation distress by either pushing, demanding, shutting down, turning away or turning against.
These primal responses to separation distress are adopted from the cradle to the grave. We use the same strategies habitually because this is our best attempt to cope with primal panic, fear or isolation. But when we feel not alone, and someone is here for us, stressful situations feel less like an uphill struggle. Therefore, even though EFT originally started as a couples therapy model, today EFT is recognised as one overarching model with three modalities: Emotionally Focused Therapy for Individuals (EFIT), Couples (EFCT) and Families (EFFT).
Attachment theory and research provides the EFT therapist and the couple a road map to help clients understand the rigid and negative interpersonal communication patterns that create distress in their relationship. This road map quickly helps to get to the root of their struggle. When the negative pattern/cycle of the relationship is understood, the process can be disrupted, repaired and healed.
The goal of EFT is to work towards secure attachment. EFT helps clients learn how to provide a sense of emotional safety, support and comfort for each other. EFT has substantial empirical validation making it the leading edge and gold standard for therapy with research showing 70 to 75% of people move from distress to recovery; 90% show significant improvement and the results are long-lasting and positive.
Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT)
Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy works towards secure attachment for individuals. At the core of an individual, is a need to depend and rely on someone to feel safe. During stressful times, without one or two people to be securely attached to, the individual will feel incredibly vulnerable.
EFIT can be incredibly helpful for a number of issues including mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and trauma; relationship conflict; substance abuse and other addictions. The focus of EFIT is not to help the individual problem solve or fix the situation. The individual client works together with the EFIT therapist to reshape and reframe their problems as their best attempts for connection. Together the client and the therapist can build security and resilience and find alternative ways to seek connection.
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT)
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy focuses on repairing and rebuilding family bonds. Relationships with parents, siblings and other family members go through transition as the family grows up. Some families realign their relationships and responses to the changing demands and stresses in their family. When families are not able to realign, they find themselves in repetitive patterns of conflict, distress and disconnection.
Often, the core of family distress and dysfunction happens when the powerful bond that exists between parent and child becomes weakened and broken. In EFFT, the therapist views the interaction of the family through the attachment lens.
The therapist and family move towards creating new family interactions by increasing parental accessibility and responsiveness to the children ultimately enhancing the sense of attachment, open communication and a sense of belonging and security. It is never too late to seek family therapy and EFFT can also be helpful in families where children have already grown up and may even have families of their own.
Can EFT work with different populations?
With increasing globalisation, immigration and changing attitudes towards mental health, today's populations are becoming increasingly diverse. EFT is found to be beneficial for diverse populations and for clients ranging from different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities, older couples, consensually non-monogamous couples and same-sex couples.
How does EFT work?
There are three stages in EFT. Both EFIT and EFFT uses the same three stages as well. Below is an example of how the three stages work for EFT for couples.
Stage one: Assessment and cycle de-escalation
- With an EFT therapist, clients learn to recognise negative patterns or 'Demon Dialogue' of 'attack-attack', 'attack-withdraw' or 'withdraw-withdraw' that play out in arguments.
- The clients will quickly recognise the cycle is the enemy and not each other, and the negative cycle starts to de-escalate.
Stage two: Changing interaction patterns and creating new bonds
- Clients understand they can stop the negative pattern and begin the path to restoring the bond and connection.
- Partners/family members learn to regulate their emotions and 'internal cycle of distress', including their sense of failure and self-criticism triggered by their personal history, stress or negative view of self.
- Partners/family members learn to voice and express their attachment needs and define their emotions.
- They also learn to listen and accept each other's needs and emotions, essentially creating a new interactional pattern.
Stage three: Consolidation and integration
- Clients work to apply their new interactional pattern and communication style.
- Old problems are revisited and discussed in light of the new interactional pattern.
- Finally, clients will consolidate their new skills with a new sense of closeness and a deeper bond.
What happens in sessions?
During the session, the clients and the EFT therapist will collaborate to uncover the negative pattern in the relationship. The clients are the expert of their relationship, and the EFT therapist acts as a guide to help clients towards a safe connection.
When uncovering the negative cycle, the EFT therapist avoids blame by focusing on the unproductive negative pattern and each person's positive desire to improve their life and/or relationship. Partners or family members will learn to heal and move past hurtful events in their life and relationship, and years of arguing and distress.
As the negative pattern becomes more apparent, the EFT therapist helps clients be more open with each other and help make their relationship safer. Partners and family members will experience feeling heard and understood.
With the help of the EFT therapist, clients learn how to repair the negative cycle. The clients will practice the new positive pattern during the session by learning how to respond and positively express needs. This helps the clients to navigate their relationship back to emotional safety, connection and bonding.
When a new and positive pattern replaces the old negative pattern, partners or family members also learn how to quickly repair disagreements and turn towards each other for comfort.
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