There are many different approaches to helping couples, whether they be young or old, seasoned or new, in conflict or just trying to sharpen their communication skills. I have found great joy and hopefulness through the lens of emotion focused therapy.
What is Emotion Focused Therapy?
Developed by Dr. Susan Johnson, Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) acknowledges that couples feel most secure and connected in their relationship when they trust that the other partner is easy to access, reliable, and engaged. She notes that during a couples conflict, what their emotions are truly communicating are these questions: Are you there for me? If I need you will you come? If I need reassurance can you give it to me?
These questions are based upon Attachment Principles. Attachment theory honors that we as humans were made to have secure connections with others and that the way we attach to one another begins during childhood. Unlike other approaches that say, “don’t get too attached,” or, “the only person you can depend on is yourself,” attachment theory says that when we feel securely connected, we can then go off on our own and, “take over the world.”
EFT does not ignore emotions, but rather encourages curiosity and compassion towards your partner’s emotions. The emotions of anger, sadness, joy, shame and fear, can let us know that your partner does not feel securely attached and is looking to be reconnected.
Steps of Emotions Focused Therapy:
When meeting with couples, I begin by asking each person to describe what they feel is the reason for them coming to therapy. I’ll ask the couple how they met and try to focus on the positives of the relationship. Then, I’ll introduce EFT and the attachment principles.
Each person in the couple will have the opportunity to complete a short questionnaire on their attachment style. We’ll reflect on where they first started to notice this style and to see if it has changed over time. Then we will reflect on how accessible, reliable and engaged each person feels towards the other person.
Next, we’ll explore a conflict that they have experienced and we will start to name the pattern of their interactions during their conflict. This by far is one of the most powerful moments of EFT work. Slowing down and taking note of what each person’s emotions are (as opposed to focusing on the content of the fight) is how couples can begin to express and heal from their attachment wounds.
Couples find hope in this work together with the EFT approach because they instantly begin to shift the blame away from their partner and instead towards the pattern. By noticing and naming that pattern, they begin to see that they have a common enemy. In addition, it softens their interactions with one another as they recognize that when one person is, “protesting,” they are really asking, “are we in this together?” The person who withdraws or appears to be disengaging is doing so because they feel that they, “will never be good enough.”
This approach offers hope because it focuses not only in changing the conflict pattern, but also encouraging a healthy way of repairing/reconnecting. The goal is not to stop all conflicts from happening but to decrease the level of injury that it causes each person as well as to offer hope that, “we are still in this together.”
Although I am most interested in working with couples who are early along in their journey or are looking for some tips to strengthen their marriage, we have plenty of therapists who would love to work with you, through any stage of any relationship. The security you feel in your marriage can not only help you to take on the stressors of the world, but can also heal childhood wounds from your relationship with your parent/guardian or from trauma. There’s no time like the present to try counseling. Call today!
Written by therapist Pamela Larkin