Emotionally Focused Therapy: What is it?

Photo credit:  thestephenjames

Photo credit: thestephenjames

My husband and I were newly married. He was a pretty stealthy conversationalist; often told that he would make a good lawyer, he was able to remember every single detail of what was said in a conversation. I was the opposite. Equally as passionate, but far from able to remember every detail, I found myself lost in my own overwhelm and frustration and unable to ever “win” a conflict.

One afternoon, my husband and I were in an argument, and I did something different. It wasn’t thought through or premeditated. In the moment, I simply stopped talking. Maybe I was tired or maybe I was just done with the way things had always gone, but I sat on the bed, still frustrated, and quietly said to him, “I don’t know what to say. When you have the ‘right’ answer all the time, I feel backed into a corner.” That moment was a turning point in our lives together. My husband was let in (even if just a little) to my internal experience of him in conflict.

Emotionally Focused Therapy is an approach therapists will often take when working with couples who get stuck in patterns of relating and cannot figure out how to move forward in their relationship. Honestly, this is 99% of couple conflict and disconnection: feeling stuck in the way things are and knowing its not the way they want it to be.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT for short) comes from an attachment perspective which says that we each have a way of relating to others, the world, and ourselves that informs and powers our choices/actions and feelings. It explains that when we feel our attachment “alarms” going off, we are experiencing a break or rift in our attachment to our partner, and so we act in ways to protect ourselves.

In feeling cornered by my husband, I was retreating (or withdrawing as the model would describe) in order to protect myself. Even in my deepest hurt, I longed for deep connection. And in my withdrawing, I was protecting that connection from the hurt I was experiencing.

My husband will tell you that this was a significant moment for him. Because of my random admission of how his approach felt to me, he was given a window into how his approach was not working. He told me that he didn’t want me to feel cornered, and we worked on how to do things differently. Him being able to slow down his approach so I don’t feel like I’m being prosecuted, and me engaging more and opening up about what is happening for me internally.

This is what EFT does; it explores the patterns of relating (withdrawing, as I was, or pursuing, as my husband was) and how these patterns (called Negative Interaction Cycles) impact how we connect in relationship. An EFT therapist will then begin to work with you to notice these patterns over several sessions by slowing down the interaction to a crawl to explore and inspect the nuances of your connection. We can’t change what we don’t know, right? Once we begin understanding how our cycle works, we work to try something different.

This will look like getting the withdraw-er to engage and helping the pursuer to be more gentle. We do this through conversations with the therapist as well as the therapist directing conversations between partners. The idea is to practice these new interactions so that we can really try a new thing, rather than getting stuck in the old.

Emotionally Focused Therapy can also be used with families and even in individual therapy. Its all about discovering what our underlying attachment needs are and how we show up for them in our relationships. Often, just discovering what our attachment style is and how this affects our view of ourselves and others is impactful enough to make change. When you add in the component of our interaction cycles, we can really make lasting change!

Curious how Emotionally Focused Therapy can work for you? Connect with us and schedule an appointment to find out!


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Erin is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate passionate about empowering women to create vibrant lives full of joy, helping them make peace with their story, and coming alongside couples to overcome patterns and build relationships they’ve always wanted. Erin enjoys exploring the PNW with her husband and two kids, finding the best foodie spots, or reading a good book. Find out how you can work with Erin here.

Erin Sanchez, MS, LMFTA