Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) is based on a simple premise derived from attachment theory: human beings need emotional connection. We all have a basic need to feel loved, valued, and respected. We long to believe that we’re worthwhile and lovable despite our flaws. We need to believe that we matter to our partners and that they’ll be there for us when we need them.
When couples find themselves ‘stuck’, ‘in a rut,’ or constantly arguing, it’s often the result of a breakdown in emotional safety and connection. When a breakdown occurs, our fundamental psychological needs are not being fully met—which can be extremely painful. As EFT expert Dr. Sue Johnson says, humans beings are wired for connection. Nothing is more toxic than emotional isolation.
When we feel disconnected from our loved ones or feel like our primary attachment relationship is threatened, we panic. When couples are happy and securely attached, both partners feel comfortable asking to have their needs met, and are able to do so in a way that elicits a supportive response from their partner. When the relationship is rocky, though, we don’t always know how to ask for what we need, and may turn to coping strategies that further alienate us from our partner. For example, we might protest the disconnection, becoming critical and controlling as we try to force our partner to respond. We might withdraw, shut down, and pull away in order to protect ourselves and to avoid further conflict. These instinctive but maladaptive coping methods often lead couples into negative patterns of interaction.
One such pattern is known as ‘pursue-withdraw’. In this scenario, the more one partner pushes, the more the other partner pulls away. The more the second partner pulls away, the more the first partner protests feeling shut out. This cycle has the potential to continue indefinitely, and couples can get stuck in the cycle without getting to the heart of the matter. Rather than expressing our loneliness and fear that we don’t matter, we nag our partners that they don’t spend enough time at home. Rather than expressing our hurt when our partner is critical, we stay late at work to avoid coming home to an argument. We say something cruel just to get our partner’s attention, or go silent during a fight because we’re paralyzed with the fear that we will never ‘get it right’ with the person we love.
We live in a world where expressing our emotions is perceived as “weak” and can get us labeled as “oversensitive” or “irrational.” No wonder a lot of us have trouble connecting with how we truly feel and expressing it to our partners! Furthermore, depending on how emotions were dealt with in our family of origin, we may have learned that it isn’t safe to let down our guard and be vulnerable with those closest to us. The good news: Even if our early experiences prevented us from learning to truly trust or connect with others, it is never too late. Our intimate relationships as adults are the perfect avenue through which to learn to dance to a different tune.
When working with couples using EFT, I help partners move out of their negative cycle of interaction and into a positive one that fosters love, safety, and emotional connection. The first step in this process involves helping the couple identify and become aware of the negative cycle they’ve fallen into. Specifically, partners learn to stop blaming one another and to place blame squarely on the negative cycle of communication. Next, partners learn to identify their respective roles within the cycle, as well as the strong feelings that drive their moves in the relationship dance. Finally, partners learn to turn to one another, express their deepest fears and longings, and ask one another for what they truly need in order to feel safe, connected, and loved. As an EFT therapist, I help partners learn to reach for one another in a new and honest way. After moving through these steps, couples find themselves in a new, positive pattern of interaction, in which they feel safe and connected. They are less easily triggered by one another, and are able to recover quickly from blips because they know, deep down, that they can count on one another.
EFT applies to all forms of couples and dyads regardless of sexual orientation or religious beliefs. EFT also applies to relationships between family members or between friends.
Jessica Kokin is a staff therapist at the MindSpace Clinic. She trained extensively with Emotion-Focused Therapy founder Sue Johnson, and specializes in EFT for couples. To book an appointment with Jessica, call (514) 481-0317.