Emotion-Focused Therapy: What is EFT Couples Therapy?
My fiancé, Brad and I have been in couples therapy for almost two years now, since around the time we got engaged. And it’s by far the best decision we’ve made together (besides being with each other). You see, being in a new stepmom role and in a blended family, and actually blending the family together, is rewarding work, yet so very difficult. Which is why we looked at getting extra support to be the best partners and parents we can be.
I wish more people would utilize couples therapy as a preventative measure, BEFORE things get bad, to the point where the relationship is irreparable. Just like going to the doctor or dentist to prevent health issues and cavities, therapy prevents dynamics from becoming unhealthy and toxic. Not only that, it helps you grow as a couple to have even MORE intimacy than you ever thought possible. It also helps you grow as individuals and heal unresolved childhood wounds.
Yep, you heard that right! Couples therapy, especially when it’s attachment-focused like EFT is, has the ability to help us heal our childhood and attachment wounds. So you can basically have the opportunity to heal all your shit — as long as both you and your partner are willing to put in the difficult work. And in conjunction with individual therapy, it can be SO POWERFUL.
The type of couples therapy we are doing is EFT (Emotion-Focused Therapy). Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, EFT focuses on the attachment theory, with the questions of A.R.E:
A – accessibility: “Can I reach you?”
R – responsiveness: “Do you care? and do you know how to soothe me?”
E – engagement: “Am I valued?”
Let’s dive in!
Unhappy couples say they primarily fight over money, kids, or sex. And couples in a second marriage would probably say something similar, but the ex and blended family dynamics may get thrown in there as well. Couples report that they cannot communicate, they blame their partner, and say the solution is their partner changing. Dr. Sue Johnson gives an example: “If Mary would just not get so emotional and listen to my arguments about our finances and the kids, we would get somewhere,” Brian tells me. “Well, if Brian would talk more and not just walk away, we wouldn’t fight. I think we are just growing apart here,” says Mary.
Johnson says, “After 25 years of doing couple therapy and couple research studies, I know that both Mary and Tim are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Submerged below is the massive real issue: both partners feel emotionally disconnected. They are watching their backs, feeling criticized, shut-out and alone. Underneath all the loud arguments and long silences, partners are asking each other the key questions in the drama of love: “Are you there for me? Do I and my feelings matter to you? Will you respond to me when I need you?” The answers to these questions, questions that are so hard to ask and so hard to hear in the heat of a fight, make the difference between emotional safety and emotional peril and starvation.
Research Studies on Love
Johnson goes on, “We know from all the hundreds of studies on love that have emerged during the past decade that emotional responsiveness is what makes or breaks love relationships. Happy stable couples can quarrel and fight, but they also know how to tune into each other and restore emotional connection after a clash. In our studies, we find that seven out of ten couples who receive Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT can repair their relationship. They do this by finding a way out of emotional disconnection and back into the safe loving contact that builds trust. But why can’t we all do this, even without a therapist? What gets in our way? The new science of love tells us.”
Our partner is our foundation in life. When this person is unavailable and unresponsive, we can spiral and become flooded by our emotions — sadness, anger, hurt and above all, fear may arise. This fear is wired in because we are wired for connection to survive. Johnson says, “Being able to rely on a loved one, to know that he or she will answer our call, is our innate survival code. Research is clear, when we sense that a primary love relationship is threatened, we go into a primal panic”
“There are only three ways to deal with our sense of impending loss and isolation. If we are in a happy, secure union, we accept the need for emotional connection and speak those needs directly in a way that helps their partner respond lovingly. If however we are in a wobbly relationship and are not sure how to voice our needs, we either angrily demand [things] and try to push our partner into responding, or we shut down and move away to protect ourselves.”
Lions, Tigers, and Demon Dialogues!
EFT focuses a lot on your patterns as a couple, which usually falls into one of three “Demon Dialogues” – and yes, they are as scary as they sound! “Demon Dialogues” is a phrase coined by Dr. Sue Johnson to describe the destructive cycles of conflict experienced by many couples. She reviews them in her book, Hold Me Tight.
These dialogues can take over your relationship. They keep couples in no-solution emotional starvation and insecurity. They create more and more resentment, caution and distance, similar to Dr. John Gottman’s 4 Horses of the Apocalypse, including: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness and Stonewalling, until we reach a point where we feel the only solution is to give up and bail out.
- Find the Bad Guy.
This dead-end pattern of mutual blame can keep a couple miles apart. Fights look like a “who gets to define who” contest. As Pam says, “I am waiting for his put down. I have my gun ready. Maybe I pull the trigger when he isn’t even coming for me.” Both partners define the other as uncaring or somehow defective. Everybody loses. But this attack-attack pattern is hard to keep up. It is usually the opening measure to the most common and ensnaring dance of all — the Protest Polka.
2. The Protest Polka.
Psychologists knew for years that this demand-withdraw dance leads to divorce, but they weren’t able to figure out why is it so widespread and so deadly. We now understand that potent emotions and compelling needs keep this pattern going: the wired-in need for emotional connection and the fear of rejection and abandonment are the culprit. Even if our brains know that we are somehow making things worse by criticizing or shutting our partner out, we cannot just switch off this longing and fear. “The more he refuses to talk to me or dismisses my feelings, the angrier I get and the more I poke him,” says Mia. “Anything to get a response from him.” Her partner Jim picks up, “And the more I hear that angry tone in her voice, the more I just hear that I can never please her. I just get hopeless and more silent.” It is this spiral that is the enemy, not the other partner, though neither partner recognizes this. Mia is protesting Jim’s distance. Jim is frantically trying to avoid her disapproval. They talk this way because they sense an alarming answer to the attachment question, “Are you there for me?” In the Protest Polka, each person, in an attempt to deal with his or her sense of emotional disconnection unwittingly confirms the other’s worst fears and keeps this spiral going. In the end, the demanding protesting partner begins to give up the struggle for connection, grieve the relationship and also move away. This leads into the last dance of all.
3. Freeze and Flee.
In this dance, both partners feel helpless. No one is reaching for anyone here. No one is taking any risks. Everyone runs for cover. In other relationships, this might be fine for a while, but with the people we love, this “no response” dance is excruciating. Indeed, the partners here aren’t really dancing at all–hey are sitting out. We are not wired to tolerate this kind of isolation. If nothing changes, the relationship is in free fall.
Can Things Get Better?
It’s important to remember that these patterns are the enemy, not your partner. We must become aware of them so we can call them out, pause, and choose a different way to respond. Brad and I get stuck in the Protest Polka, which we have labeled: “The Angry Robot” because I get upset and he withdraws. (Very common for women vs. men.) Or if we find ourselves stuck in it, we must try our best to pause, notice it, call it out and say, “We’re in The Angry Robot again. I don’t want to do this, let’s choose something different.” Or “Let’s take a break and come back to this later when we’re both calm.” And of course, making sure you actually commit to come back to the discussion later instead of ignoring it and sweeping it under the rug.
When partners caught in Demon Dialogues come in and ask Dr. Sue Johnson, “Is there any hope for us?” She tells them, “Sure there is. When we understand what the drama of love is all about, what our needs and fears are, we can help each other step out of these negative dialogues into positive loving conversations that bring us into each other’s arms and safely home.”
Now I’d love to hear from you.
Have you ever tried couples therapy? How about EFT? What was your experience? If you didn’t have a good experience, would you be willing to try again with a therapist who is a better fit for you?
Sending you love and healing.
Dr. Sue Johnson, book, Hold Me Tight.
Dr. Sue Johnson, blog, Where Does Love Go Wrong?