What is Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT)?

Emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) is a form of short-term therapy used to improve relational attachment and bonding. In this post, we’ll discuss the basic tenets and theories of EFT and some example of cases where this therapy can be beneficial.

History of EFT

Developed by doctors Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in the 1980s, EFT is rooted in research on the human emotional experience and how emotions affect bonding within relationships. Treatment sessions rely heavily on self-reflection as clients collaborate with therapists to provide insight into their own emotional experiences and understand what is truly driving them. By exploring the how and why of their conflicts, clients utilize emotions as an information source to heal ruptures in interpersonal attachments while seeking to replace negative patterns with emotional responsiveness. Although typically used for couples, this approach can also be adapted for use in family therapy.

The Four Basic Needs of Attachment

According to EFT theory, there are five basic needs of attachment that everyone seeks to have met in a relationship:

  1. Acceptance – Am I honored and valued as I am? Do you accept me, with all my faults?
  2. Belonging – Do I have a place in your heart? Will you share your life experiences with me, and allow me to share mine with you?
  3. Comfort – Are you emotionally accessible? If I need you, will you be there for me?
  4. Safety – Can I be vulnerable with you? Are you a safe place to express my deeper feelings?

Collectively, these needs are referred to as primary emotions. Issues in these areas are often the root of relational conflict. When a relationship fails to completely satisfy these desires, primary emotions can be converted into secondary, or reactive, emotions. This counterproductive response acts by punishing or pushing others away, lashing out with emotions such as frustration, irritation, annoyance, anger, jealousy, hatred, etc.

In EFT, negative emotional patterns are identified and addressed using three primary steps:

  1. De-escalation – In this initial stage, the primary focus is on identifying negative interaction patterns and how they contribute to conflict. Through this process, clients are challenged to acknowledge how their patterns of behavior may be causing damage to the relationship, while reframing negative patterns by becoming more emotionally available, empathetic, and engaged with each other. The end goal is a stronger attachment bond and a relationship that provides a safe haven for each partner.
  2. Restructuring – This step encourages clients to share their fears in the relationship while showing reciprocal acceptance and compassion for one another. By the end of this process, clients will have grown in expressing vulnerability to each other while learning how to become more responsive to the other’s needs.
  3. Consolidation – In the final step, a therapist helps the couple identify how negative patterns developed in the first place, while working on new communication strategies and skills to promote healthy conversations in the future. Examples of negative patterns include “pursue-withdraw,” in which one partner wants more closeness than the other, as well as “criticize-defend,” in which one or more partners looks to take offense where none is intended. As these cycles become habits, even the smallest interactions can be defined by past experiences and interpreted negatively, which is why replacing these with positive patterns early on is vital.