Emotional Focused Therapy: A therapy approach to a couples “dance”.
When David and Rachel fantasized about their marriage, they where certain their future would hold only ongoing love and appreciation for each other. They did not expect to have conflicts or to experience frustration, anger and disappointment.
David, for example, fixed the cabinets in the kitchen. Rachel came in and tried them out, but one of the cabinet doors still didn’t close properly. She said icily: “These doors have not been screwed in correctly.” David reacted immediately and told her: “It is never good enough for you; you are perfect and I never do anything right.” After this initial reaction, he retracted. Fueled by her anger, Rachel continued to speak to him in a cold tone.
This couple is trapped in a negative cycle, or as it is called in Emotional Focused (Couples) Therapy (EFT): a dance. When Rachel makes a negative remark, David retracts and as a result, Rachel continues to attack. Almost every couple experiences a particular dance in their interactions in which they follow the same pattern, which leads them into feeling more detached from one another. EFT is an approach in couples therapy that focuses on how people deal with their emotions and how they send emotional signals to their spouse, and how, as a consequence, this emotion becomes the music of their interactional dance.
This approach, developed by Sue Johnson, is based on Attachment Theory, a theory of personality and human development that focuses on emotion. It assumes that we all have deep needs for safe connection, and emotional contact. When these needs are unfulfilled, we become trapped in negative interactional patterns.
EFT works in three phases. In the first phase, together with the couple, the therapist will explore those patterns of interaction which lead to conflict. David and Rachel solve their conflicts by way of an attack-withdraw pattern. Rachel tries to make contact by addressing something, which is usually misunderstood by David because he feels attacked and tries to protect himself from emotional injury.
In the second phase, the therapist helps the couple discover what the deeper lying attachment needs of each spouse are. Rachel is insecure in regards David’s love for her and yearns for more connection with him. The EFT approach provides a safe environment where people can express their inner emotional needs and where their wishes are heard by their spouse.
The therapist helps the couple communicate those needs, which is the focus of phase three. David can tell Rachel: “When you make an unfriendly remark, I feel hurt. What I really crave is respect and appreciation. I do want to be close, so stop prodding and let me learn to be there for you.” The most important part of a relationship is when a couple can send key emotional messages to each other and help the other person feel safe. When this happens, the couple creates a new dance, based on the new experience of relating their inner fears, wishes and wants to one another.
When a couple falls into a negative cycle again, they are now able to stop and become aware of their old dance. They can say: “Let’s not return to that road but hear each other out so that we can understand what we really wish for.” Their dance becomes a raised interaction from a “me” to an “us” level. When a couple can break through their negative cycle, this creates a secure and safe bond. They can now shape their relationship into new and positive emotional experiences that will help them feel closer.
Sue Johnson’s book: “Hold Me Tight” is a good start to read more about EFT and to discover your own attachment needs and fears.
This approach requires a safe environment and is not suitable in relationships with violence and/or abuse.
This article originally appeared in “Keilim Shluvim” (December 2014)