Couples Therapy Techniques: Emotional Therapy

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 13, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Seeking emotionally focused therapy as a couple, whether you are just dating or have been married for decades, doesn’t have to mean there is anything significantly wrong in your relationship. In fact, many couples are electing to seek counseling together before making any major life decisions (like buying a house, getting married, having children) even if everything in their relationship seems to be going well. Emotionally focused couples therapy is a great tool for any partnership.

First Of All, What Is Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (also known as EFT)?

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Emotionally focused therapy is a branch of psychotherapy that can be applied to anyone, whether a lone individual, a couple (like we’re discussing today), or even a whole family. EFT is considered a short-term style of counseling (usually between 8 and 20 sessions total). The approach is based on the idea that human needs are connected to human emotions, and that human emotions to have a massive potential to adapt (in both a positive and a negative way). If those emotions can be effectively harnessed and worked with the help of a trained professional, they can help individuals change their problematic emotions/emotional states and heal their interpersonal relationships.

EFT has been around since the 1980s and was “created” by Les Greenberg and Sue Johnson. The main features of the therapy are the experiential focus, identifying maladaptive emotional responses and recognizing negative interaction patterns. Experiential focus refers to a technique where therapists engage their clients and help them to experience their emotions in real time (this is often referred to as mindfulness). When working together with their partner, couples are able to express themselves as the emotions happen instead of bottling them up and letting them explode later. Emotionally Focused Therapy combines experiential focus with direct counseling on fixed, negative relationship patterns of maladaptive emotional responses and any negative interaction patterns to help couples see through their stumbling blocks so that they can create a healthier relationship that has longevity. Emotionally focused therapy is an offshoot of attachment therapy and employs many of the same techniques.

How Does Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy Work?

Emotionally focused couples therapy works by using a nine-step process that works to restructure the attachments bonds in the partnership. The result of EFT is that it reshapes the relationship bond to create what is called “effective dependency (the healthy alternative to the codependency many couples experience, even though they may not be aware). The steps are not linear, instead of being worked through in a spiral with each partner moving at their own pace. Emotionally focused therapy only works with the help of a trained, qualified, experienced therapist.

What Are The Steps In Emotionally-Focused Therapy?

The steps in EFT are separated into three stages.

Stage one starts by de-escalating the problem. The therapist will meet the couple where they are, which will start by identifying and addressing any relationship arguments that may be occurring. It includes steps 1 – 4. Step 1 starts the session by identifying what brought the couple to therapy in the first place. Step 2 takes that conflict and breaks it down into the negative emotions that may be driving it, which often occur in patterns. Step 3 helps the couple figure out what is causing the conflict, looking especially closely at any underlying or even potentially unconscious causes and responses. Step 4, the final step in stage one, allows the therapist to help the couple understand the connection between the conflict and the emotions. This lets the couple more thoroughly understand the conflict and the cause of the conflict so that they can move forward together into stage two.

Stage two moves into helping couples to change their destructive patterns. The therapist will help each partner interact better and healthily express their needs. Steps 5 – 7 occur in stage two. Step 5 sets a safe space so that couples can express their feelings, wants and needs. Step 6 helps each partner individually to understand their partner’s emotions better so that they can accept them. Step 7 helps partners express their own emotions in a way that leads to less conflict. By the end of stage two, couples should have a much better understanding of each other.

The final stage, stage three, helps the couple integrate their new knowledge into their relationship. Step 8 lets the therapist help teach the couple ways to communicate efficiently, while step 9 concludes therapy with the couple making a plan for future conflict.

How Long Does Emotionally Focused Therapy Take To Work?

The standard amount of sessions, as mentioned above, is between 8 and 20. However, couples may work through them at different speeds. Couples that are just checking in or are only mildly distressed will work through them at a parallel speed. Couples who are seeking EFT for a more significant problem may notice that one partner works through them quickly (typically the partner that is more passive). Since the couple leads emotionally focused couples therapy, there isn’t a specific time frame associated with “graduating.”

Are There Any Statistics Regarding How Well It Works?

The American Psychological Association has studied emotionally focused therapy and considers it empirically and clinically supported for depression. Studies from other psychological organizations have concluded that it is also effective for avoidant personality disorder, interpersonal problems, and trauma.

Between 70 and 73% of couples surveyed after a complete round of EFT reported that they had recovered from the emotional stress their partnership was under, and the vast majority continued to show clinical improvement during follow-up studies as well. One study that included an MRI component showed some proof that the brains of both partners responded less to the perceived “threat” of the other partner. However, it is important to know that no therapy works 100% of the time.

What Are The Actual Benefits Of Emotionally-Focused Therapy?

EFT creates a special bond in couples that go through the process with a trained therapist. The approach this type of therapy takes makes both partners feel like they are equal, which leads to a more satisfying, healthy, and open relationship. Emotions, according to therapists trained in EFT, should always be used to guide meaningful, healthy lives. Taking a close look at those emotions, including how they function and what can be done to make them more healthy, helps partners to learn about each other in a deeper, more satisfying way. The results of couples who have gone through EFT is that they have a better understanding, not only of their own emotions but also of their partners. Couples who navigate emotionally focused therapy together find that they can talk about their problems with empathy instead of escalating them into an argument.

What Are Some Indications That Emotionally-Focused Therapy Is Right For You?

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Have you ever felt that your partner was going to leave you, even with no evidence? Many people have a fear of being abandoned, which can drastically affect the trust that you can have in your partner. Additionally, this type of fear can eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing your partner away out of fear that your partner will leave anyway.

Another sign that you may want to try EFT is noticing negative emotional responses and patterns in your relationship. If your partner expresses emotions and you immediately become frustrated because you can’t understand them, EFT could be right for you. An emotionally focused therapist helps both people identify and understand those feelings.

Lack of communication is a major issue in relationships that could benefit from emotionally focused couples therapy as well. Partnerships, especially couples who have been involved for longer periods of time, tend to feel like they know their partner and stop asking about their feelings and emotions. That lack of communication can eventually destroy a relationship.

Most therapists start with a 13-aspect checklist to help couples rate their satisfaction with the relationship. Downloadable worksheets can be accessed here and should be printed out for the first therapy session. Partners are encouraged to do them separately, and then rank the top three aspects they find most important. Some of the aspects they will be asked to rank are their degree of closeness/openness/sharing, their satisfaction with their sexual intimacy, the degree of admiration and respect they have for their partner, and their overall relationship satisfaction. Each aspect should be ranked from very dissatisfied to very satisfied.

If any of those things sound like a pattern from your relationship, you may want to consider emotionally focused couples therapy. When you and your partner are ready to enter EFT, make sure to start with by clicking here. It’s the first step in creating a long, healthy relationship that can last a lifetime. You deserve to be happy, and MyTherapist can help. Start the process today.

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