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Emotionally Focused Therapy

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We depend on our intimate partners for support, security, and a sense of safety. When these needs are not being met, couples can become stuck in destructive cycles of interaction characterized by intense negative emotions. The resultant distress has an impact on individual self-esteem and general well-being, and we feel overwhelmed, helpless, and alone. Ultimately, this can lead to the disintegration of the couple and family, with lasting emotional scarring.

There are many different therapeutic approaches to dealing with distressed relationships. Analyzing early formative relationships can help couples gain insight into their patterns of relating. Improving communication and negotiation skills can also help. Cognitive-behavioral approaches focus on modifying unrealistic beliefs and expectations.

Curiously, until relatively recently, emotion was viewed as a by-product of other processes and received little attention until the early 1980s when Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg formulated Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). It was so named to draw attention to the crucial significance of emotion and emotional communication in the organization of patterns of interaction and key experiences in close relationships. It also focused on emotion as a powerful agent of change rather than just part of the problem of relationship distress.

A highly successful approach to couples therapy, EFT looks at love as attachment (or emotional bonding), which gives a sense of connection, security, and safety. What partners want is emotional responsiveness: Can I reach him? Can I rely on her to respond to me emotionally? Will he stay close and value me? When partners in a relationship feel disconnected, they protest. This is manifested as increasingly negative patterns of interaction as the protests of each partner evoke negative responses from the other. Johnson calls this the dance of the relationship and in her book "Hold Me Tight," she describes different versions of this dance. In "Find the Bad Guy" one partner attacks, and the other angrily attacks back. A more common pattern is "the Protest Polka" where one partner becomes aggressive and critical and the other defensive and distant. "The Freeze and Flee" pattern results when both partners withdraw into defensive distance.

These protests are played out around a myriad of everyday issues: child-rearing, finances, sexual availability. The "what" of the conflict doesn't matter. Relationships become marked by resentment, wariness, and distance, with everything being interpreted through a negative filter. Couples feel helpless, despairing, and very stuck.

EFT cuts through to the core of relationship distress to address the attachment needs, the music, driving the dance and to provide corrective emotional experiences that reconnect the partners emotionally.

In the initial sessions, the focus is on helping the couple become aware of their moves in their negative cycle. Do they attack to get a response from the other, or do they shut down to protect themselves? A key part of this is seeing this dance as the enemy rather than each other. As they recognize what is happening, they can begin to stop getting sucked into it, which brings about a de-escalation in tension and makes it possible to access the underlying emotions or music driving the interactions.

Starting with the more withdrawn partner, the couple is encouraged to share these softer emotions with each other. The therapist will ask, "What happens when you shut down?" Often a withdrawer will express how overwhelmed s/he becomes in the face of criticism and demands. Withdrawers cope by withdrawing and becoming emotionally distant which can be misinterpreted by the other partner as not caring. Expressing vulnerability evokes more positive responses, resulting in mini bonding moments as partners feel increasingly feel safe enough to reveal previously hidden aspects of themselves. In the final consolidation stage, any long-standing unresolved painful issues or "attachment injuries" are processed.

EFT couples therapy is available through International Counselling Connections and requires between 12 and 20 sessions. Research indicates a high success rate with a low risk of relapse.

Recommended reading: "Hold Me Tight" by Sue Johnson is a self-help guide to loving relationships based on EFT principles. The book is user-friendly, practical, and engaging, an invaluable resource for couples who want to become more emotionally connected.