EFT – A New Approach to Couples’ Therapy

By Jaime Nisenbaum, Ph.D.

When Laura and Tim came to my office for their first session of couple’s therapy two years ago, Tim had taken a significant cut in his salary at a local solar energy company in order to keep his job. Finances were tight and were the subject of ferocious and nasty fights that were threatening to end their 10-year marriage.

In just a few minutes after the start of the session, the tension in the room was rising rapidly as the couple took turns to explain the reasons they decided to come to therapy. Growing more and more agitated with the conversation, Tim, in an exasperated and angry tone, turned to Laura and said, “You just buy whatever you want and never look at the price of anything. You are a reckless spending machine and you are ruining us financially!” Interrupting Tim before he finished his sentence, Laura swung back at him in an equally infuriated voice, “The only thing you care about in your whole life is your bank account. That’s it, nothing else!”

When a couple is tackling difficult topics such as finances, sex, or raising children, or even more mundane issues such as taking care of the dishes or the garbage, conversations can very quickly escalate into a negative cycle. Once the conversation escalates to that point, it is very unlikely that the couple will be able to have a productive dialogue about anything in that moment. With the seemingly endless repetition of the same pattern of interactions over and over again, both partners become increasingly at odds and estranged from each other. Each fight just confirms, one more time, how “impossible” it is to resolve any problems in the marriage, which leaves both partners feeling more alone and hopeless about their relationship.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT) is a therapeutic approach that provides both a powerful framework and innovative tools to understand and change negative patterns of interaction in couples. Based on extensive research on adult attachment, one of the main premises of EFT is that we all (men and women) want and need to feel emotionally safe, secure, and connected in our primary relationships. Our wellbeing depends on us feeling seen and heard by those we love and we need to know that we matter to them. When we don’t feel that our partners have our backs, when we feel that our needs are dismissed or not heard, strong and sometimes overwhelming feelings are triggered in us which end up fueling the destructive interactions that so commonly occur.

After a fight with a loved one, most of us can usually recognize that we didn’t want to have the fight in the first place, let alone hurt our partner. We are all humbled by the fact that sometimes we can do little to stop the hurtful words and/or actions that we commit against our partners.

From the EFT perspective, it is the destructive patterns of interaction and the ensuing breakdown in the emotional safety of the relationship that is the real problem that couples face, not each other. In other words, the problem is not the fact that partners may disagree about how to deal with a specific issue, but the process by which they communicate about this issue. The EFT therapist tracks the process of emotional communication between partners and engages them in defeating the negative cycles of interaction. In the process, partners develop new forms of communication that foster safety and connection that enables them to have different kinds of conversation about the same “impossible” subjects.

A wonderful resource for couples interested in EFT is Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight. For other EFT therapists, please visit the Northern California Community for EFT at www.ncceft.com.