How Emotion-Focused Therapy is Used in Couple Counseling

GoodTherapy | How Emotion-Focused Therapy is Used in Couple CounselingThere is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to couples counseling, as each relationship comprises different challenges and experiences. But some therapeutic strategies have proven to be particularly effective when untangling stressful, tense partner dynamics.  

Emotion-focused therapy, in particular, is one of the most commonly used tactics that relationship counselors use to help couples establish more secure attachments with their partners. One analysis from the New York Center for Emotion-Focused Therapy showed that 90% of couples showed significant improvement after EFT sessions compared to the control group who did not receive such therapy.  

Let’s examine how it differs from other strategies and whether it can benefit your relationship as well. 

What is Emotion-Focused Therapy 

Popularized throughout the 1980s, the therapeutic practice helps clients better identify, explore, accept, and even alter their own emotions. The essence of EFT is rooted in our awareness and relationship to our own emotions, both positive and negative, subsequently boosting emotional intelligence and improving our reactions to events and external behaviors.  

According to an American Psychological Report: 

“Emotions are seen as crucial in motivating behavior. People generally do what they feel like doing rather than what reason or logic dictates. It follows that to achieve behavioral change, people need to change the emotions motivating their behavior.” 

EFT is used in a variety of therapeutic settings, such as individual counseling, and family or group therapy as well.  

How is emotion-focused therapy used in couples therapy 

Benefits of EFT in relationship settings 

Every successful relationship relies on healthy emotional dynamics, wherein each partner is not only aware of their own emotions but has the tools to regulate them and is also comfortable being vulnerable with the other person. 

In the words of Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the founders of emotion-focused therapy:

“To foster connection we need not just to spend time together as companions, but to also risk sharing softer, deeper emotions. We must learn to hold each other’s feelings in a way that calms our nervous systems and gives us a deeply-felt sense of safe connection.” 

That makes EFT a particularly useful approach in couples therapy. Let’s take an example of an exchange where such an approach could be valuable: 

Person A: Would you like to go out somewhere this Friday?
Person B: I don’t know, you probably don’t want to go anywhere anyway. 
Person A: [Shrugs, rolls eyes, walks away] 

In EFT, Person B’s dismissive response to the question would warrant further exploration if re-enacted or described in an EFT session. Upon further examination, it may reveal that they are feeling frustrated that Person A doesn’t take the initiative to make plans to do enjoyable activities together, something that Person B may find important as part of a fulfilling relationship. Conversely, Person B’s emotional response – as evidenced by rolling their eyes and ignoring their partner – may derive from feeling like, no matter how much effort they make, it’s never enough.  

Though brief, these emotional reactions can teach therapists and their clients a lot about not only the root of recurring arguments but what can be done to address them. 

Stages of EFT Couples Counseling  

EFT is typically administered over a finite number of sessions – often ranging from eight to twenty – with a few key phases demarcating the level of progress achieved: 

Stage 1: De-escalation 

Oftentimes, when a couple first begins counseling, there is a common communication cycle, where one person may lob a criticism – intentional or not – at their partner, who subsequently responds defensively (intentional or not). These exchanges often escalate to the point where it’s hard to resolve the original discussion that surfaced, to begin with.  

In the de-escalation phase, each couple should become aware of how they each play a role in perpetuating emotional distress in such exchanges. 

Stage 2: Restructuring 

Once couples have an understanding of how their actions impact the other person, therapists will start introducing guidance on alternative ways of responding, all with the intention that these prompts or questions will help each partner become more curious and empathetic to the other’s feelings.

The main goal of this stage is that each person in the relationship feels more comfortable being emotionally vulnerable and accepting their partner’s emotional and attachment needs.

Stage 3: Consolidation

Once deeper trust is established in the second stage, therapists will help couples navigate ways to more effectively communicate, which includes ways to better express their needs. Some level of conflict will always be a part of every relationship, but enhancing our ways of discussing old problems and disagreeing in the future is the key to reducing tension and building trust.  

Things to Consider 

While this applies to various therapeutic approaches, couples therapy can bring negative emotions to the forefront, particularly those that individuals have suppressed or been loath to confront for a long period of time.  

Emotion-focused therapy, especially during relationship counseling, requires us to address difficult feelings, behaviors, and thought patterns head on. While this may feel vulnerable and at times even painful, it’s also best to do so in the presence of a trained mental health professional who can help process raw, emotional wounds in a healthy way.  

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