Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples by Jan DiSanto, RN, LMFT
Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT) is a very technical, complex model, but it has some simple concepts that help define secure attachment in relationships. We are all hard wired for attachment: we need love and security and how we deal with this vulnerability is what determines how we are in relationships. When love does not work, it hurts, and secure emotional attachment is the cure.
Love is about being emotionally responsive, and most couples come to treatment when they are stuck in a pattern that does not work and is causing distress. In EFT, we talk about these patterns as a “dance” (Susan Johnson). We help couples step out of their negative dance and create a new dance that is safer, closer, and more satisfying.
We are social animals, and men and women have the same attachment needs. Our brains are not wired to do things alone. If we have love and security (whether from a partner, friend, family, community, spiritual resource, pet, etc.), it is easier to face the world. Studies done on 9-11 survivors revealed that the people who could share with others about it, felt stronger afterwards, and the ones who did not have someone to share with developed PTSD responses. We have also learned from neuroscience research that “proximity to an attachment figure tranquilizes the nervous system.” (S. Johnson)
Couples come to therapy because there is a rupture in the attachment system. When they fight, it is about the nature of their emotional connection. Fighting is often separation protest. Even if people have never experienced security or seen a good relationship, they will fight for connection and love. One way to think about this and talk to couples about it is using the acronym: the ABC’S of attachment, which refers to Acceptance, Belonging, Comfort, and Safety. These are the basic needs of attachment that we all have.
Acceptance -- Am I acceptable to you? Do you honor and value me as I am?
Belonging -- Am I important to you? Do I matter? Will you share with me? Can you see me and take me in? Will you be my touchstone and my shelter from the storms of life?
Comfort -- Are you emotionally present? If I reach for you, will you be there? Will you come when I call and put me first when I am in distress and comfort me?
Safety -- Can I trust you to be a safe haven for me? Can I be vulnerable with you and express my deeper feelings and be held and reassured by you?
So how do we create secure attachment in EFT? This struggle for secure connection typically takes one of three forms: pursue-withdraw (aka criticize-defend), attack-attack (aka blame-blame), or withdraw-withdraw. Couples with
a trauma history have what is known as a complex cycle and they can both pursue and withdraw.
EFT begins by framing the pattern as a “negative" and then moves into mapping out this cycle.
The mapping consists of identifying the behaviors, the secondary reactive emotions, the thoughts, beliefs, perceptions of each partner, as well as the primary emotions and attachment needs. The primary feelings pursuers generally feel are disconnected, abandoned, invisible, and shut out. They especially want comfort and belonging. Withdrawers typically feel rejected, inadequate, emotionally numb, and overwhelmed and need acceptance and safety.
These underlying primary feelings are transformed into secondary or reactive emotions in order to protect our vulnerability when we experience unmet attachment needs and conclude that attachment is dangerous. But the secondary emotions work against us by making it harder to get our needs met and by pushing people away. Common secondary emotions are frustration, irritation, annoyance, fury, indignation, revenge, resentment, disgust, anger, contempt, hatred, spite, envy, jealousy.
As we are mapping the cycle, we’re connecting these expressions of the cycle within each person and between the two partners to see the dance which we are continually reflecting back to them in an attachment context using attachment language. As the couple begins to see, experience, and process their cycle and the emotions that go with it, they de-escalate. Once de-escalated, the couple moves to Stage Two of EFT.
In Stage Two, the couples become more emotionally open and express their deeper fears, longings, needs, and feelings which we sometimes refer to as “raw spots” (S. Johnson). As they do this, partners become aware of their true unmet needs (the ABC’s). The therapist facilitates the expression of these needs and promotes acceptance of them by their partner. Experiencing their true, unmet needs evokes healthier emotions from their partner and a desire to fulfill those needs. This creates powerful bonding events, which forge a new positive relationship dance.
The third stage of EFT is consolidating and integrating the gains they have made and putting them to work in the relationship. The couple has a more secure attachment in place; they are accessible to one another, emotionally responsive, and engaged. The ultimate goal of EFT is a healthy dependence where couples can give and accept love, reach for their partner and receive from their partner. This emotional responsiveness has three main aspects, which are related to the ABC’s, which Sue Johnson calls “A.R.E.” They are: Accessibility -- being there for the partner, staying open, and connected, Responsiveness -- they can rely on their partner to prioritize them and respond when they call, and Engagement -- knowing that they are valued and will both stay close. In other words: “Are you there, are you with me?” (S. Johnson).
Copyright 2012. Jan DiSanto. All rights reserved. Published with permission.