What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?
Emotionally Focused Therapy is a humanistic approach to psychotherapy developed by Dr. Susan Johnson and Dr. Leslie Greenburg. EFT focuses on repairing the relational bonds of couples, individuals, and families that are experiencing individual depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. This theory assumes humans are relational and emotional creatures wired for social and intimate bonding with the people around them. EFT views emotions and emotional regulation as the key factors in relationship interactions and each individual's experience.
The time frame of this theory optimizes change in a short period of time with quality results. The sessions are designed to be once a week for 8-20 weeks, simply to educate participants on how to recognize and respond to emotions. EFT operates on the assumption that emotions are a central part of life, and expressing those emotions helps people uncover deeper meaning in actions and behaviors. This helps contact between partners or individuals to be restored and then turn to another for comfort, a sustaining solution from a short-term session. This session looks something like a therapist actively participating through observing and noting significant emotional moments and interactions, and helping participants “crystallize their emotional experience and sets interactional processes in motion with specific tasks” (Johnson, 2004). By looking at the underlying fears and tones, the therapist can identify patterns in negative interactions and inform the individuals so the couple can recognize the beginnings of the behavior in the future and address it before the conflict begins.
The problem of relationships in emotional distress as dictated by EFT is unmet needs for closeness by a partner, and this negligence feeds into feelings of resentment and aggression. These feelings can fester and deeply affect the relationship, expanding emotions similar to grief, helplessness, and abandonment, and can even manifest into physical and mental aspects as well, including isolation and mental distress, driving individuals apart.
Emotionally Focused Theory draws from attachment theory connecting humans through relationships, especially the idea of transformative love. This aspect of EFT looks at the security of partner connection as one of the best options for an unhealthy relationship seeking change, and in fact states, it is a “necessary source of both couple and individual growth” (Johnson, 2004). By connecting emotionally, partners are opened up to being close both psychologically and physically, creating new relationships that are both sustainable and healthy, and supporting one another in every aspect of life for years to come. In the words of Susan Johnson herself: “Emotional responsiveness—tuning into and supporting the other—is the key defining element of love.”
Emotionally Focused Therapy is best suited for couples who are experiencing marital distress; however, according to Johnson, this approach is not limited to this population. Johnson outlines that EFT can also be useful in unpacking symptoms of clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in a hospital clinic setting. The most successful population are couples whose goal is to “restructure their relationship in terms of a close bond, but have become alienated by negative interaction cycles, often of a blame–withdrawal nature” (Johnson, 2004).
Additional populations included by Johnson that can greatly benefit from EFT are “nonclinical couples who were experiencing a lack of intimacy and with couples where one partner has suffered a recent stressor” (Johnson, 2004). These stressors can include a serious such as a life-threatening illness, a traumatic event, or emotional distress, all of which mandate a change in response or behavior within the couple’s relationship.
Johnson, S.M. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203843871