Could Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Save Your Relationship?

This specific type of counseling might help you get to the bottom of those repetitive fights.

Photo: Sarah Maingot/Trunk Archive

Lately, it seems like more and more well-known couples have been vocal about the benefits of counseling. Will Smith has reportedly said that therapy saved his marriage with Jada Pinkett Smith. Pink has been frank that she and her husband see someone for "maintenance," not just when things are rocky. And here's what Kristen Bell has said about seeking help with hubby Dax Shepard: "Going to therapy and earning each other actually gave us both personally a ton of self-esteem." This openness is pretty great. After all, getting professional help shouldn't be seen as gloom and doom, but rather as a tool to help keep your bond strong.

Interested in pursuing couples therapy in your relationship? There are many different styles and approaches. In the charged territory of relationships, one you might want to consider is what is called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). This short-term (8–10 sessions are standard) therapy is focused on adult love and geared toward couples who are in distress. "You can't change highly emotional behaviors with cognitive insight or skill-building," says Sue Johnson, EdD, a clinical psychologist and the primary developer of EFT. Emotionally Focused Therapy drills into the root of how and why you feel what you do, and then helps you and your partner manage those feelings better together. "In EFT, we organize emotions so that they make more sense," she says.

In theory

Emotionally Focused Therapy is based on attachment theory. The gist is that people want and need to feel emotionally safe in their relationships with others. Experts believe that the way we attach to others is formed early in life, and that how we bond with our parents, for good or bad, affects our behavior and emotional development later in life. "If we don't get healthy, nurturing parenting from our parents, we may grow into adults who struggle with relationships because we have insecure attachment patterns," explains Harper West, a licensed psychotherapist and EFT practitioner with the Great Lakes Psychology Group in Michigan and Illinois.

Of course, these examples don't always manifest in a clear-cut way. For example, a partner may fly off the handle when dirty dishes are left in the sink. Sure, the dishes are annoying. But the root cause could be that she grew up in a chaotic environment and keeping a super-clean house helps her feel more in control. This outsize reaction could then trigger the other person in the relationship. "When someone feels criticized or ashamed, they react inappropriately, usually with anger or withdrawal," says West. And this is why couples find themselves spinning around the same fights.

In practice

Enter EFT, which is all about helping people make those connections and realize that their arguments may be a bit deeper than they first thought. "We explore the vulnerabilities each person has, which usually come from childhood experiences," explains Jamie Levin-Edwards, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Edwards Psychotherapy in Portland, Oregon. From there, it's all about identifying the feeling at the root of the reaction. So the dishes may be a trigger that reminds them of something from their past. But under all that is a deep and vulnerable concern. "We often hear, 'I'm afraid I'm not good enough,' or 'I'm afraid I'm always screwing up,' or 'I'm afraid I don't really matter to you.' In therapy, we help people actually express those feelings to one another so that they can break the pattern," says Levin-Edwards.

Once you've broken down all of the triggers and fights into the emotions that are at the core, you're able to empathize and connect in a deeper way. "Research shows that the deeper couples go with their emotions, the better the outcome is," says Johnson. "They start being more open with their partners than they might have ever imagined, and it will feel so good. They find their partners to be accessible, engaged, and responsive." After you start rewiring your relationship in this way, you no longer feel triggered by the dishwashing or the laundry—instead you're able to communicate your real emotions.

The bottom line is that if you are committed to having a healthy relationship, EFT can be beneficial. "Most couples we see have lost their emotional empathy, and they've stopped noticing when their partners are in distress," says West. "So if we can get them back to a place where they feel safe, emotional, and vulnerable, they can tune in, and the partner can respond with warmth and compassion." That can make all the difference.

3 Common questions

Nervous about giving couples therapy a shot? The answers to these questions may help quell your fears.

“How do we find the right therapist?”

If you're comfortable, ask friends or loved ones for suggestions. Don't want anyone to know you're seeking help? We've compared numerous options to provide some of the best online therapy organizations to seek the help you and your partner desire in the comfort of your own home. "Ask what percentage of their practice is couples therapy and what their approach is," suggests Levin-Edwards. And after you finally do see someone for the first time, have a touch-base with your partner. "If sessions aren't feeling good for one person, keep looking," says West. You won't be able to get the most out of it if you're not both really able to open up.

“Will the therapist choose sides?”

She shouldn't. The goal of the therapist is to strengthen your bond, and choosing sides would be counterproductive to that. One thing to note: There may be moments, or even entire sessions, where one person becomes a bit more of the focus. Often, early on, an EFT therapist will work to get the person who withdraws more to come out of her shell. But both parties should always feel that they are being heard and that their feelings matter, says West.

“Can it really save my relationship?”

You and you partner are the only people who can make your relationship work. Assuming that you are both equally invested and want to make it work, therapy can give you the tools and road map to strengthen your bond and reconnect in a more meaningful way.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles