Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: What is And Does it Work?

What is EFT couples therapy?
on July 08, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) is a profound journey into the heart of human connection. Drawing upon insights from neurobiology and interpersonal neurobiology, EFT empowers couples to transcend surface-level conflicts and unearth the neurobiological underpinnings of their relational dynamics.

“After a decade of closely working with couples from diverse backgrounds, it's evident: Emotionally focused couples therapy does indeed work,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

“It delivers precisely what it promises: a deep dive into emotions, fostering vulnerability and honing the art of responsive communication — whether in moments of beauty or distress.”

So, if you’re considering couples therapy, it’s important to understand the different therapeutic approaches, with an expert deep-dive into this therapeutic approach offered for you right here!

What is emotionally focused couples therapy? 

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a structured couples therapy model focused on 8-20 sessions based on relationship distress. Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson and Less Greenberg in 1985, EFT focuses on guiding couples from distress to harmony by fostering emotional safety and intimacy. 

Grounded in the belief that emotional responsiveness is key to secure attachment, EFT goes beyond conflict resolution, aiming to create lasting relationship bonds through couple interventions. 

An Emotionally Focused Therapist guides a couple in identifying and tracking the negative cycle of disconnection. Name those patterns, and discover the driving forces of emotions underneath these patterns, what triggers them, and what keeps them in motion. The couple's therapist supports the couple in interrupting negative, defensive, and non-relational expressions of emotions and moving to a place of sharing brave vulnerable primary emotions. 

Research by Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Brent Bradley underscores the neurological mechanisms at play in EFT, highlighting its capacity to modulate brain activity associated with emotional regulation and attachment security. 

However, EFT is not exclusive to couples counseling, with this methodology expanding into Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT), offering more avenues for both couple's relationships and family members to form secure bonds. Similarly, Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT) utilizes this attachment-based approach to psychotherapy to improve communication and other mental health issues. 

What is the goal of emotionally focused couples therapy? 

Couples pursue EFT for several reasons, but this therapy model is traditionally devised to bring couples together by truly understanding why they have disconnected. By learning how they rupture, they can learn how to repair. 

The main goal of EFT (and EFFT) is to re-establish secure family patterns where caregiving responses are more effective overall — contributing to stronger emotional bonds. 

“This is done by supporting the couple in identifying the emotions that arrive for them and moving a couple from showing a secondary action or emotion to their partner, to feeling confident in sharing a primary emotion,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Objective indicators of therapeutic progress include improvements in communication patterns, conflict resolution skills, and emotional intimacy. Couples and therapists can track progress and cultivate a shared vision for relational flourishing by incorporating validated assessment measures and collaborative goal-setting into the therapeutic process.” 

The efficacy of this therapeutic approach lies in its robust foundation, deeply rooted in attachment theory. Unlike conventional methods that rely on imparting knowledge, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) recognizes that a couple's attachment is an ongoing, dynamic process. 

Just as our bond with our children evolves daily, so too must our connection with our partners adapt to life's changes. This adaptability is one of EFT's greatest strengths, enabling couples to navigate challenges and maintain a strong bond long after therapy concludes.

What are the stages of emotionally focused couples therapy? 

Emotionally Focused Therapy prides itself on being collaborative and respectful of clients every step of the way, combining experiential Rogerian techniques with structural systemic interventions. 

According to Johnson, EFT triggers a change process that unfolds in three stages: de-escalation, restructuring, and consolidation. 

  1. De-escalation: In this stage, couples should move toward an equilibrium that will enable them to progress in couples therapy. They should be able to de-escalate the situation, identifying the negative cycle and any attachment issues that are present. This stage allows couples to reformulate and reframe their issues — enabling them to tackle them more productively.  

  2. Restructuring: In this stage, trust is allowed to grow between partners, with withdrawn partners becoming more active and engaged as they are now capable of expressing their emotions. With a new stable environment founded, it’s easier for both partners to express their needs, getting vulnerable in order to move forward with a stronger bond.

  3. Consolidation: In the final stage, partners move towards consolidation, with new solutions appearing to solve old issues. With these new coping strategies and understanding, a more secure attachment can be achieved. 

Each stage offers couples a structured pathway for exploring emotional dynamics, fostering deeper connections, and building resilience in the face of challenges.

What are the benefits of emotionally focused couples therapy? 

Couples therapy can be complex, especially when reaching out for support amidst profound distress. 

In such turbulent times, Emotionally Focused Therapy stands out as a beacon of hope with untold benefits for the couple, catering to those seeking to create profoundly intimate relationships, navigate embodied experiences, or even bridge communication gaps in seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

1. Understanding of primary emotions 

Studies showed that couples who received EFT had overall high empathy and self-disclosure post-therapy. With this greater emotional awareness, it becomes easier to identify and understand your own emotional responses — within your romantic relationship and in other social situations. 

Through EFT, couples learn to become more emotionally available, and by being in touch with their own emotions, they can strengthen their own attachment bond. This enables couples to create a safe space from which they can grow. 

“One memorable couple I worked with epitomizes the transformative power of EFT,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“The husband, a meticulous individual, resorted to spreadsheets to track emotions, while his wife, a yoga teacher, found solace in finally bridging their emotional worlds. Through guided attunement and exploration of primary emotions, they unearthed a deeper longing for closeness, fostering a profound connection.”

This greater understanding can facilitate easier emotional management, contributing to the formation of healthy relationships.  

2. Sharing unmet attachment needs 

Since EFT is founded on attachment theory, it naturally enables couples to foster a greater understanding of their own attachment style and any unmet needs they might have. 

This recognition alone is of huge benefit to the couple, as this understanding can help them meet not only their own needs but also the needs of their partner. Recent research underscores EFT's efficacy in resolving attachment injuries and fostering forgiveness and is particularly effective for those who may struggle with an avoidant or insecure attachment. 

3. Confidence in moments of conflict 

One of the greatest benefits of EFT is its ability to instill confidence in couples, especially when dealing with conflict. 

Since EFT promotes the understanding of primary emotions, it enables couples to recognize where the conflict is coming from — bringing a renewed sense of understanding to issues that previously would have derailed the relationships.

Recent studies also show the effectiveness of EFT for couples who are struggling with infertility, enabling them to move past these issues as a team, improve their overall quality of life, and move forward without disconnection. 

4. Healthy processing of emotional experiences 

Emotionally focused therapy enables couples to process emotional experiences in a healthy way, with emotion regulation instilled in these therapeutic approaches. 

“One might typically think highly escalated couples would leave still more distressed than a couple that came in with less escalation. However, this is not seen in EFT because once you organize the emotions, a couple can navigate big emotions well together; they are engaged, they are present, they feel,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Sometimes, you just need some support in how to express those feelings in a healthy way for all involved. You are building a mutually satisfying relationship, not just what feels good for you at the moment.”

5. Helps overcome issues with emotional communication 

Research shows that EFT is a strong fit for cisgender males over the age of 35 who struggle with expressing emotions.

With research consistently demonstrating a 70-75% recovery rate and significant improvement in 90% of cases within just 10-12 sessions, EFT stands out as a present-focused, non-blaming, humanistic, and client-centered approach. 

As the most empirically validated couples therapy in recent decades, EFT offers not just a relationship promise of effectiveness, but also hope and an infusion of positive regard for your partner. 

6. Other relationships improve 

With all of these interventions, EFT  helps couples move toward a more secure emotional bond, resulting in stronger relationships overall.

Studies further highlight EFT's positive effects on depression, intimacy, and trust, with significant improvements observed even in problem-solving skills despite not being the primary focus of therapy. This serves as a major reminder that healing the couple has a profound positive impact on the environment around the couple.

Does emotionally focused therapy work for couples? 

The primary reason why people attend couples therapy is to heal their relationships, so does EFT actually work

Well, extensive research points to the effectiveness of this form of therapy for couples, with EFT therapists identifying, stabilizing, and transforming negative interaction patterns in relationships — reframing these communication patterns and offering new solutions.

“By fostering a climate of emotional attunement and responsiveness, EFT seeks to heal relational wounds, and cultivate a garden of mutual understanding and intimacy, as evidenced by numerous outcome studies and meta-analyses,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

What is the success rate of emotionally focused couples therapy?

Before entering therapy, most couples want to know the guaranteed effectiveness of the therapy couch. 

Well, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is considered one of the most researched and effective forms of couples therapy — so you can breathe easy. 

In a comprehensive meta-analysis, EFT demonstrated significant effectiveness, with 90% of couples reporting higher relationship satisfaction. Even after completing therapy, over 70% of couples showed they continued the positive trend in their relationship. 

This healing of disconnection was not short-lived, with a follow-up study showcasing how EFT helped highly stressed couples achieve stable results in relationship distress, depression, and parental distress, underscoring the lasting benefits of EFT.

“In essence, Emotionally Focused Therapy offers not just a promise of effectiveness but a journey towards profound relational transformation and enduring emotional connection,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

+50k reviews
Discover new ways to build your relationship!
Download the #1 app for couples to guide you in the process!
petal decoration

Enjoying this article?

A happier relationship starts here.

Question with locked answer