What is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Will my therapist try to make me cry?
When prospective clients hear that their therapist provides Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) the responses vary widely. People on one end of the spectrum may experience a sense of comfort hearing the term. They may be familiar with EFT, or they just like the idea that someone will focus on and hear their feelings. For people on the opposite end of the spectrum, hearing the term may trigger significant discomfort as they imagine someone examining their non-existent emotions and trying to get them to cry every session. Regardless of where you fall on this range, knowing what to expect as you start emotionally focused therapy can be helpful.
EFT has become the gold standard of therapy for couples (EFCT), and more recently adaptations have been developed for working with families (EFFT) or individuals (EFIT). This article will focus on EFT for couples.
During EFCT, partners describe a pattern of the same basic argument happening over and over regardless of topics. They can’t stop the cycle. The more they try to make things better, the worse they seem to get. During EFT sessions the therapist and couple work together to understand this pattern, the actions or moves each partner makes, their beliefs about themselves and their partner, the emotions that influence the pattern, and what their partner’s actions in the pattern mean to them. One way to think of the role of an EFT therapist is that of a process consultant. We help you identify and understand the processes that keep you stuck and invite new experiences that create change in the relationship.
Where do emotions fit into all of this? Will my therapist try to get me to cry or gush warm fuzzy sentiments every week? No. Some clients shed tears in session from time to time, others never do. The emotion in EFT is because the process gives privilege to our emotions, particularly our softer, more risky emotions like sadness and worry. In addition, the process will also involve a significant amount of logic and cognitive understanding. We focus on emotion because they produce the music that move us and must be part of any change.
Many of us look at the world through logical lenses and avoid emotions. One engineer describes a constant flowchart model in her head, always evaluating, if I do this, the possible outcomes are, and my possible responses to each, and on and on and following each possible action out to its potential result. She wanted me to tell her the flowchart path that would result in the outcome she desired – for her husband to be happy and secure. Early on in therapy she would sometimes demand, “Just tell me which path I should take.” Months later she told me, “You were right. You couldn’t have given me the steps to get here. I had to experience and feel this for myself. I couldn’t have reasoned my way here.” As we learn to experience and organize our emotions and our partner’s we can begin to change and build a secure, passionate, and engaged relationship.
“Emotionally” is the word that sticks out to most people when they hear of EFT, but “Focused” is equally important. EFT therapists keep their focus on the goal and the steps and moves that are proven to help couples reach that goal. The goal varies somewhat from couple to couple and may include something like getting out of their constant conflict loop, feeling secure, connected, and accepted in their relationship, or understanding their partner and being understood. EFT is a general roadmap to the process as well, and an EFT therapist stays focused on the journey guided by that map.
Sometimes couples come to therapy expecting to spend an hour complaining about their partner (or being complained about) and for the counselor to agree with their assessment on who’s right and who needs to be fixed. Others come expecting to be taught skills, so they can communicate better. A good EFT therapist won’t leave you to complain most of the session, and they won’t coach you on communication skills (although, you will probably develop some new skills in the process). Instead, you will spend your sessions tracking what happens between you and your partner during times of conflict, tension, or disconnection. You can think of this as kind of a play-by-play of what happens. At its basic level it could go something like this:
Husband complained about wife being late,
Then wife defended herself and explained why,
Then husband raised his voice and coached her on how to avoid being late,
And then wife gave up and stepped out of the room.
For a humorous example of a conflict cycle play by play look up “Every Fight Ever Studio C”
You will also spend time focusing on noticing yourself: your thoughts and beliefs, feelings or physical sensations, emotions, images or metaphors of your experience, and actions or impulses to do or say something. At times you will be asked to share what you are noticing about yourself with your partner in a new way. And you will talk about what the experience of sharing and hearing was like for each of you.
With that in mind, there are some things a skilled EFT therapist won’t do.
EFT therapists do not fix problems or help you solve problems. For starters no person can be the expert on what is best for every person on the planet. Also, we believe that when you and your partner come together against the painful cycle, you can solve any challenge together.
We won’t spend much time talking about past events. The primary focus will be what is happening in the here and now between partners, often during the present session.
EFT Therapists do not engage in “find the bad guy” conversations. We will sometimes talk about past or recent events that have happened but never to establish who is at fault or what should have been done.
EFT provides a roadmap (https://hmtlmg.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/eft-roadmap_infinity-1.pdf) for therapists. With your help, EFT therapists will come to know your destination. We know the conversations and experiences that you will need to visit on the way there. This roadmap is based on science, logic, and reason. It has proven to be effective for most couples in long-term, follow-up studies. Your therapist will have their own style of navigating this journey with you and will tailor the process to you and your partner individually, because no one else has your same story or experience.
At the end of that journey is a secure connection where you can disagree and have conflict
with little or no concern for the future of the relationship. And, at times when you do get worried about the relationship or pulled back into the old pattern, you will be able to reach for and receive reassurance, contact, or comfort because you have already created the route. You will have driven the route multiple times with your therapist and can now find your way on your own, even when you get lost on the way.
I wish you the best if you decided to start an EFT journey of with your partner. Navigate Family Therapy has multiple therapists with extensive EFT training and experience, including an EFT Trainer, an EFT Supervisor Candidate, three Certified EFT Therapists, and others on the road to certification.