Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy

A Short Description

There are many different kinds of marriage counseling. In actuality, most therapists do not really use any one method, nor have they any training marriage counseling. They tell me that they do “what works.” The problem with this is that they do not have a very good idea of how relationships work. They don’t have a good model of adult love or how it is created. So they will try a technique they heard about from a colleague or something they picked up in a book or a workshop. But they don’t really have a focus or a detailed plan on what should happen.

At the Relationship Center of Michigan, we use the principles of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT). The strengths of this approach are:

  • A clear and documented theory of adult love
  • A clear idea of the underlying problem
  • A clear goal
  • A proven method which helps people reach this goal

A Theory of Love

It all starts with the insights of John Bowlby, who first wrote about “attachment” love in the 1960’s. He noticed that people want to be close to each other. In fact, we are genetically programmed to want to be close and intimate with someone. There are exceptions to the rule. Some people don’t want to be close to anyone. However, these people are exceptional. Most people want closeness with someone. This is easily seen in children who want to be close to their caregivers.

Secure Base

The second aspect of attachment love is called a “secure base.” It means that when people develop an attachment love with someone they feel more secure. Children don’t want to leave the presence of their parents. Adults feel secure when they are in each other’s presence. They begin to live their lives around each other. A proof of this lies in the experience of divorce. Even when a party knows they need the divorce, they still feel anxious because their secure base is no longer there.

Safe Haven

The third aspect is called “safe haven.” When a child skins its knee, he or she will go running for a parent. The parent will hold the child and soothe the child until he or she calms down. The parent is a safe haven for the child. Similarly with adults, couples are safe havens or “best friends” for each other. They go to each other when there are problems or when they need someone for comfort or reassurance.

How Attachment Love Develops

Adult attachment love, in our culture, generally develops in the falling-in-love process. During it, couples share painful or embarrassing things, become vulnerable to each other and receive support and re-assurance from the other. In the process, they discover that they can rely on their prospective partner. Trust is created and an intimate, close, fulfilling attachment relationship is born. (For a fuller and more detailed description of the ins and outs of attachment love, click on Attachment Love, one of the free articles. This is a chapter from Dr. Joe Dragun’s book: Falling in Love Is Not Enough.)

Lack of Trust Is the Problem

The basic ingredient of adult attachment love is trust. So as you might guess, the problems occur when trust is:

  • Lost (through an affair, for example)
  • Doubted (through a series of lesser events)
  • Not very strong to begin with (when a partner is predisposed not to trust because of past experiences).

When trust is not strongly present, couples tend to have negative, repetitive communication patterns. These are characterized by anger, withdrawal, defending one’s position, attacking the partner or combinations of these things. In the end both are angry or resentful, feel more distant and emotionally withdrawn, and feel sad, hurt, lonely and/or anxious. And on top of that, they never really are able to discuss the issue at hand or solve the problem which started the argument. As this war dances continue, partners view each other in increasingly negative terms.

The War Dance

Couples tell me that they don’t even know how they got into the argument. One person says something, the other almost automatically responds. It is as if a computer virus has taken over. Neither one seems to be able to respond differently until the cycle runs its course. Each one is triggered by the responses of their partner.

It works like this. Jim is late from work. Jane is not sure if she can trust Jim (for whatever reason). She complains to him. Jim feels it is an attack (a sign that he is not sure about her) and reacts by defending himself. Jane interprets this to mean that he is ignoring her concerns, as an example. She becomes angry and complains harder. Jim becomes angry and defends more or attacks her. It ends when one or both of them walk away.

So there is a trigger, a reaction which is a trigger for the other partner, a reaction which is the trigger for the first partner and so on.

Sometimes the war dance varies in pattern. Every couple has a somewhat different pattern. But this war dance is the major problem. Couples tend to blame each other. And while no one is perfect, the war dance is what destroys relationships.

A Clear Direction

The third strength of EFCT (as listed above) is a clear sense of where we are going. Our primary goal is help couples become “best friends” with each other and to become a source of security, protection and comfort for the other.

How do we do this? There are actually two different focuses. One focus is on slowing down the war dance and focusing on what a person thinks and feels. Between the trigger and the reaction, there is a complex reaction including:

  • Interpreting what the partner is saying
  • Feelings about this
  • Interpreting what the partner is saying about me
  • Feelings about this
  • My interpretation of myself
  • Feelings about this
  • Reasons for my reactions

The idea is to help each person to slow down in order to experience and describe their full range of thoughts and feelings. As a result, a person tends to feel some relief and gains understanding about what why they are reacting. It also gives valuable clues about the attitudes and beliefs they hold about intimate relationships.

Secondly, it gives the partner new understanding about what their partner is going through.

A second focus of the therapy is helping each person to express thoughts and feelings directly to their partner. During the course of the war dance, partners tend to communicate only one thing: anger and distrust. Yet they are experiencing a wide range of emotions which they keep hidden. Couples often begin by talking almost exclusively to the therapist. The therapist will sum up the person’s feelings and thoughts and ask the partner to respond. As time goes on, each partner expresses more and more directly to their partner what they are going through. This can bring the partners closer together.

A part of this focus might be called emotional responding. Often a person hears that his or her partner is sad, for example. He or she might respond by trying to talk them out of it, by distracting them, by telling them what to do, by trying to solve the problem or by telling them about a similar situation they experienced. Emotional responding is none of these things. It is telling your partner what your emotional reaction was to his or her communication. “I am happy you are relieved.” “I feel bad when you told me that story.” Almost invariably, this kind of communications brings partners closer together.

This Method Works

Published studies show that about 90% of the couples suffering marital distress improved after EFCT. By contrast, most mainstream therapies record between 40% and 50% success rates, with significant numbers of couples falling back into the old, unhappy patterns. In short, EFCT works.

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