What Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Is Actually Like

Through emotionally focused therapy, couples can learn how to prevent conflicts from escalating.

Couple Holding Hands
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As plenty of couples who have been in a long-term relationship can attest, there isn't an anniversary milestone when everything becomes rainbows and butterflies. Years into a relationship, conflicts and challenges can arise, even if rom-com montages suggest otherwise.

With that in mind, the idea that short-term couples therapy can be effective for some might seem a little, well, unrealistic. However, some people find that emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT), a short-term treatment lasting 8 to 20 sessions, is exactly what they need to get their relationship back on track.

What Is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?

Developed by clinical psychologist and couple's therapist, Sue Johnson, C.M., in the 1980s, emotionally focused therapy is a form of psychotherapy.

"Emotionally focused couples therapy is an approach to helping couples reduce conflict and feel more secure in their relationships based upon each partner's understanding of the way emotional attachment is formed and maintained between one another," says Anitra Durand-Allen, MAMFT, a marriage and family counselor. "The goal of EFT is to help the couple identify the negative cycle of conflict that arises when one partner feels emotionally disconnected or detached. When this cycle is identified, the couple can then learn ways to stop the cycle, reassure their partner, and change behaviors before the conflict gets out of hand." (

Emotionally focused therapy is not just for couples, but individuals and families too. Parents can try EFT to meet the emotional needs of their children and improve their family dynamic. In an individual session, the technique of examining one's attachment style in hopes equipping them to deal with conflict is still the basis for the therapy.

It's a commonly-used form of therapy that's backed by research. "Emotionally focused couples therapy has been studied extensively and is now considered one of the most empirically validated approaches to couples therapy," says Amanda Levison, a licensed professional counselor from Neurofeedback & Counseling Center. "The short-term duration is ideal for couples with a busy schedule which may not be able to commit to long-term therapy."

How Does Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Work?

Emotionally focused couples therapy is a talk therapy that's based around key components designed to help couples through challenges they face.

"Clients are given assessments to complete and the outcomes will be used to guide discussions in sessions," says Durand-Allen. "The therapist may observe the clients in a disagreement to better understand the conflict cycle. The couple may be given 'homework' or activities to work on outside of sessions." Examples of homework include practicing awareness of the emotional self, or completing daily activities to increase connection. (

Emotionally focused couples therapy is informed by attachment theory. "Attachment theory states that our primary caregivers' ability to be available to, responsive to, and engaged with our emotional needs as children develops our template for emotionally connecting with others," says Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, M.A.,M.M.F.T.,Ph.D., a licensed psychologist. "As children, we are dependent on our caregivers not just for our physical needs but to meet our emotional needs, and when they are able to attend to these more times than that — no caregiver is going to do it 100 percent of the time — we develop the security to navigate the world with confidence."

According to attachment theory, everyone develops one of four attachment styles.

  • Anxious: People develop an anxious attachment style when their caregiver is neglectful, says Peck. People with this attachment style "may try and cling to their caregiver or please them or displease them — anything to get more attention and connection."
  • Avoidant: "Those with an avoidant style learn to shut down their needs and not to rely on others," says Peck. These people put up a "wall" to protect themselves, she says.
  • Secure: Secure attachment results when your caregivers were attentive to your needs, says Peck. This gives you the ability to "communicate [your] needs knowing that [you] will probably be met with kindness, understanding, and a desire to support [you]," she says.
  • Disorganized: "A disorganized style is least common and often happens when caregivers have chronic mental health, substance use, or other issues," says Peck. "Childhood is marked by chaos and children have no sense of what might happen next. They grow up without the tools to regulate themselves or attach to caregivers with a consistent style."

The goal of emotionally focused couples therapy is for couples to understand their attachment styles and how they affect their behaviors in the relationship.

How to Talk to Your Partner About EFT and Find Treatment

Depending on how your partner feels about therapy in general, getting them to give emotionally focused couples therapy a chance might be a challenge. But if you stress that it's a short-term treatment, it has proven results, and that your relationship is worth working on, they may decide it's worth a shot.

"When looking for treatment, ICEEFT is a great resource for finding therapists and supervisors versed in EFT," says Peck. "Other professionals take an EFT or 'attachment-focused' lens to their couples work…I do not do the pure EFT format as I think it's important to be flexible and leave room for some of the contextual variables at play. However, the ultimate goal is always to help couples move past the superficial to the depths of how to communicate and respond to attachment needs." (

Relationships take work, but they're often worth the effort. While EFT might not be for everyone, it could be the form of therapy you and your partner need.

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