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Couples In Conflict: How Emotionally Focused Therapy (Eft) Can Help, and Heal, Your Relationship

When it comes to the path of commitment or marriage, most of us are familiar with the usual terrain. 

As a couple, we’ve slogged our way through vicious valleys, meandered across pleasant plateaus, and danced upon heavenly highs. For the most part, we’ve been good with all that, always knowing that each part of the journey is impermanent and that the plateaus are usually the most extended stretches. 

But, what happens when the lows go on for miles upon miles, and the conflicts in our coupledom seem to never let up? 

A conflict-filled relationship can lead to uncoupling or divorce at best and long-term, non-stop bickering, discord, miscommunication, and misery at worst.  

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a couple’s therapy model that you can use to boost communication, attachment, and bonding in your partnership.

Love and Intimacy: When Attachment Style Creates Conflict

According to Robert J. Sternberg, an American psychologist and psychometrician, romantic love is about intimacy, passion, and commitment.  

While passion and commitment are often relatively easy to come by, intimacy can be rife with barriers that may stem from early childhood and attachment style patterns learned then. 

Pia Melody, the author of The Intimacy Factor and Senior Clinical Advisor for The Meadows, says, “Healthy intimacy requires the trusting offer of our true self to another and our trusting acceptance of the other’s true self in return.”

Issues in emotional, intellectual, and experiential intimacy, which is where Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) can help your conflicted relationship, are rooted in attachment and emotional bonding. 

Fear and insecurity – often stemming from the attachment style we developed in early childhood- can present significant obstacles to healthy intimacy engagement with our partners. 

As a result, we end up with the following obstacles to a loving relationship:

  • Blaming and disparagement
  • Keeping secrets
  • Not sharing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Lack of physical intimacy
  • Gatekeeping and territoriality
  • Inattention
  • Constant bickering
  • Predictable patterns of disagreement
  • Competitive mindset

EFT Is Based on Attachment Theory- What is That Anyway?

Attachment theory is a psychological and ethological theory regarding relationships between humans. The most important tenet is that kids need a safe connection with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development.

Intimacy is the emotional aspect of romantic love. The part of love that makes you feel close to your partner, intimacy, involves feelings of trust, security, and self-disclosure. 

The intimacy between you and your partner likely developed over time as you got to know each other.

Your ability to attain and maintain intimacy- with anyone, not just your romantic partner- is intricately entwined with your attachment style

Four main styles of attachment have been identified in adults:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-preoccupied
  • Dismissive-avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

Attachment style refers to how you relate to others. Your style of attachment develops early in life. Once established, it likely influences your relationships with others, including that with your romantic partner.

In their book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help you find – and Keep – Love, Dr. Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller explain the biological realities behind our relationship needs and teach readers how to identify their attachment styles and that of their partners. Recognizing our relationships’ styles and patterns can help us heal the rifts that may occur when our attachment styles are at odds. 

So, What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and Can it Help Us?

mature lesbian couple in need of couples therapy eft concept

Based on attachment theory, the EFT approach was created in the mid-1980s by Dr. Sue Johnson, a British clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and author of Hold Me Tight, with the help of her thesis advisor Less Greenberg, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Emotionally Focused Therapy views attachment needs as a primary motivational system for survival. A couple’s relationship and need for one another are akin to a child’s need for their parent. 

The approach of EFT focuses on attachment theory as a theory of adult love wherein attachment, care-giving, and sex are intertwined. 

Attachment theory encompasses the search for personal autonomy, which also includes dependability on one another, along with a sense of personal and interpersonal love and desire. 

EFT can help couples re-work their attachment approach to increase their inter-dependency, emotion regulation, and relational health. The modality helps couples develop a more secure bond, resulting in better communication and a fortified relationship.

As you, your partner, and your counselor work together, a new way of functioning and relating to each other will start to develop. 

By engaging in the process, allowing yourselves to be vulnerable with each other as a couple, and committing to an enduring transformation in your relationship, you will cement the effectiveness of EFT.

Essentially, EFT can help you and your partner reconnect by recognizing trigger patterns and steering interactions in a different direction before they become what Dr. Johnson refers to as “demon dialogues.”

The term “demon dialogues” describes the destructive cycles of conflict that many couples experience in their failing partnership. 

The first step in emotionally focused couple’s therapy (EFCT) is to help a couple identify the killer dance that consistently pops up, when and how it happens, and what each partner does that escalates the conflict. 

These destructive “dance moves” could be a tone of voice, a topic of conversation, a word, a look, emotional or physical distancing, or an energetic change in one partner or the other – or both. 

What Should My Partner and I Expect From EFT?

mature-couple-talking EFT concept

EFT is a short-term couples therapy modality; you can expect to attend eight to 20 sessions with your partner and sometimes individually. 

The first stage, cycle de-escalation, helps you and your partner understand how your hostile exchanges drive a self-reinforcing cycle of pain and discord. When you’re able to associate these cycles with attachment disruptions in your partnership, you can reframe the problem– making it not about your partner and their actions, but about your unhealthy process as a couple. 

The second stage, restructuring interactions, helps you and your partner shape new core emotional experiences and develop new interactions that can help you feel a more secure connection. As a couple, you’ll be encouraged to look at and share your attachment vulnerabilities, as well as voice your needs in a focused and structured way. 

In this way, the two of you can form new constructive rather than destructive cycles, which creates a sense of secure attachment. 

The third stage of EFT, consolidation, helps you use your newly secure attachment bond to strengthen your partnership, resolve everyday issues, and foster positive change.

It’s been shown that after EFT, couples fight less, feel closer, and their satisfaction in the relationship increases. 

Humans Need a Secure Connection With Others

Numerous studies have shown that humans need a secure attachment to others just as we need food and water to survive. 

One study published by the journal Heart found that single people have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke than coupled people and have higher mortality overall.

There was a reason that you and your partner connected in the first place, fell in love, and committed to one another. The vicious valleys that are a normal part of every relationship can be traversed and overcome more effectively and quickly with good intimacy and communication skills in place. 

Check out the books I’ve mentioned. If you feel you and your partner are in need, seek out a therapist qualified in EFT; the practice is widely used in couples therapy, and you’re bound to find someone in your area well versed in the modality.