Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

What is Emotionally Focused Therapy and how can it help?
EFT - Emotionally Focused Therapy

EFT, or Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, was developed by Dr. Susan Johnson.  It is a therapy based on attachment theory and has been shown to be highly effective, even with couples in high levels of distress. During sessions, the therapist elicits the couples' awareness of patterns they unconsciously co-create and then are victimized by (such as an attack-defend pattern).  Thoughts, emotions, memories, and even the physical sensations during the panic of these interactions are understood together by the couple so that they can buffer against the pattern together.  Rather than protect themselves from one another's entrenched positions, they can protect the relationship from the pattern.  In other words, instead of saying to yourself, "There she goes again, doing that thing I hate," you say, along with your partner, "There is the pattern, out to get us; let's buffer against it."


EFT and Primal Panic

Dr. Jaak Panksepp found that loss of connection to attachment figures (this happens between child-parent but also between partner-partner) triggers what he called “primal panic”, a special set of fear responses (Panksepp, 1998, in Johnson, 2008). In childhood, we either cry out or withdraw from the rejecting or intruding parent. In adulthood, we still do, but we may not be able to talk about it very well with our primary attachment (aka partner). Because your partner is so important to you, you can subconsciously panic when the patterns emerge between you. On the outside, you may seem calm or collected, but on the inside, your heart may be racing or you may feel emotionally shut down. This is what Dr. John Gottman refers to as stonewalling, and is a predictor of divorce. On the other hand, you may seem hysterical, as if you're overreacting. You may become critical or contemptuous in ways you would never do if you weren't in such a flooded state. These behaviors are also predictive of divorce.

But in EFT, these responses are understood for what they are--attachment cries which are used (usually unskillfully) to draw your loved one closer. They are accompanied by states of flight/flight/freeze and can be extremely distressing.

EFT Case Study

EFT can help couples establish a secure bond, an earned attachment, even if they've never experienced an attachment like this before.

Here is one of Susan Johnson's most interesting findings about secure attachment. She, along with Dr. James Coan and colleagues (2006) studied the brain’s pain response in by administering electric shock under three different conditions:

  • To a woman, happily married, with no one holding her hand when the shock was given
  • To a woman, happily married, with a stranger holding her hand when the shock was given
  • To a woman, happily married, with her husband holding her hand while the shock was given

An MRI scanner recorded how much pain activation occurred in the women’s brains. The results astounded even the researchers. While the electric shock was the same voltage for all three settings, the women felt pain when no one held her hand. She felt less pain when a stranger held her hand. But when her husband held her hand, she felt significantly less pain. Furthermore, the ones who reported the highest bondedness also reported least distress.

Oxytocin, released during breast feeding, orgasm and closeness with loved one is linked to a natural pleasure response, which dampens our stress hormones. How wonderful that the psycho-neuro-bio-chemical basis of attachment and the euphoria of love is not a mystery, but is based on the science of what love actually is, a series of moments when one feels accompanied in life's journeys. (Johnson, 2008). Couples who can access these states are what Gottman calls the Masters of Marriage.


For The Record

Coan, J., Schaefer, H.S., & Davidson, R.J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17 (12), 1032-1039. Retrieved on 28 November, 2013, from: Source.

Fraley, C., Fazzari, D., Bonanno, G., & Dekel, S. (2006). Attachment and psychological adaptation in high exposure survivors of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 538– 551.

GoodTherapy.org. (2013). Emotionally Focused Therapy. GoodTherapy.org. Retrieved on 21 November, 2013, from: Source.

Johnson, S. M. (2011). Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples: Key concepts. Lecture notes. Retrieved on 21 November, 2013, from: Source.

Johnson, S. M. (2008). My, how couples therapy has changed! Attachment, love and science. Psychotherapy.net. Retrieved on 13 November, 2013, from: Source.

Wikipedia. (2013a). Emotionally Focused Therapy. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved on 21 November, 2013, from: Source.