Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT)

One of the pillars of a happy relationship is healthy attachment. It's the enriching bond that allows us to act as a refuge for each other. In moments of crisis, we need to work on this dimension via a specific kind of therapy. Find out more here.
Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT)
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 24 April, 2024

Feeling like you connect emotionally with someone and that your desires fit with theirs is a magical and extraordinary experience. It means experiencing an almost electric chemical connection. Your feelings become more intense, your fears are soothed, and it seems like you’ve found a refuge and a home.

In fact, loving someone means developing a bond with them. They make you feel safe and provide you with many of your needs. But this doesn’t mean you’re emotionally dependent. In fact, every healthy relationship is built on attachment. However, it must be a secure, mature, and conscious attachment.

When a relationship falters, it’s often due to a kind of  ‘corruption’ of this type of attachment. Breaches of trust occur and emotions dominated by resentment and disaffection start to overflow. These are relational distortions. Fortunately, they can be healed. As a matter of fact, there’s a specific therapy that’s particularly effective in these situations.

Often, in our relationships, we tend to use deficient emotional communication that causes extremely harmful interaction patterns.

Couple in emotionally focused couples therapy
EFT for couples helps reduce distress in relationships while restoring attachment and trust.

Emotionally focused couple therapy

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) for couples is a brief therapeutic model that seeks to improve attachment and bonding in couples. Dr. Susan M. Johnson, professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa, developed this approach. Her book, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, published in 1996, is a reference work in this particular area.

Couples who are in crisis often experience a fracture in their emotional commitment. Although they continue to need each other, distrust, rancor, and harmful words start to appear. Moreover, the partners continuously seek to blame each other for anything and everything. Consequently, communication becomes ineffective and they both experience deep anguish.

Dr. Johnson describes emotionally focused couple therapy as a journey through which the relationship can be repaired via emotions. It’s a highly valuable psychotherapeutic approach that seeks to achieve a series of objectives.

Therapeutic purposes

The most decisive purpose of emotionally focused couple therapy is to move from isolation to the recovery of emotional connection. Every relational crisis plunges its protagonists into disaffection. This means they both look at each other with resentment and mistrust. And, facilitating a progressive rapprochement isn’t easy. But, if the couple addresses a series of specific spheres, this transition will be successful.

  • EFT seeks to repair the emotional commitment of the couple.
  • It aims to deactivate defensive behaviors and make way for more open and empathetic attitudes. But, the couple must be able to put aside their resentments and take risks for each other.
  • It seeks to improve emotional communication.
  • It tries to break the cycle of attribution of blame. This is replaced with understanding and the search for solutions.
  • It teaches partners not to project anger on each other. Instead, they learn to express their fears, anger, needs, and shortcomings.

The emotional experience of each partner of a couple in crisis is validated and understood in emotionally focused couples therapy.

The six phases of repairing a relationship

Emotionally focused therapy for couples is a model based on valid and reliable scientific evidence. For example, a study conducted by the University of Ottawa (Canada) claims it’s effective not only in the area of couple relationships but also for families.

The strategy is based on six types of intervention to repair the link. They’re as follows:

1. Reflection: what’s happening in the relationship?

The first phase of emotionally focused couple therapy is for the therapist to understand the reality of the couple in crisis. However, it’s not enough for them to simply make a detailed list of the couple’s problems.

In fact, the professional must mediate and create a mirror for the partners to express their thoughts, emotions, and needs. The therapeutic space must be a secure setting where the couple can freely reflect on the internal realities that are fracturing the bond between them.

2. Validation of emotions

Emotionally focused couple therapy makes the partners in the couple realize that every experience, emotion, and need of theirs is valid. It’s perfectly acceptable for one of them to feel alone because they think that their partner doesn’t pay any attention to them. It’s okay for one of them to feel jealous, questioned, or overwhelmed. Indeed, every experience and sensation is important and valid and must be put on the table.

Understanding that everything they feel is both decisive and respectable creates a space free of mutual criticism for seeking solutions. By providing this information, the therapist then knows where to start.

3. Evocative responses

Evocative responses are assertive, clear, and thoughtful explanations of feelings. The couple has to get involved in respectful but courageous emotional communication with which they express what hurts, annoys, or worries them.

The therapist should facilitate this type of evocative response through questions such as What do you think when your partner does this or says that?”, or “How do you feel in those situations?”, etc.

Couple talking to therapist in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
In emotionally focused couple therapy, the objective is to repair the attachment, making it healthier and emotionally enriching.

4. Awareness

The crisis and the distance between a couple won’t be resolved if neither of them is aware of the emotional reality, both of themselves and their partner. If they don’t possess the ability to make contact, accept, and understand the emotional climate that’s surrounding them, they won’t restore their attachment and bonding.

5. Empathic actions

The partners need to recognize what action they could take to show each other that they understand what they’re feeling and want to make things better. Empathic actions are behaviors that seek to emotionally connect with a loved one and generate a positive change. They help couples to repair the problems that are separating them.

In this emotional and behavioral work, partners must share their efforts. They need to mobilize certain psychological areas and understand what’s separating them. Moreover, they must understand what they both need and what dysfunctional dynamics are separating them. Once they understand them, they can initiate specific changes that generate feelings of well-being and closeness.

6. Consolidation and integration

Throughout the entire therapeutic process, some useful solutions and highly effective strategies emerge that promote the reconstruction of the relationship. By the end of therapy, the couple will have learned new techniques to build a healthy attachment to each other. The next step will be integrating them into their daily lives.

Finally, forming a healthy, mature attachment based on skillful emotional communication is the primary objective of this valuable psychological resource. However, the couple doesn’t only strengthen their relationship through this therapeutic model based on emotions and attachment. In fact, they also acquire valuable tools for self-knowledge. Furthermore, they learn to care for the relationship in which they want to continue investing their affection and effort.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Greenberg, L. S. (2015). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.
  • Johnson, S. M. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little Brown Spark.
  • Johnson, S. M. (2020). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  • Wiebe SA, Johnson SM. A Review of the Research in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Fam Process. 2016 Sep;55(3):390-407. doi: 10.1111/famp.12229. Epub 2016 Jun 8. PMID: 27273169.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.