According to Dr. Susan Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy expert:
“Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need you, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me? The anger, the criticism, the demands, are really cries to their lovers, calls to stir their hearts, to draw their mates back in emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe connection.”
Couples don’t commit to each other to live in a disconnected, isolated, alienated way. The whole point is to love meaningfully and respectfully, and mutual enjoyment of each other. But it’s no secret that as time goes on maintaining that connection is often difficult, and for some the path to intimacy can become an impasse.
So what do you do when lasting love seems hard to achieve, and you’re overwhelmed by negative emotions you just can’t seem to get a handle on?
Dr. Johnson is the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, and she has a few ideas.
What EFT is and Why it Matters
Emotionally Focused Therapy treats the connection between partners as an attachment bond. This bond is formed, developed, and sometimes even destroyed by how well a couple dances together in the push and pull of meeting each other’s needs. The dance may be one of increasing closeness and coordinated movement toward each other. Or, it might be one marked by ongoing cycles of disconnect, conflict and hurtful stepping on each other’s emotional toes.
Since the 1980s, Dr. Johnson has explored ways to help couples feel more secure in their interactions. Her approach is meant to reduce the painful patterns of needy or demanding pursuit and painful withdrawn shut-down that happen in so many hurting relationships.
Emotionally Focused Therapy helps couples find ways to better understand each other’s dance steps rather than fight them. This way, both partners feel empowered to be the kind of partner that the other continues to trust and enjoy wherever life’s music takes them.
Just as expert dancers use what they’ve learned to create both connection and freedom on the dance floor, Emotionally Focused Therapy enhances the quality of connection to allow couples greater freedom and ease together. It was developed so that you can address the rifts between you without damaging the connection that binds you. You can even make your bond more secure. How?
Couples that employ Dr. Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy methods see substantial relationship improvement and growth due to increased ability to choose closeness over criticism or retreat.
Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples is the most research-proven method of couple therapy, and it is effective because it is closely aligned with the science of adult attachment and interpersonal neurobiology—how adults bond. (Research information can be found by visiting the website listed below for the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.)
EFT has core strengths that make it particularly helpful for distressed or confused couples
- First and foremost, EFT takes that view that relationship behavior, however negative it may seem, is likely each partner’s best attempt to get their needs met. Johnson calls this the “howl for connection.”
- EFT relies on some key fundamental, mapped steps that facilitate change in a relationship.
- EFT is a proven, workable, and lasting method that works in a variety of circumstances, across varying people groups around the world, and even improves the emotional well-being of individuals who apply the concepts.
Emotionally Focused Therapy goals are clear:
- Shift the negative cycles of your couple dance by understanding and adjusting your emotional responses to each other.
- Position yourselves differently in the dance by learning new “steps” or cycles of interaction rather than pursue/withdraw or criticize/defend.
- Practice the new dance steps so that your bond is more secure and enjoyable.
Think about it. If you each knew that you were valued, loved, and respected, and you knew that you were each able to meet each other’s needs, what topics or areas of conflict would remain unmanageable?
How EFT Works and How it Helps
Over several decades, Dr. Johnson has shared with couples how openness, attunement, and responsiveness solidify connections. Her work implements these seven key conversations, that help couples create what she calls “a lifetime of love.” She details the following in her book, Hold Me Tight:
1. Recognize “the demon dialogues.”
What negative communication patterns exist in your relationship? This is the true problem. That same fight you have again and again? That’s your negative cycle of conflict showing up despite the topic (finances, family, etc.). Taking the pressure off each other and noticing your repetitive pattern makes emotion sharing much less risky because it becomes you two against the cycle, not each other.
2. Uncover your relational “raw spots.”
What attachment needs are repeatedly unaddressed between you? EFT work helps you see through your knee-jerk, automatic responses. You can then examine the hurts resulting from emotional deprivation and see each other’s true feelings more accurately.
3. Review “a rocky moment.”
What happens when you and your partner “go there?” Work through the demon dialogue. Examine your interactions. Take responsibility for your own behavior, emotions, hurts, and needs. Own your impact on your partner and the relationship. Then come together as you share deeper parts of yourselves.
4. Ask these transformative questions:
What do I fear most? What do I need most from you? This vulnerability creates a more available, emotionally responsive, and closely linked partnership. From here, you can establish positive interaction patterns.
5. Heal via forgiveness.
What pain remains unresolved between you? Relationship trauma must be faced honestly. Then it must be forgiven. This is how continual connection is built. Seek to have conversations that support healing and rebuild trust.
6. Bond via intimacy, sex, and touch.
Do you feel emotionally safe enough for lovemaking? In a committed relationship, sex plays a crucial role in rebuilding and cementing lasting connections. When emotional safety lags or gets very compartmentalized into pure sensation versus shared experience. Lacking in these areas further erodes the bond between you.
7. Maintain and nurture your love.
How will you engage each other to keep love healthy and growing? Dr. Johnson implores couples to keep talking, sharing, and responding in emotionally accessible ways. How?
- Be vigilant and reflective as it pertains to unsafe actions and counteractions.
- Openly celebrate your relationship “wins” or successes.
- Develop your own rituals to lovingly acknowledge periods of separation and reunion.
- Gently help each other recognize your unique attachment issues.
- Create your distinct relationship recovery story together.
- Allow yourselves to fully imagine and begin creating your new love story.
- Come to terms with the truth: love is an ongoing journey. You will perpetually seek, lose, and recover your emotional connection. Stick with it.
Sue Johnson’s decades of work, many successful outcome studies, and the phenomenal success struggling couples enjoy reveal EFT effectiveness. This therapy addresses your longing for deeper emotional connection by getting past simple “conflict containment.” Instead, you become better able to access your emotions and enjoy a mutually responsive relationship.
So what’s the next step?
Dr. Johnson reassures readers in a blog post titled, “Where Does Love Go Wrong?” this way:
“…When folks caught in Demon Dialogues come in and ask, “Is there any hope for us?” I tell them, “Sure there is. When we understand what the drama of love is all about, what our needs and fears are, we can help each other step out of these negative dialogues into positive loving conversations that bring us into each other’s arms and safely home.”
If you and your partner are suffering from a pervasive sense of aloneness within your union, EFT can go a long way in helping you get to the heart of your hurt. From there, you can recover well in a lasting way.
Johnson, Susan M. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2008.
[Please note that these principles for creating safety, and EFT, may not be appropriate for every stage of marital distress, especially ongoing abuse or the type of domestic violence known as intimate partner terrorism.]