Inspired by An EFT Road Map by Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT) is an effective treatment for relationship distress and disconnection. EFT works by helping a couple understand and reorganize their emotional responses to things and create new cycles of interaction. Research shows that EFT is highly effective, with 90 percent of couples reporting significant improvements in their relationship. Between 70 and 75 percent of couples in distress are able to move into recovery using EFT. Essentially, EFT helps a couple foster their attachment in healthy and productive ways. Here are the stages and steps of EFT and what to expect.
Stage 1 Identify Your Core Issues and Patterns of Disconnection
Step 1 In this first step of therapy, you and the therapist begin to collaborate, create an alliance, explore history and troubling issues, and set goals for therapy. No one knows more about your relationship than you do, so it’s important to share with your therapist your strengths as a couple, your difficulties, and your goals and dreams for your relationship.
- Step 2 Here you will begin to learn about and understand the negative communication patterns or cycles that disconnect you. This happens right in the session, as the therapist slows things down, tracks the interaction, and pinpoints where things get stuck. New ways of sharing your thoughts and feelings with each other are introduced and encouraged, and couples begin to feeling closer, more safe, and more encouraged.
- Step 3 Here we explore the emotions that are underneath the negative interaction cycle. Often the first emotions we will notice are frustration, anger, or numbness. But when we look deeper, underneath the anger, we can find anxiety, hurt, or sadness. Finding the words to share these deeper, more vulnerable feelings and then sharing them encourages connection and intimacy (“into me; see?”).
- Step 4 In Step 4, you are able to recognize your cycle and what the triggers are. This is about understanding the things that you do to protect yourself and your relationship and how these might threaten your partner and trigger the things your partner does to protect him or herself. It might sound something like this: “Hey, are we doing that thing again: the more I go after you, the more you withdraw because you’re feeling hurt…” Slow down your conversations so that you can tap into the feelings that are beneath the surface. Catch your thoughts (“She doesn’t care” or “I don’t matter”) before acting on them. You might notice that you can hold back your knee-jerk reactions to avoid the cycle. You might not know yet how to pull each other close, and you might be afraid your old pattern will come back. However, when you discover that this negative cycle is the source of unhappiness in your relationship, you realize that your partner is not the enemy… the cycle is the enemy! You can now work together to gain control over it, and that already feels infinitely better.
Stage 2 Create a New, Intimate Relationship Bond; Change Your Communication Patterns
After the first stage of EFT, couples often start to feel better, and understandably they are tempted to discontinue treatment at this point. Skipping the second stage, however, keeps you from actually restructuring your bond and transforming your relationship to a deeper, profound connection. It’s a little like someone struggling with an addiction who stops the addiction without going through the transforming steps of the AA program.
- Step 5 Both of you are now more able to talk about your feelings that get triggered by the negative cycle, including things you might not have been able to say before. Because there is more compassion between you and less tension, there is safety to explore your experience more deeply. We all have doubts about ourselves at times, and we might also have fears about depending on others. You might struggle with personal fears or insecurities in the relationship, or you might have had life experiences that make it difficult to trust your partner to be there for you. With the help of your therapist, you can take turns and begin sharing these raw spots with your partner. As you take these risks, your partner begins to truly see and understand where you are coming from, which creates empathy and helps you to connect more deeply.
- Step 6 This step involves staying engaged and listening to your partner’s heart- felt disclosures. You might feel surprised at first at what you hear, and it might feel hard to believe or trust. It is normal to experience a mixture of emotions. Start by trying to listen emotionally to what your partner is saying, without needing to change his/her experience or take responsibility for it yourself. Stay open to the possibility of experiencing and understanding your partner in a new way. Allow yourself to be moved by what your partner is confiding. Your therapist will lean in and help you do this.
- Step 7 In this step of therapy, your therapist helps you to explore your attachment needs, or what you need to feel close and safe, and then how to ask for what you need from your partner in a caring and nonthreatening way. You learn to lean in and reach for your partner, and he/she is able to reach back in a loving way, whenever either one of you feels stressed, hurt, or insecure. The bond between you shifts, becoming closer and more intimate. You can check out your perceptions and talk about feelings. You can listen with an open heart, be curious about one another, and offer reassurance when needed. Both of you have a felt sense of being there for each other. This creates deeper emotional intimacy.
Stage 3 Consolidation of What You Have Learned to Do
- Step 8 Here we will revisit core issues or problems, including parenting, finances, sex, and other life issues, while staying emotionally connected. Problems don’t seem as loaded now that you feel heard, valued, close, and secure. We focus on staying accessible, responsive, and engaged (A.R.E.) while talking about issues. Together, you can face any of life’s challenges more easily.
- Step 9 In this last step of therapy, we celebrate your hard work in reshaping your relationship, and we put safeguards in place to protect it. Create rituals together that privilege your relationship. Find ways of keeping this new way of relating strong. Learn the importance of friendships and lifestyles that are friends of your relationship. All of these safeguards serve to maintain intimacy. Perhaps that is why EFT has been shown to continue improving relationships, even years after the treatment is ended!