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Emotionally Focused Therapy

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Emotionally Focused Therapy by Robert Fyfe, M.ED, LPC

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), also known as process-experiential therapy or emotion-focused therapy is a short term (typically 8-20 sessions), structured approach to working with couples, families and individuals and is a therapeutic approach we use at Feel Good Counseling. (EFT) integrates three theories: attachment, humanistic-experiential, and systems and uses emotions in order to facilitate change from unwanted emotional states and problematic emotions into more positive experiences.

Attachment Theory

The foundational idea underlying attachment theory is that human beings evolved in a way that requires secure, emotionally connecting relationships with a few loved ones in order to survive. This idea underlies EFT as well, guiding the conceptualization of relationships’

development and problems. EFT also incorporates the concept from attachment theory that humans unconsciously search for romantic partners that fit the mold of their early attachment relationships (Crawley & Grant, 2005). Thus, if there are problems in attachment early on, most likely the same attachment issues will show up in a romantic relationship. It is believed in attachment theory and EFT that every human has a fear of abandonment and isolation.

concerned with the present moment and the growth rather than weaknesses of the clients.

Humanistic-Experiential Theory EFT incorporates humanistic-experiential ideas with the belief that emotions guide humans’ attachment needs, aid in the creation of meaning, and communicate intention. Other humanistic-experiential concepts that EFT uses are the focus on the present, encouraging growth, and collaboration

with clients to accomplish goals. EFT is a collaborative, emotion-laden therapy concerned with the present moment and the growth rather than weaknesses of the clients.

Systemic Theory

EFT is also considered a systemic approach that focuses more on process than content, sees relational interactions as cyclic, and emphasizes the roles each client plays in maintaining the negative interaction cycle. However, it is not purely systemic due to the integration of psychologically-based theories. EFT believes that healthy functioning results from change at both individual and system levels.

Relationship Problem Development

EFT conceptualizes the development of relationship problems using the guiding concepts from attachment, humanistic-experiential, and systemic theories. EFT believes that suppressed primary emotions, due to insecure attachment, lead to a negative interaction cycle within couples and families. In other words, all family members are struggling to have their innate human need for a secure, emotionally-connected relationship met. When a partner or family member feels a sense of abandonment, there is typically

a primary emotional response (fear or hurt) that is suppressed and substituted for a defensive secondary emotion (anger or withdrawal). This usually creates the negative interaction cycle of blame-withdrawal, where one partner or family member criticizes or attacks the other, the other avoids communication, the avoiding behavior causes the critical partner or family member to

criticize more, and this causes the withdrawing person to withdraw more. The more one partner or family member tries to get the other to change their behavior, the more the other continues the unwanted behavior and vice versa. No one is to blame but the cycle. EFT conceptualizes depression and distress in relationships as a result from unmet attachment needs and the cycle that results. When a couple or family comes in to a session, an EFT therapist will look to the attachment-related emotions and interaction cycle to pinpoint the problem.

How Relationships Grow

In EFT, it is believed that a healthy, secure relationship contains flexibility in dependence positions, emotional engagement, and emotional responsiveness. For an unhealthy, insecure relationship to gain these characteristics, interactions need restructuring and emotion-based attachment needs must be expressed and responded to in a compassionate way by the other partner or family members. Healthy couples and families are able to express their emotions and needs without fear that the other partner or another family

member will criticize or withdraw. Instead, the other partner or family member will validate the emotion and work on meeting the other’s need.

These behaviors can push the couple or family out of the negative interaction cycle by

creating new emotional responses to one another.

Does this sound interesting?

If this sounds interesting to you please contact me to discuss whether this type of therapy is for you. Contact me by email or

phone 314-467-0155.


Burgess Moser, M. & Johnson, S.M. (2008). The integration of systems and humanistic approaches in emotionally focused therapy for couples. Person Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies: Special Issue on Couple and Family Therapy, 7(2), 262-278.

Crawley, J., & Grant, J. (2005). Emotionally focused therapy for couples and attachment theory. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 26(2), 82-89.

Furrow, J. L., Johnson, S. M., & Bradley, B. A. (2011). The emotionally focused casebook: New directions in treating couples. New York: Routledge.

Greenberg, L. S., & Johnson, S. M. (1988). Emotionally focused therapy for couples. New York: Guilford Press.

Greenberg, L. S., & Safran, J. D. (1987). Emotion in psychotherapy: Affect, cognition, and the process of change. New York: Guilford Press.

Johnson, S. M., & Greenberg, L. S. (1994). The heart of the matter: Perspectives on emotion in marital therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Johnson, S.M. & Greenman, P. (2006) The path to a secure bond: emotionally focused couple therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 62, 597-609.

Safran, J. D., & Greenberg, L. S. (1991). Emotion, psychotherapy, and change. New York: Guilford Press.


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