Couples Therapy: An Emotionally Focused Approach

Couples Therapy: An Emotionally Focused Approach

by Laurie McNeil, LCSW-C

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Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for Couples 

All loving couples begin their relationships with the intention of creating a happy and fulfilling life together. It’s disheartening, to say the least, when they get caught in unsatisfying, repetitive attempts at connection that become destructive to the relationship, making it difficult to access the close, emotional connection they once felt with each other. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) offers a way for couples to begin the process of tuning to their deeper emotional needs in times of distress and, in turn, those of their partner.

Couples learn to hear what’s underneath the anger and pain in their attempts to be heard by one another. This enables them to begin to open up to each other, reconnect, and re-experience the emotional bond that has been buried beneath the painful repetitive cycle they’ve been caught in.

How EFT Views Couple Distress

“EFT sees distress in relationships as centered in the loss of secure emotional connection, and that a negative cycle or “dance” is established when that loss of connection is experienced. These cycles are often characterized by anger, criticism, leaving, appearing indifferent, to name a few. Once established, these cycles can crop up over the slightest issue, and over time be corrosive to the bonds of trust and security in the relationship.” (Lisa Blum, PsyD.)

In her book Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson, EdD., the originator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, refers to this cycle of negative interaction that couples get caught in as The Demon Dialogues. She states that couples have natural, unconscious ways of dealing with fears of loss of connection from the one they love, creating “viscous cycles of insecurity that push them further and further apart”.  She goes on to describe three types of interactions (Demon Dialogues) that couples can get caught up in: Protest Polka, Find the Bad Guy, and Freeze and Flee. Each of these ways of interacting lead to more disappointment and hurt.

Dr. Johnson has observed that the Protest Polka, where one partner becomes “more critical and aggressive” and the other more “defensive and distant” is the most common type of dialogue that couples get caught by. Anger and attack by one partner leads to defending and withdrawing by the other. This process can leave both of them feeling misunderstood, not heard, and more alone.

How can EFT help?

Dr. Blum asserts that “EFT aims to help couples stop these negative cycles by first identifying and mapping out this cycle, then helping couples identify and articulate their needs and clarify their emotional signals in a way that helps their partner to have greater understanding, compassion and empathy. In turn, a more loving, compassionate response can be expressed.”

With Emotionally Focused Therapy, couples are helped to re-establish a sense of safety and security with one another, interrupting and shifting out of the destructive dance they’ve gotten caught by.

Dr. Sue Johnson normalizes the need for deep emotional connection and secure attachment to important others. By de-pathologizing emotional dependence, she gives us permission to need others and value connection. Based in her research on attachment to the ones we are closest to, over reliance on self-sufficiency isn’t the way we’re wired as human beings. We need deep meaningful connections to feel secure in the world.

Laurie McNeil, LCSW-C  uses Emotionally Focused Therapy in her work with couples. If you are longing to reconnect with your partner and would like to learn more about this approach, please call Laurie at 301-788-1612 or email her at


Blum, Lisa. “What Is EFT?”, EFT Resource Center, Emotionally Focused Therapy, n.p., n.d.,website November 28, 2015.

Johnson, Susan. Hold Me Tight. New York: Little Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, 2008. Print.

Tartakovsky, Margarita. Emotionally Focused Therapy: Bolstering Couples Emotional Bonds, PsychCentral, website October 17, 2001.