EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy) has been recognized by the American Psychological Association as an empirically proven, effective form of couples therapy. Studies demonstrate that between 85% and 90% of couples in EFT report significant improvement. Allow me to digress a bit in order to explain why it’s so effective.
If you look on YouTube and elsewhere you can find lots of videos that show couples arguing, some of them clearly meant to be funny, others not so much. What I find really interesting are the couple videos out there that have replaced all of the content matter of the conflict with the process of the conflict. Here’s a brief example of what I mean:
(Woman): “Passive aggressive comment, maintaining a sweet tone.”
(Man): “Soften my facial features and feign interest to mask my defensiveness.”
(Woman): “Increase volume and clarify that this is an accusation.”
(Man): “Feel blood pressure rise. Try to divert with counter accusation.”
Admittedly, this is less funny when written, but hopefully you can see what’s going on here. Content refers to the actual words, or subject matter, of the argument, while process is about what’s really going on beneath the surface between the two of them. Too many self help books for couples are about content, as are lots of very well-intentioned couples therapists. Trying very hard to be helpful, the focus ends up being on clarifying your positions and finding some way to compromise or negotiate a solution. What doesn’t seem to get addressed is this underlying process, this dance, if you will, that is driving the impasse.
Emotion Focused Therapy tries not to get lost in the content and focuses instead on the process, helping clients come to see it and understand it as a mutually created, reactive dance that they automatically fall into, regardless of the particular content. Once the couple can start to identify this dance and can begin to see it as the problem, instead of the problem being their partner, the therapy can then go deeper.
Underlying and fueling this dance are unspoken feelings and unspoken emotional and attachment needs. Current research indicates that humans are hard-wired for attachment and relationships function best when we experience our partner as safe, available and supportive. If we don’t experience our partner in these ways, we end up “protesting” this in indirect, ineffective ways that often lead to more pain and distance, the exact opposite of what we’re really needing. This is the dance.
When we are able to stop the dance and speak instead to the previously unspoken; the feelings and needs that fuel the dance, we have the chance to be seen and be heard, (and to see and hear our partners) in a new, deeper, more honest way. When these moments happen we start to experience relationship in a way that supports our hard-wired need for connection, safety and support. And, when we start from a base of feeling more connected, supported and safe, we can have far better and more productive conversations about content. That’s when we start to feel like the relationship “works.”