Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) is a therapeutic approach that theorizes emotions are key to overall wellness and psychological well-being. According to EFT, emotions serve as a guide and foundational motivation for individual choice and decision-making. In this perspective, emotions are not merely fleeting reactions but rather valuable sources of information and insight.
EFT believes that a lack of emotional awareness or habitual avoidance of unpleasant emotions can impair wellness and lead to maladaptive behaviors. When individuals are disconnected from their emotions or try to suppress them, it can hinder their ability to effectively navigate life’s challenges. EFT seeks to help individuals develop a healthier relationship with their emotions by fostering greater emotional awareness and acceptance.
Emotional-Focused Therapy is a humanistic approach to psychotherapy formulated in the 1980’s. Emotion-focused therapy is built around the theory that emotions are essential components in psychotherapeutic change. EFT works with clients to be aware of emotional experiences and create narratives around emotions that help emotions motivate productive action.
According to Leslie S. Greenburg, Ph.D. “If people are to act intelligently in the social world, they need to pay attention to their emotions as much as to thought and action” (2022, Kindle Location: 66). The underlying concept is that our emotions effectively guide social action. However, it is incumbent upon us to attune to, accept, and learn from our emotions.
The experience of emotion alone does not lead people to wise action; rather, people must make sense of their emotional experience and use it wisely.”Leslie S. Greenberg
The Goal of EFT
Emotional focused therapy is “a neo-humanistic approach designed to help clients in psychotherapy become aware of and make productive use of their emotions” (2022). While EMT theory doesn’t expect therapist to know or understand the client’s emotional experience, they do know how to guide the client to attuning to, accepting, and understanding their own emotional prompts.
Bruce Ecker explains that EFT is “based in humanistic theories of psychotherapy and utilizing experiential techniques of Gestalt therapy.” He continues, “EFT works toward deep change through feeling and expressing avoided emotion and by embracing the adaptive role of emotion.” Ecker adds that “the emphasis in EFT is … on how to work with people’s actual feelings in the session and then how to work with changing emotions in the session, so that the real emphasis is on trying to understand emotional processes and how emotions change” (2012, page: 136).
One area where emotion-focused therapy is often employed is in couples counseling. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg developed an adaptation of EFT specifically for couples therapy in the 1980s. The premise of EFT for couples is rooted in research on love as an attachment bond. It recognizes that emotional closeness and secure attachment are crucial for a satisfying and fulfilling relationship.
Two Major Treatment Principles
Leslie S. Greenberg states that Emotion-focused therapy has two major treatment principles.
- The provision of an empathetic therapeutic relationship
- The facilitation of therapeutic work on emotion
Basically, in humanistic fashion, a EFT therapist first creates an atmosphere of trust where the client and therapist work together to create a constructive atmosphere where the they can discover and transform emotions. EFT proposes that the most effective avenue to transforming emotions is to change emotion with emotion. Basically, the therapist assists the client to “activate new adaptive emotion to change old maladaptive emotion” (2022).
Emotions may be primary, secondary, or instrumental. Any emotion may be adaptive or maladaptive. In our complex emotional life emotions may be any number of these combinations. We may have a maladaptive primary emotion, or adaptive secondary emotions. The Emotionally-focused therapist assists the client feel and understand these emotions, and then works with the client to unravel maladaptive emotional patterns and replace them with productive emotions.
Sorrow, anger, or joy cannot be put into any one category because “the emotions a person feels at any particular moment could be primary, secondary, or instrumental” (2022). Furthermore, each emotion may be adaptive or maladaptive depending on the surrounding context.
Primary emotions are “people’s core gut response to situations” (2022, location 1,398). Our first fundamental and visceral feeling response to a stimulus is our primary emotion. An adaptive primary emotion is when the emotion fits the situation with appropriate arousal and valance, motivating appropriate action.
A primary emotion is maladaptive when the feeling response is out of synchrony with the surrounding circumstances, leading to disorganized and maladaptive behaviors. Trauma may lead to abnormal emotional reactions to future events. The heightened arousal from the past spills over into the present.
Secondary emotions are responses or defenses to the initial feeling response (the primary emotion). They are not responding to a primary need but to the primary emotions aroused by a primary need. We may feel sorrow because of a loss but consciously experience a secondary emotion of anger.
The secondary emotion obscures our real need and the primary feeling. Secondary feelings often arise from thoughts. Accordingly, An event may suck us into a negative cycle of a complex chain of thought-feeling-thought-feeling. These chain reactions often magnify the secondary emotions with each link adding to the intensity and accompanying thoughts justifying the emotion.
These emotions are learned expressive behaviors that we use to influence and manipulate others. Anger may serve a protective barrier that interferes with open discussion. Others may act to appease our frightening anger. Greenberg says that “instrumental emotions are expressed consciously or automatically to achieve a goal” (2022, location 1,522).
According to EFT theory, adaptive emotional processing requires that a client be aware of the activated primary emotion and attend to it. A therapist guides clients through this process of identifying emotions, creating healthy narratives around them, and replacing secondary and instrumental emotions with adaptive primary emotions.
The Three Stage Model for Change
The process of Emotion-Focused Therapy in couples counseling typically follows a three-stage model for change.
The first stage, known as “De-escalation,” focuses on helping the couple identify and understand the negative interaction patterns that contribute to emotional distance or conflict. The aim is to create a safe space for emotional exploration and expression.
The second stage, called “Restructuring,” involves facilitating new ways of interacting that foster emotional bonding and intimacy. The therapist helps the couple explore and express their deeper emotions and needs, promoting empathy and understanding between partners. This stage aims to create positive emotional experiences and repair the attachment bond.
The final stage, known as “Consolidation,” focuses on helping the couple integrate what they have learned and experienced throughout therapy into their daily lives. The goal is to cultivate lasting changes in communication, emotional responsiveness, and relationship dynamics. Consolidation involves consolidating new patterns of emotional connection and strengthening the couple’s ability to navigate future challenges.
A Few Final Words
Emotion-Focused Therapy in couples counseling can be a transformative approach for couples struggling with difficulties in their relationship. Accordingly, by delving into the emotional underpinnings of their issues and fostering a deeper emotional connection, couples can experience increased understanding, closeness, and satisfaction in their partnership.
Overall, Emotion-Focused Therapy recognizes and helps clients embrace the fundamental role of emotions in their lives and relationships.
Ecker, Bruce; Ticic, Robin; Hulley, Laurel (2012). Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. Routledge; 1st edition.
Greenburg, Leslie S. (2022). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; Second edition.