• Dave Payne, LPCC, BC-TMH

Couples Counseling Using Emotionally Focused Therapy

Couples counseling: many people could benefit from from it, a lot of people absolutely need it, some people will pursue it, and very few will tell anyone else about it.  

It’s quite possible that you know one or more people who have seen a couples counselor, but it’s unlikely that they have told you about this.  The stigma that surrounds relationship problems and couples counseling leaves most couples feeling like they should be able to solve relationship issues on their own.  However, finding a good couples counselor can make a huge difference in helping partners understand and appreciate each other.

Of the couples who see me, many have already tried couples counseling in the past, and some have not had a great experience.  Many of these people report not seeing any improvement in their relationship, while others say the changes they did notice only lasted a few weeks or months.  

Common experiences in ineffective couples counseling may have resembled one or more of the following:

  • The sessions focused exclusively on partners learning rational ways to silence, minimize, or ignore their strong emotions and to use calm, respectful communication skills with each other.

  • The counselor strongly confronted one partner on their behavior in the relationship, often leaving that partner feeling blamed or ganged-up-on.

  • The counselor took a passive approach, resulting in partners spending most of the session arguing back-and-forth like they do at home.

It is important to note that the above scenarios are not always negative or unhelpful.  Learning some respectful communication skills can certainly be beneficial to a relationship.  A counselor who is able to gently help one or both partners confront their problematic actions/reactions can be very effective.  Also, there can be times when it is beneficial for the counselor to (briefly) see how partners tend to argue with each other.

The topic of communication skills frequently arises in the beginning stages of couples counseling.  Partners recognize that they are misinterpreting each other but don’t know how to remedy this.  It makes sense, then, that so many people are seeking to learn new communication skills in couples counseling.  And it’s probably not going to hurt your relationship if you and your partner learn some healthy communication skills.  But many couples find that their improved communication only helps for a while and that it doesn’t get to the root of their relationship problems.

The issue is that communication skills are only one piece of the puzzle.  If you learn a dozen new ways to communicate more effectively, you will likely still find it very difficult to use these when you and your partner are particularly upset with each other.  The missing piece is the part about learning what to do with those strong emotions.  

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), we work on getting to the root of those strong emotional reactions that come up in relationships.  As partners begin to gain an understanding of the thoughts and concerns that are behind their (and their partner’s) emotional reactions, they learn new ways of addressing these emotions as they arise in the relationship. In order to get the most out of your Emotionally Focused Therapy sessions, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Frequency of Sessions The research shows that EFT is most effective when sessions are about a week apart.  The more consistent you and your partner can be in attending sessions together, the more you both will have a chance to keep the relationship repair process at the forefront of your minds. If you are unable to attend sessions weekly, can EFT still work?  Yes!  As you might expect, though, having sessions occur less frequently may cause the overall couples counseling process to take longer.  

Research shows that effective EFT couples counseling often takes between 8 and 20 sessions.  However, this depends largely upon numerous factors that can be different from one couple to the next, and it’s possible that certain situations may require significantly more than 20 sessions.

2. What to Do In Between Sessions While there won’t usually be worksheets or “homework” you have to complete between sessions, there is still plenty you and your partner can work on each week: Notice the negative cycle of interaction in your relationship as it arises throughout the day.  Work on recognizing when you and your partner fall into that familiar pattern of conflict.  As you move through the EFT process, you’ll get better and better at seeing the parts of your cycle as they arise.

Catch yourselves, your thoughts, your emotional reactions. Focus on understanding the reasons behind your (and your partner’s) actions. Which brings us to the next topic….

3. Learning More About EFT I recommend the following books to help partners learn about Emotionally Focused Therapy. (See previews at the bottom of this blog post. Several are available in audio and Kindle format. Some books may be available at your local library as well.)

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Susan Johnson

Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships by Susan Johnson

An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us by Veronica Kallos-Lilly & Jennifer Fitzgerald

Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies by Brent Bradley & James Furrow

This video made by another EFT therapist describes the couples counseling process perfectly!

To go to my couples counseling information page, click here.

To sign up for couples counseling--or if you have questions--click here.

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