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How does Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) go about rebuilding intimacy? It's a nine-step treatment that can take anywhere from 8 to 20 sessions (30,in very complex cases). The first four steps involve helping partners recognize that the problem is not their individual personalities per se, but the negative cycle of communication in which they're stuck. In the next three steps, the therapist works with couples to promote sharing, soothing and bonding, before helping the couple incorporate those acts into everyday life in the last two steps. This final process of showing couples how to keep their connection alive can help prevent relapse.
To better understand how EFT works, it's instructive to see it in action. Take the story of Mary and Harry, married seven years, with one child. Both are managers by profession and very competent, so when they showed up at my office they expressed that they were puzzled by their inability to "manage" their marriage. They said they had lost a sense of intimacy and were no longer making love. In addition, Mary had discovered what she described as "very friendly" e-mails to her husband from a female colleague of his. Although Harry wasn't having an affair--yet--Mary was distraught at the thought of her husband sharing more with this woman than he was with her. Both spouses were thinking about splitting up. But the key snippets of conversations below, taken from our sessions together, demonstrate how EFT helped restore their connection.
Step 1. Partners lay their problems on the table
Mary: He doesn't care about anything but work. He has a love affair with his computer. I've had enough. I don't even know who he is anymore. [To Harry] You never reach for me! Am I supposed to do all the work in this relationship?
Step 2. Partners recognize the cycle that's keeping them emotionally distant and try to identify the needs and fears fueling that cycle
Harry [to me]: Yes, I do turn away from her, I guess. I try to move away from the message that I'm a big disappointment--that's what I hear--and the more I move away, the madder she gets. Maybe she feels like she is losing me.
Step 3. Partners articulate the emotions behind their behavior
Mary: I start to feel really desperate. That's what you don't hear. If I can't get you to respond, well...[she throws up her hands in a show of defeat].
Harry: I shut down just to get away from the message that I am so disappointing for you. I can't let it in; it's upsetting. In a way, it's terrifying, so I move away and hope you will calm down.
Step 4. Partners realize they're both hurting and that neither is to blame
Mary: The more desperate I get, the more I push; and the more scared you get, the more you shut down.
Harry: [Nods and smiles] That's it.
Mary: This thing we're doing, it's got us by the throat.
Harry: Maybe it's that we both get scared. I never knew you were so scared of losing me. I never knew you needed me that much.
Mary: Maybe we can step out of this, if we try it together.
Step 5. Partners identify and admit their emotional hurts and fears
Harry: I don't know how to tell you how deep the pit is that I go into when I hear that I have failed, that I can't make it with you. I freeze. I shut down.
Mary: I never saw that you were hurting. I guess I saw you as calm and in control, almost indifferent, like you didn't need me at all, and that is the loneliest feeling in the world. There is no "us." I am alone, small. I feel like a fool.
Step 6. Partners begin to, acknowledge and accept me the others feeling and their own new responses to those feelings
Harry: I never saw how small you felt. I guess you were screaming for me when I saw you screaming at me. I don't want you to feel small and alone.
Mary: I didn't think I was getting through to you. I feel awful when you tell me that you'd freeze up inside. I guess I was having an impact. I was trying to get you to let me in.
Step 7. Partners are drawn together through the expression of their emotional needs
Harry: I want you to give me a chance to learn how to be close to you. I can't deal with being labeled a failure. I want to let you in--I want to be close--but I need to feel safe, like you are going to give me the benefit of the doubt.
Mary: It's scary to feel lonely when you turn away. I need reassurance. If I tell you "I need some holding, some 'us' time," I want to know that you'll be there. I want to feel safe again, [In response, Harry holds her tightly.]
Step 8. Partners create new solutions to their problems
Harry: We can have time together in the evening, after the kids are in bed. Let's make coffee and sit together, and if you trust me a little, I'll make us a schedule for nights out. It makes me feel good to know you need time with me.
Step 9. Partners consolidate their new positions and cycles of behavior
Harry: It was when I got promoted that it all started. I needed to prove myself to everybody. I did get immersed in work, but now when I hear that tone in your voice I remember how much you need me, and I want to reassure you: I am here, Mary. I know we can do this now. We're learning to trust each other again. It's like we are finding the "us" we had when we got married. We still fight sometimes, but these close times make all the difference.
For the right people, EFT can work magic. In fewer than four months, it brought Karen and Mitchell Irving back from the brink of divorce. "We discovered that our marriage was built on these ludicrous underlying assumptions," Karen says now. "Mitchell had this sense of entitlement and believed I should be there for him no matter what. I, coming from a dysfunctional family, believed I wasn't worthy of more consideration than that. When we realized how off our perceptions were, we giggled about it."
More important than the levity these revelations brought were the changes that grew out of them. Mitchell cut back on his office hours and is enjoying spending more time with Karen. And they don't feel childish, as they had before, when asking each other for "close time." "We've learned not to sacrifice intimacy for independence," Karen concludes. "One of the greatest joys of marriage is discovering how much we need each other."
Sadly, for some couples it may be too late. EFT is not designed for people who have tried unsuccessfully to reconnect for so long that they've already mourned the lost relationship and become completely detached. It's also not appropriate for abusive relationships. But if, despite your obstacles, you still desire to make your relationship work, I encourage you to see an EFT-trained therapist.
Therapeutic Presence in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
- Feuerman, M. L. (2018). Therapeutic Presence in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, 21(3), 22-32.
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