Approaches to Couples Counseling: Is EFT for Me?

The first decision couples have to make when they are in distress and seeking the help of a professional is, of course, who to go to see.

Couples therapists vary in training and experience and they also can be quite different in the approaches they use. It is therefore important for couples to do a little bit of research on their own in order to understand their options and make a conscious choice about the approach that sounds most appealing to them.

First of all, couples need to understand that not all therapists who offer couples therapy have any formal training in working with couples. There are currently no rules or regulations in place that prevents a licensed mental health professional without special training in couples therapy from offering couples therapy or referring to themselves as a couples therapist.

Increasingly, however, it is being recognized that good results in couples therapy depend on the therapist’s level of training and experience, as well as the specific approach they use.

In a previous article, I have explained more about one such approach, which is currently quite popular:

Gottman-MethodApproaches to Couples Counseling: The Gottman Method.

The research on happy and distressed couples carried out by John Gottman has led to insights about what couples can do to make their relationships work… > Read More

In this blog post, I want to talk about another effective approach to couples therapy often referred to as EFT, or Emotion-Focused Therapy. 

What is EFT?

EFT or Emotion-Focused Therapy is an approach to couples therapy which, as the name indicates, focuses on emotions.

Emotions are like the music that controls a couple’s relationship dance.

The fights and arguments couples have are often not about the content of what is said, but about the emotional underpinnings of how things are said, or how what is said makes us feel.

To give an example: It is not that I tell you that I will fix a broken cabinet tomorrow that is the problem, but the slight indifference or annoyance that seeps through my words when I say it. It is not that my partner is really angry about the cabinets not being fixed, but that he or she hears my indifference as a sign that I don’t really care and that I am not really “there” emotionally when he or she needs me.

Although we may be fighting about cabinets, what we are really reacting to in each other are the emotional messages that are passed back and forth. Messages that often communicate something to us about how much we can count on each other, how safe it is to express our opinions, how loved we really are, or how much our partner really cares.

A fight about cabinets, which can seem unreasonable if taken at face value, is thus often a fight about much deeper emotions and relationship concerns.

EFT recognizes that couples in such situations do not need better ways to communicate about cabinets or help to implement more sharing of responsibilities. Instead they need help to truly get in touch with the emotions and feelings that are stirring within and that are generating negative feelings about themselves or their partner. Only when partners can fully get in touch with these emotions, can they have conversations about what really matters, instead of getting bogged down in arguments about petty little details that don’t really address the real issues.

Getting to the Root of The Problem:

When couples seek couples therapy it is often because they are stuck in an emotional dance of which they are not fully aware. They are reacting to something perceived as missing or overwhelming in their relationship. Oftentimes one partner feels not cared about or unsure of the other person’s interest or commitment to them or the relationship, and the other feels afraid of conflict and starts to pull away and becomes more distant out of a need to avoid criticism.

To get out of this stalemate, couples first need to understand the emotional undercurrents of the dance they are dancing. They need to understand that one partner’s constant frustrations and nitpicking is fuelled by a sense of emptiness or loneliness that they don’t know how to express or how to get rid of. They also need to understand that the other partner’s increasing disengagement and emotional distancing is fuelled by a fear of messing up, a distaste for feeling inadequate, or a concern that talking about issues will make their partner want to leave.

What happens in an EFT session?

EFT therapists are skilled at honing in on the underlying music of a couple’s relationship dance. They help couples dig beneath the outward expression of anger, or the self-protective need to withdraw. Once couples are able to get to the heart of the matter and truly feel where their anger or disengagement stems from, EFT therapists help choreograph new interactions between partners in the sessions, that are based on greater self-awareness and a fuller access to one’s own complex emotional life. These new interactions, which are often centered around fears, longings, and vulnerabilities, help draw partners closer to each other, and open up new relationship dimensions that increase the safety of being in a relationship as your true self.

EFT therapists help partners get out of the negative interactions, which deteriorate their bonds over time, and help partners reengage in new ways that strengthen these bonds.

Benefits of EFT over Other Approaches:

What I most like about EFT is that it works with resources that are already existing within each individual. The cure for a couple’s ailments is to get more in touch with themselves and to communicate what they truly think and feel at a more authentic level than they have been able to do in the past. This means that you will not simply be taught to use “I statements” or engage in exercises or new ways of doing things, which can often seem forced, unnatural, and maybe even cheesy.  Instead you are learning how to simply share more of yourself, using your own words, and expressing yourself in a way that is a true reflection of how you really feel.

Another thing I like about EFT is that is not a cognitive, but an emotional therapy. The results you derive from the therapy are not simply due to increased knowledge or skills, but due to an emotional relearning that goes beyond a simple cognitive understanding. This means that the results from the therapy are much more likely to feel ingrained in your sense of self and become part of you, rather than to feel like a set of tools or ways of thinking that you need to consciously apply. This also means that EFT is more likely have lasting effects on a couple because it truly changes how you view yourself and your partner. EFT is subsequently one of the approaches to couples therapy that has most research supporting its long-term effectiveness. And it has one of the lowest documented relapse rates.

Drawbacks to EFT:

The biggest drawback to EFT is that it requires a willingness, openness, and ability to get in touch with your inner emotional life. For some partners this can be extremely difficult, especially if you feel a great sense of shame about certain of your emotions, or if you have learned to numb yourself to your emotions and discount them to an extent that they are no longer really accessible. Although EFT couples therapists have a number of ways to help you get in touch with your emotions and bypass some of these obstacles, you have to be willing to open up about yourself and get in touch with your feelings. If you feel too uncomfortable with emotions or if you prefer an approach that focuses more on problem-solving and intellectual understanding, you will be better off looking for a therapist with a different approach.

Another drawback to EFT is that it is primary intended for couples who have a strong commitment and love for each other. If your heart really belongs to someone else, if your marriage is arranged or is a marriage of convenience, or if you simply want to stay together for your children, it is not the best approach. The assumption in EFT is that couples can get in touch with a reservoir of love and tender feelings for each other, and if that reservoir is dried up or was never really there, doing the emotional work of EFT will be pointless.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I am pursuing certification as an EFT therapist and have experience with both EFT and the Gottman-Method. I help couples find greater intimacy, closeness, and safety with each other

If you have not done so yet, remember to sign-up for my FREE relationship guide “The Secrets of Happy Couples” which will give you many ideas of how to improve your relationship:

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How to Choose a Couples Therapist

You may have noticed that you aren’t that happy in your relationship, or may find that you and your partner keep on getting stuck in the same old arguments. You want to fight for your relationship, but don’t really know how to move out of the rut you are in. You have heard of couples therapy, but don’t really know if it is right for you, and don’t really know how to begin to choose a couples therapist to work with. Well, if this is you, then the following guidelines may be just what you are looking for…

But before we get started, the first thing I want to let you know is:

Seeing a Couples Therapist is Not a Sign You Have Failed

Many people find it difficult to get over the first hump to reaching out for help. One of the myths about couples therapy is that it is only for couples who cannot figure things out on their own. People often think there is something wrong with them for needing professional help to make their relationships work. However, difficulties with making relationships work is the norm, not the aberration. Roughly 50% of all married couples end up divorcing, and of the remaining 50% many live unhappy lives. Couples therapy is therefore what proactive couples do if they really want to work at their relationship. In fact if more couples had sought help to deal with the universal problems of creating lasting satisfying relationships, the divorce rate in the US would surely be lower, and the general relationship satisfaction much higher.

How to Choose a Couples Therapist:

Although there are many things to look for when considering what couples therapist might be the right match for you, here is a list of factors most couples would benefit from considering.

What’s the right couples therapy approach for me?

There are many different types of couples therapy, so choosing a couples therapist does not mean you will get the same type of therapy. Couples therapists are not like dentists or chiropractors who use standard techniques. Instead, couples therapists adopt different philosophies about what is the main cause of difficulties in relationships, and what needs to happen in order to resolve the issues that tear couples apart. Some of the main approaches to couples therapy are: Gottman Method, Imago Therapy, and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).

I particularly like the Gottman Method and the EFT approach, because these approaches are founded on solid research. The Gottman Method is based on principles developed from studying the interactions of thousands of couples, and the principles of EFT have been scientifically proven to create lasting relationship change.

Below I will describe both of these approaches, but I would encourage you to look up others as well, to determine which ones might be a good fit for you.

Gottman Method:

This approach is based on the research of couples therapist, John Gottman, who has observed thousands of successful and unsuccessful couples, and distilled the behaviors that most successful couples engage in. A couples therapist with training in Gottman Method helps couples practice the skills successful couples master, and helps couples to change the habits that lead to relationship failure. This approach is right for you if you are a hands-on type of person who wants to learn techniques and gain knowledge about “what to do” and “how to do it”. This approach works best if you are willing to change old habits.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT): 

This approach does not focus on teaching you skills or helping you solve specific problems. Instead it helps you understand the relationship patterns in which you and your partner have gotten stuck. The belief here is that couples end up feeling angry or numb as ways of protecting themselves from underlying feelings of pain, loneliness, rejection, or inadequacy. In sessions, couples get help to reconnect with these more vulnerable feelings, and learn how to use them to connect with their partner instead of protecting against them by pushing their partner away. This approach is right for you if you want to get in touch with the feelings underlying your daily interactions, and want to experience a deeper connection with yourself and your partner, and not just learn practical skills.

What training does your couples therapist have?

There is no law prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from offering couples therapy to the public even if they do not have special training in couples therapy. This means that many therapists who see couples for couples therapy may rely on their general therapy training with individuals, as well as their intuition, as their only guide for their work. If you want to be sure you are working with a specialist in couples therapy, you therefore need to look to see if your therapist actually has done any training in couples therapy. Look on their websites or their “about me” descriptions, to learn more about their background and training. It really can make a difference to work with someone who truly understands the complexities that are unique to couples.

What values does your couples therapist have?

Even though most couples therapists adopt a value-neutral stance toward their clients, some have explicit values that are worth knowing about. Some couples therapists believe marriage should be saved at all cost, and others believe that the happiness of the individuals should first and foremost be preserved. Some couples therapists may adopt a religious stance toward their work and may for example offer couples therapy within an overarching Christian framework. If at all possible, see if you can familiarize yourself with your couples therapist’s way of thinking. Read some blog posts or articles published by the therapist, or read more about the therapist’s ideas about relationships on their websites.

A good resource to compare different therapists is the therapist directory of Psychology Today, which allows you to search for therapists in your area, and filter your choices by specific specialties and treatment approaches. Here you can also get a quick overview of available couples therapists and get easy links to their websites.

So there you have it – my own selective list of things to look for when choosing a couples therapist. If you have questions or comments don’t hesitate to contact me, or start a discussion on the blog.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston Texas. I work with traditional and same-sex couples using EFT and Gottman Method approaches. Please visit my website for more information or to schedule appointment.