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Emotion Focused Couples Therapy

Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT) for couples is a counselling approach developed through 30 years of research into adult intimate relationships.  The approach is formally recognised by the American Psychological Association as a scientifically based and highly effective therapy to help couples resolve intimate relationship problems.  EFT counselling is effective for men and women of all ages, educational levels, economic status, sexual orientation and cultural history.  Research has shown that 70%-73% of couples fully recover from relationship problems and 90% of couples significantly improved when EFT was used as the primary approach to help couples in relationship counselling.  EFT was developed by Susan Johnson at the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.

What makes a healthy relationship?

Intimate relationships are a natural and necessary part of adult life.  Every man and woman, regardless of age, culture or personal history has an individual need for companionship, intellectual stimulation, sex and emotional attachment with an intimate partner.  Marriage and long-term intimate relationships provide the opportunity for these human needs to be met.

Healthy intimate relationships are characterised by interpersonal communication that enables couples to provide companionship, understanding and support as well as intimacy in a reliable and consistent way.  Good interpersonal communication and responsiveness from a partner leads to a sense of Secure Attachment which in turn forms the basis for a healthy adult love relationship.  As the basis for healthy relationships, Secure Attachment comes from the resolution of commonly experienced problems in long-term relationships.

One definition of Secure Attachment is the ability to have faith that a partner is dependable and will readily ‘be there’ when problems arise.  Secure attachment is based on the knowledge that a partner’s attention and care is accessible and that a partner will respond consistently to one’s concerns.  Secure attachment also allows a person to speak with their partner in a clear and non-aggressive or hostile manner even when there is an issue of disagreement causing tension.  When both partner’s feel securely attached in their relationship they benefit from the ability to have healthy disagreements that  retain the opportunity for an exchange of perspectives, negotiation and care for the benefit of each partner and the resolution of problems in the relationship.

Maladaptive Communication Cycles: How relationships become unhealthy.

When couples fall in love and decide to commit to a long-term union it seems so foreign to think that their relationship may become toxic over time.  Divorce statistics show that maintaining a healthy relationship through interpersonal problems and the life transitions all relationships experience is easier said than done (with some estimates of divorce in Western countries as high as 48%).  Loving relationships become unhealthy if the couple’s efforts to negotiate differences and interpersonal problems breaks down on a recurring basis.

Couples in unhealthy relationships have typically fallen into a maladaptive communication and conflict resolution cycle.  This cycle is most often characterised by one partner pursuing the other for some sort of response and the other partner attempting to withdraw from the interaction.  Two clear positions then can be identified, a “pursuer” and a “withdrawer”.

A Pursuer generally tries to manage problems and conflict with their partner through approach and repetition.  They also tend to be the one who most commonly raises issues or problems in the relationship and they often discuss a need for these problems to be addressed and not ‘swept under the carpet’.  A pursuer can repeat the same perspective or opinion from different angles as they try to engage their partner in conversation.  They also tend to ask repeatedly for clarity and/or they may ask their partner to justify or explain themselves regarding common problems over and over again.

In response to a pursuer’s repetition or demands for explanations the other partner then falls into a position of defensiveness and withdrawal (these are typically efforts to end the discussion or justify him/herself).  As a disagreement unfolds a pursuer can feel increasingly frustrated and this can turn to anger as the conversation progresses.  Not surprisingly, the frustration and anger a pursuer feels influences how they speak with their partner.  A pursuer often speaks with increasing loudness and they may sound obviously agitated and may speak rapidly and ‘harshly’, to which their partner will continue to either defensively justify themselves (without really listening) or try to withdraw from the interaction.

A withdrawer generally tries to manage problems and conflict with their partner through withdrawal and escape.  When difficult issues are raised in the relationship a withdrawer can often feel anxious or tense.  They predict that their partner is likely to repeat themselves over and over again or that their partner will want them to justify their actions or perspectives.  A withdrawer often reports that they feel uncomfortable with interpersonal conflict and they have an almost instinctive tendency to avoid problems and difficult conversations to manage their discomfort.  A withdrawer may avoid explicitly raising difficult issues in the relationship and will try hard not to be ‘drawn into’ debates with their partner.

As a disagreement unfolds a withdrawer can feel increasingly stressed and anxious and may even try to leave the room to disengage from the argument (often times only to be followed from room to room by the pursuer!).  Some withdrawing partners may also become increasingly frustrated and angry when their partner doesn’t let them disengage and may verbally snap back in anger.

As may be evident in the above descriptions of pursuers and withdrawers, each position in the relationship tends to reinforce the other.  When the pursuer feels unheard, uncared for or not responded to adequately, they naturally and without thinking fall into a pursuing position to get the emotional closeness and openness from their partner they need.  However, the more they pursue their partner the more their partner feels anxious or tense and they in turn fall into a withdrawing position to avoid the conflict they fear so much.  The more one party in the relationship pursues the more the other party withdraws, over and over and over again…  The end product over several years of this recurrent process is relationship dissatisfaction and emotional distancing.  If this dissatisfaction continues for too long feelings of love and affection turn stale and one partner (often the pursuer) will end the relationship.

Variations on the pursue/withdraw cycle.

The underlying cycle for almost all distressed relationships is pursue/withdraw.  Some variations exist however such as the withdraw/withdraw cycle.  In this cycle, the pursuer feels ‘burnt out’ after many years of trying to engage their partner and now feels it’s pointless to try.  Each partner avoids trying to resolve problems in the relationship after experiencing many years of failing to do so effectively.  Other cycles are more complex and change over the course of an argument.  Some people will pursue and their partner typically withdraws to a point, then the withdrawer may fully re-engage in an angry or defensive manner to which the initially pursuing partner tries to avoid and withdraw.

What does EFT based couples therapy aim to achieve?

EFT reduces the level of distress in intimate relationships by accomplishing four broad goals.

1/  EFT counselling identifies the nature of the maladaptive cycle of communication the couple has fallen into.  Areas a therapist will explore include:  Who is the pursuer and who is the withdrawer?  What are the issues that cause tension?  How does the pursuer try to engage their partner (e.g., some pursuers may complain, or ‘nag’, or rationalise excessively).  What does the withdrawer do to avoid conflict?

2/  EFT counselling then identifies “deep emotions” such as hurt, fear and sadness for each partner.  For many pursuers this can include emotional pain and hurt when they conclude (rightly or wrongly) that their parter is withdrawing because he/she just doesn’t care.  For many withdrawers this can include fear when they conclude (rightly or wrongly) that their partner is controlling or selfish.  These deep emotions are often outside the awareness of each partner and drive the “surface emotions” of anger, frustration or agitation which maintain the unhealthy cycle and each partner’s position.

3/  The third step in EFT counselling involves identifying Relationship Needs associated with deep emotions.  For pursuers this often includes a need to be supported and responded to in an understanding and caring way in the relationship.  For withdrawers this can include a need to feel safe from attack or criticism.  EFT counselling helps to explore these unspoken needs that are not consistently met in distressed relationships.

4/  Finally, EFT counselling assists couples stay engaged with each other through difficult timesEmotion Focussed Counselling restores  the couples ability to respond and negotiate with each other on recurring problems so each partner’s relationship needs are met more reliably.

At the termination of EFT counselling the couple will each report a strong sense of Secure Attachment and will be able to navigate old impasses without the escalating tension, sadness and anger that once characterised their relationship.

How many sessions do most couples have?

Most couples typically require between 10 to 15 sessions of counselling to achieve lasting outcomes.  How many sessions a couple requires however depends on the complexity of the issues to be worked through and how long the couple have experienced their maladaptive cycle of communication.  For those couples in which one partner also experiences a psychological condition such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or very severe depression up to 20 or more sessions may be required.

Couples counselling and marriage counselling appointments are 50 minutes long.  Charge: $175 inside standard business hours.  $190 Thursday evenings after 5pm.

Providing services to the Newport, Scarborough, Redcliffe, Margate, Kippa-Ring, Rothwell, North Lakes, Mango Hill, North Brisbane, Burpengary, Morayfield and Caboolture areas.