The process of change in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is divided into nine steps. The first step involves a couple’s assessment and understanding of the problem.
Therapeutic relationship between a couple and a therapist creates safety and allows deeper exploration of emotional experiences, which leads to the second step of identifying a negative interactional cycle. The EFT therapist seeks to understand what prevents the couple from having an emotional engagement with each other.
The negative interactional cycle is understood in terms of attachment theory. When partners’ attachment needs for safety and security are not met, they experience separation anxiety and protest by engaging in a pursue-withdraw interactional cycle. For example, a partner who feels unloved and lonely expresses her longing for emotional connection through nagging, blaming and criticizing another partner. In response to criticism, another partner feels inadequate.
Instead of sharing his sense of inadequacy with his partner and asking his partner for reassurance and comfort, he withdraws because he does not believe in his partner’s accessibility and responsiveness to his needs. As a result, a couple is stuck in a pursue-withdraw cycle, where the more one partner clings, the more the other one shuts down, leaving both partners feeling disconnected, unloved and unimportant to each other.
Johnson described the EFT therapist as a process consultant who helps clients to get in touch with their underlying feelings and attachment needs, which is a necessary prerequisite for change in therapy. The interactional cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, which is manifested in intimate relationships through one partner’s criticism and another partner’s stonewalling, prevents couples from being emotionally engaged with each other and contributes to marital distress. Women tend to express their emotions more openly than men by reverting to a complaining stance, while men, in order to regulate their emotions, tend to react by withdrawing or becoming defensive (as cited in Johnson et al., 1999).
Identification of the problematic interactional cycle allows the therapist to externalize the problem and bring the couple together against the mutual enemy – the negative cycle. By assessing underlying emotions of fear, shame, joy, sadness and hurt, reframing relationship in terms of unsatisfied attachment needs and externalizing negative interactions, the therapist moves to the third and fourth steps of deescalating the problematic cycle.
The main goal of the next three steps is to restructure interactional patterns by creating emotional engagement between partners. The therapist works on facilitating the partners’ understanding of their attachment needs and expression of these needs to another partner. Assisting couples in seeing each other in a new light and becoming responsive to each other’s attachment needs leads to blamer softening event and withdrawer emotional engagement.
The last two steps consolidate and integrate the gains of therapy into the couples’ everyday life. Building on partners’ emotional accessibility and responsiveness to each other’s needs, the therapist helps a couple to create a secure bond. The couple adopts a new way of interacting with each other, which makes them feel safe and connected. Therefore, positive change in couples’ relationships occurs as a result of the creation of new emotional experiences and bonding interactions.