What is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)?

Published on: 30 Oct 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
lady in a wheelchair participating in a video conference

Updated on 4/13/2022

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT therapy) is a type of evidence-based psychotherapy that focuses on adult relationships and how they follow patterns and cycles. While this therapeutic approach is primarily used for couples, families, and individuals can also benefit from exploring their interpersonal interactions and relationship patterns. The goal of an EFT therapy session is to help couples, families, and individuals create a more secure bond with their loved ones by helping them move their relationships in a positive direction by working to strengthen their own emotions and perceptions. 

What is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)?

EFT therapy is greatly informed by the role that emotions play in our psychology. This means that emotion-focused therapy draws from a close and careful analysis of the human experience and any changes to emotions that occur during therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, an EFT therapist will work with an individual on strategies that encourage their awareness, acceptance, expression, utilization, regulation, and transformation of emotions — as well as corrective emotional experiences — as part of individual therapy.

Emotion focused therapy can help.

Looking for healthy ways to understand and manage your emotions.

“Our emotions and our reactions to them drive so much of our interactions with others — especially those we love. Learning how to better identify, own, and transform your emotions is an excellent step towards better overall health!”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Therapists qualified in EFT therapy can help individuals learn to become more aware of their emotional experiences and patterns. They can help a person better adapt their emotions to new and evolving situations and, ultimately, develop better coping mechanisms while decreasing the impact of negative emotional experiences. For couples, the goal of emotion-focused therapy is to work toward establishing a ‘secure attachment,’ the idea that each partner provides a sense of security, protection, and comfort to the other. This also means that partners in couples therapy  work to support one another in creating their own positive experiences.

When is EFT Therapy Used?

Whether for couples, families, or individuals, EFT therapy can help address the following mental health issues:

Couples and families in distress can benefit from EFT therapy by learning the skills needed to improve their relationships. Perhaps a client is dealing with an underlying emotion of anger, fear, loss of trust, or a sense of betrayal in their relationship and is unable to move past a certain feeling. It can also help distressed couples that are having a hard time coping with a traumatic circumstance like an illness or the illness of a child, or families that are seeking to repair fraught family bonds.

Although EFT therapy is primarily known as a couples intervention, it can also help assist individuals coping with mental health conditions. It can be used to treat client depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress by helping individuals understand their emotions as valuable sources of information rather than solely as painful emotional experiences.

What Philosophies Inform EFT Therapy

Developed in the 1980s, EFT therapy is a humanistic approach to therapy designed to help people better accept, regulate, understand, and express their emotions. It was developed in response to more traditional psychotherapy treatments that overemphasized cognition and behavior as opposed to the foundational role of emotional change.

Since its inception, emotion focused therapy has evolved into a full-blown theory of practice, centered on the idea that emotional change is required for lasting cognitive and behavioral change. This approach, encapsulated in the phrase “I feel, therefore I am,” is greatly influenced by the following theories and areas of study:

Structural theories of Salvador Minuchin

Structural theory focuses on how our behavior interacts with, impacts, and elicits responses from those with whom we have relationships. Essentially this means that our behavior does not live in a vacuum — especially in relationships where our behavior has a direct impact on another person. EFT therapy uses these relational system techniques to help focus on, and change, factors in both personal and interpersonal realms.

Humanistic and experiential theory of Carl Rogers

Humanism, in this case, is the idea that humans have a deep capacity for growing and adapting their emotional responses and needs. EFT therapy operationalizes the principles of attachment sciences while attributing less consideration to what is “wrong” with a person and more emphasis on their personal growth (non-pathologizing).

Attachment theory of John Bowlby

While attachment theory generally relates to how infants attach to their mothers and relate to those around them, EFT therapy looks at how attachment manifests in adult relationships. It helps inform why it is so painful and scary when a person is betrayed or hurt by a partner — similar to the way it is scary for an infant to have been abandoned by its mother.

“Learning how to form secure attachments in your adult, interpersonal relationships can be really hard if you were not able to do so throughout childhood. Therapy is an excellent step in helping you to lean into vulnerability and trust.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Goals of EFT Therapy

A person in EFT Therapy can expect to better identify, experience, accept, explore, make sense of, transform, and better manage their emotions. It allows them to become more skillful in accessing and understanding what personal insights their emotions provide, and use that information to become more emotionally adaptive in uncomfortable moments.

During an EFT therapy session, a person is encouraged to face dreaded emotions in order to better process and change them, a step that requires one to fully accept these emotions as they are lived.

EFT therapy helps couples and families undergo three primary stages of treatment:

  • De-escalation. The intention of the first stage is to de-escalate a person’s, couple’s, or family’s negative cycle of interactions to help them see and process their relationship as it is in that moment. These problems are often a result of insecurities and distance.
  • Restructuring. At this point, the therapist will help clients discuss their fears in the relationship. The intent is to help clients learn to turn toward each other and discuss their needs by becoming more open and responsive.
  • Consolidation. The final stage of EFT therapy is aimed to help clients see how they got into negative patterns and points out how they were able to change those patterns. The goal is to continue these types of conversation in the future when tackling challenges as they arise.

Finding an Emotion-Focused Therapist

An EFT therapist is a licensed mental health professional with additional training and experience in emotion-focused therapy. They can get certified from the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy , so make sure to look for designation when identifying a mental health professional to work with. Beyond credentials, it is important to find an EFT therapist with whom you feel comfortable sharing and working on your emotions.

EFT therapy aims to help a person better understand their own emotions, and it is important to note that those who are not outwardly emotional or connected to their feelings can still benefit from this approach. Emotion-focused therapy can help couples, families, and individuals create more secure bonds, helping them advance their relationships in positive directions by strengthening emotional resilience.

Creating a solid relationship with a therapist becomes the first step in your journey. If you feel that you could benefit from ETF therapy, consider online therapy — it’s safe, secure, convenient, and fits a busy lifestyle.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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