Emotionally focused therapy (EFT): Types, stages, goals
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Emotionally focused therapy helps people restructure their emotional responses to help strengthen their relationships. Originally developed as a form of couples therapy, EFT can be adapted for individuals (emotionally focused individual therapy/EFIT) or for families (emotionally focused family therapy/EFFT).
EFT draws from the fundamental tenets of other therapeutic approaches, including:
- Attachment theory: Attachment theory states that people learn how to develop relationships with others based on their experience as an infant attaching to their primary caregiver. EFT uses this theory to help individuals, couples, and families address and improve their relational bonds.
- Family systems therapy: Whether treating an individual, a couple, or a family, emotionally focused therapists often utilize the basic concepts of family systems therapy to heal broken cycles of behavior.
- Gestalt therapy: Gestalt therapy focuses on the “here and now” and prioritizes wholeness and awareness. Gestalt therapy techniques that involve re-enactment, such as the empty chair technique, are often used in emotionally focused therapy.
The first stage of EFT is de-escalation. Individuals, couples, or families seeking help from an EFT therapist are usually experiencing negative interactions with one another. They may have strong opinions about who or what is to blame and how to fix it.
With de-escalation, an emotionally focused therapist can help clients step outside of this cycle of distress by having them:
- Express their main concerns
- Identify negative patterns of behavior that cause or contribute to their main concerns
- Explore the fears and emotions beneath the negative patterns of behavior
- Use attachment theory to uncover the root causes of these emotions and fears
De-escalation takes the problem that brought clients in the door (e.g., “My spouse never listens to me”) and drills down to find the emotions at the root of the conflict (e.g., “I’ve always felt invisible to the people I love”). During restructuring, the EFT therapist will encourage clients to explore these roots more deeply by:
- Expressing their emotions, needs, and desires, especially the ones they feel ashamed or afraid to admit
- Practicing acceptance and compassion for themselves, their partner, and/or their family
- Learning how to express their emotions, needs, and desires in healthier, more effective ways
The final stage of EFT is integration. During this stage, clients will learn how to:
- Implement new solutions to old problems
- Integrate what they’ve learned into their sense of self
EFT therapists employ a number of effective interventions to promote emotional processing and relational bonding, including:
- Reflection: Using empathy and repetition to encourage clients to reflect on their beliefs
- Validation: Acknowledging and affirming clients’ emotional experiences
- Re-enactment: Giving clients the opportunity to re-enact important emotional experiences and arrive at healthier conclusions
- Reframing: Encouraging clients to apply new meanings based on attachment theory to old problems or beliefs
In general, the goals of emotionally focused therapy are:
- Emotional awareness: Acknowledging and correctly identifying emotions in yourself and others
- Self-regulation: Observing, managing, and adapting your emotions and behaviors to suit the situation
- Trauma processing: Physically, mentally, and emotionally acknowledging, understanding, and integrating past trauma into your life story
- Healing attachments: Identifying your attachment style and working toward secure attachment behaviors
- Challenging unhelpful thoughts: Questioning unhelpful or harmful thoughts instead of acting on them
- Relational development: Strengthening your relational bonds with your partner, family, friends, and loved ones
Emotionally focused therapy can help individuals, couples, and families struggling with a variety of mental health disorders, including:
The Gottman method is a form of couples therapy. It teaches couples how to communicate in healthy ways so they can avoid the “four horsemen” of the relational apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Emotionally focused couples therapy and the Gottman method are both great options for couples who need help learning how to better understand one another. However, only EFT can be adapted for individual and family therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect their emotions and behaviors. Many different therapies, including EFT, share some basic principles with CBT.
The difference between CBT and EFT comes down to the primary focus of treatment. In CBT, feelings are considered mostly within the context of the cognitive triangle (how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect one another). In EFT, feelings are front and center, focusing on how emotions affect our relationships with others as well as ourselves.
Additionally, principles of CBT have been adapted to create a variety of therapeutic approaches to address various mental health conditions. Although EFT is versatile, its applications are more limited when compared to CBT.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.