Couples in Conflict: How Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) Can Help.

couples therapy concept couple holding hands

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) isn’t just counseling—it’s like having a trusted ally by your side as you and your partner navigate the ups and downs of your relationship.

Most of us are familiar with the usual terrain when it comes to the path of commitment or marriage. 

As a couple, we’ve slogged through vicious valleys, meandered across pleasant plateaus, and danced upon heavenly highs. But, for the most part, we’ve been good with all that, always knowing that each part of the journey is impermanent and that the plateaus are usually the most extended stretches. 

But what happens when the lows go on for miles upon miles, the conflicts in our coupledom seemingly never let up? 

A couple’s conflict-filled relationship can lead to uncoupling or divorce at best and long-term, non-stop bickering, discord, miscommunication, and misery at worst.  

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a model of couple’s therapy that you can use to boost communication, attachment, and bonding in your partnership. This article explores how EFT can be a guiding light in resolving conflicts and fostering deeper connections between couples.

Love and Intimacy: When Attachment Style Creates Conflict

According to Robert J. Sternberg, an American psychologist and psychometrician, romantic love is about intimacy, passion, and commitment.  

While passion and commitment are often relatively easy to come by, intimacy can be rife with barriers that may stem from early childhood and attachment style patterns learned then. 

Pia Melody, the author of The Intimacy Factor and Senior Clinical Advisor for The Meadows, says, “Healthy intimacy requires the trusting offer of our true self to another and our trusting acceptance of the other’s true self in return.”

Issues in emotional, intellectual, and experiential intimacy, which is where Emotionally Focused Therapy can help your conflicted relationship, are rooted in attachment and emotional bonding. 

Fear and insecurity – often stemming from the attachment style we developed in early childhood- can present significant obstacles to healthy intimacy and engagement with our partners. 

As a result, we end up with the following obstacles to a loving relationship:

  • Blaming and disparagement
  • Keeping secrets
  • Not sharing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Lack of physical intimacy
  • Gatekeeping and territoriality
  • Inattention
  • Constant bickering
  • Predictable patterns of disagreement
  • Competitive mindset

So, What Is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and Can It Help?

Based on attachment theory, the EFT approach was created in the mid-1980s by Dr. Sue Johnson, a British clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and author of Hold Me Tight, with the help of her thesis advisor, Less Greenberg, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Emotionally Focused Therapy views attachment needs as a primary motivational system for survival. A couple’s relationship and need for one another is akin to a child’s need for their parent. 

EFT’s approach centers around attachment theory and adult love, wherein attachment, caregiving, and sex are intertwined. 

Attachment theory encompasses the search for personal autonomy, including dependability on one another and a sense of personal and interpersonal love and desire. 

EFT can help couples re-work their attachment approach to increase their inter-dependency, emotion regulation, and relational health. In addition, the modality helps couples develop a more secure bond, often resulting in better communication and a fortified relationship.

As you, your partner, and your counselor work together, a new way of functioning and relating will develop. 

By engaging in the process, allowing yourselves to be vulnerable with each other as a couple, and committing to an enduring transformation in your relationship, you will cement the effectiveness of EFT.


Essentially, EFT can help you and your partner reconnect by recognizing trigger patterns and steering interactions in a different direction before becoming what Dr. Johnson calls “demon dialogues.”

The term “demon dialogues” describes the destructive cycles of conflict many couples experience in their failing partnership. 

The first step in emotionally focused couple therapy (EFCT) is to help a couple identify the killer dance that consistently pops up, when and how it happens, and what each partner does to escalate the conflict. 

These destructive “dance moves” could be a tone of voice, a topic of conversation, a word, a look, emotional or physical distancing, or an energetic change in one partner or the other. 

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is a psychological and ethological supposition regarding human relationships. The primary tenet is that young children must develop relationships with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development.

Intimacy is the emotional aspect of romantic love. The part of love that makes you feel close to your partner, intimacy involves feelings of trust, security, and self-disclosure. 

The intimacy between you and your partner likely developed over time as you got to know each other.

Your ability to attain and maintain intimacy- with anyone, not just your romantic partner- is intricately entwined with your attachment style. 

Four essential styles of attachment have been identified in adults:

  • secure
  • anxious-preoccupied
  • dismissive-avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

Attachment style refers to how you relate to others. Your type of attachment develops early in life, and once established, it likely influences your relationships with others, including your romantic partner.

In their book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Dr. Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller explain the biological realities behind our relationship needs and teach readers how to identify their attachment styles and that of their partners. Recognizing the styles and patterns in our relationships can help us heal the rifts that may occur when our attachment styles are at odds. 

What Should We Expect From EFT?

EFT is a short-term couples therapy modality; you can expect to attend eight to 20 sessions with your partner and sometimes individually. 

The first stage, cycle de-escalation, helps you and your partner understand how your hostile exchanges drive a self-reinforcing cycle of pain and discord. When you can associate these cycles with attachment disruptions in your partnership, you can reframe the problem– making it not about your partner and their actions but about your negative cycle as a couple. 

The second stage, restructuring interactions, helps you and your partner shape new core emotional experiences and develop new interactions that can help you feel a more secure connection. As a couple, you’ll be encouraged to look at and share your attachment vulnerabilities and voice your needs in a focused and structured way. 

In this way, you can form new constructive rather than destructive cycles, creating a sense of secure attachment. 

The third stage of EFT, consolidation, helps you use your newly secure attachment bond to strengthen your partnership, resolve everyday issues, and foster positive change.

After EFT, Couples fight less, feel closer, and their satisfaction increases. 

Humans Need a Secure Connection to Others

Numerous studies have shown that humans need secure attachments to others as much as they need food and water for survival. 

One study published by the journal Heart found that Single people have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke than attached people and have higher mortality overall.

There was a reason that you and your partner connected in the first place, fell in love, and committed to one another. The vicious valleys that are a normal part of every relationship can be traversed more effectively and quickly with good intimacy and communication skills in place. 

Check out the books I’ve mentioned and– if you and your partner feel you need the extra help– seek out a therapist qualified in EFT. The practice is widely used in couples therapy, and you’re bound to find someone in your area well-versed in the modality. 


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