Focusing on Attachment: Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling

Marriage counseling, like individual therapy, comes in many shapes and forms. Every couple is different, and people sometimes have to try several different approaches to therapy and several different therapists before they find one that fits their needs. Psychologist Sue Johnson developed emotionally focused therapy to help couples and individuals address issues of attachment, and couples are increasingly choosing this approach to therapy because of its relatively short duration and high success rate.

What Is It?

Emotionally focused therapy draws heavily on attachment theory. Attachment theorists emphasize the primacy of attachment relationships, and argue that early childhood attachments can affect romantic attachment patterns. Johnson argues that attachment underlies many marital problems.

When a person feels insecure in his or her attachment to a partner, he or she is more likely to bully, become clingy, flee, or engage in other destructive behaviors. EFT attempts to break cycles of pursuit, retreat, bullying, and submission in relationships by directly addressing the emotions that cause these behaviors. Often, these emotions have their roots in early childhood.

EFT aims to uncover the attachment issues underlying marital issues. Rather than coming up with a plan for how to address household chores or arguing about whose parenting style is right, couples are much more likely to discuss what a particular issue means to them and how they can address a partner's emotional needs regarding the issue.


Emotionally focused therapy allows couples to choose arrangements and communication styles that work for them, so long as these arrangements meet both partners' attachment needs. Thus there's no concern that couples will have to adapt to the therapist's idea of what a happy marriage looks like. Emotionally focused therapy is also a relatively short process, usually requiring between eight and 20 sessions, depending on the number and severity of issues. This makes it easier to track progress, and means that couples don't have to spend years in therapy and thousands of dollars.

EFT has been empirically tested for about 20 years, and a large percentage of couples report improvements in their marriage. Because of the heavy focus on emotion and attachment, EFT can help foster intimacy, honesty, and mutual awareness where it might not otherwise be present.


If you're looking for a mediator, EFT might not be the best strategy. EFT therapists emphasize the emotional weight of marital issues, not the practical implications. For couples who are just hoping to get an idea of the best way to construct their marriage, EFT may not work. The emotional focus of EFT is also a barrier for some couples. EFT can be emotionally taxing work, and couples who are uncomfortable with sharing feelings may be put off by it. These couples, however, may also have the most to gain from the process.

Ongoing violence in the relationship is a contraindication for EFT, and most EFT therapists will not see clients involved in abusive relationships. Extreme verbal abuse may also prohibit EFT. The reason for this is simple. EFT emphasizes the importance of both partners' feelings, but when one partner is expressing his feelings in a violent or controlling way, a therapist can't validate the approach. Substance abuse can also make EFT difficult, and may in fact make it impossible.


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