Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)—also known as Emotion Focused Therapy, or Process-Experiential Therapy—is a form of psychotherapy used to treat individuals, couples or groups. It is typically a short-term (8-20 session) form of therapy that has its roots in Attachment Theory and the pioneering work of British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s. The role of the emotionally focused therapist is to show the patient that it is our inability to deal with our various emotional responses that causes negative feelings and behaviors, not the emotions themselves. The therapist can then show the patient how to use emotion to relieve his or her mental distress.
In the 1980s Susan Johnson and Les Greenberg pioneered methods for applying EFT to couples and family therapy. By using EFT techniques they were very successful at showing couples how negative emotions were preventing them from overcoming their conflicts and how to replace these emotions with ones that actually help them to move forward with their relationships. Indeed, studies show that people in healthy relationships have greater confidence and better interpersonal skills that allow them to cope much better with other kinds of emotional stress found in daily life.
One of the great strengths of EFT is that in a field like psychotherapy, where so much evidence is anecdotal, EFT has been shown empirically to be highly effective over and over again. Scientific studies show that EFT for couples (EFT-C) provides positive results in 70-75% of relationships. Recent experiments by Johnson and others (Johnson, et al., 2013) have shown that not only is EFT-C capable of causing effective changes in the behavior of at risk couples, but it can actually change the way the brain processes emotion.
The study used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of women while they experienced stress in the form of minor electrical shocks. The MRI showed researchers the actual activity in the women’s brains in response to the discomfort. For one trial a woman held the hand of her husband during the procedure. For the next trial she held the hand of an anonymous male stranger (who she was not introduced to until after the study). In the third she held no ones hand. After the initial round of tests the married couples underwent EFT and were tested once again.
The results showed that, as with similar studies done in the past, brain activity in regions associated with stress and pain was highest for solitary patients, somewhat less when holding a strangers hand, and least when holding a spouses hand. Moreover, this study showed that after Emotionally Focused Therapy the response was reduced to an even greater extent, not only for trials where the woman held a spouses hand, but also for holding a strangers hand as well. This data helps support the assertion that EFT not only improves the emotional life of the couple, but all interpersonal relationships, and therefore can have a positive impact on our overall well being.