Emotionally Focused Therapy is a therapeutic approach in which a therapist assists individuals, couples and families in examining their emotional responses and helps the client(s) work through maladaptive emotional responses in their relationships by replacing them with healthier ones.
In the 1980s, Sue Johnson and Les Greenburg explored the ways that experiential (person centered) therapy, systemic therapy, and attachment theory can be worked together to assist people in better regulating their emotional needs. The experiential systemic approach means that the therapist will view emotional distress within a system, or relationship, as something that both parties are responsible for rather than only being the responsibility of one person. Then the attachment piece of the theory looks at how our emotions or the ways we regulate emotions are formed and executed based on the ways that we were responded to as children when we show emotion and our parents or caregivers respond to them.
Emotionally Focused Therapy can be done with individuals, couples, and whole family systems. However, despite the theory’s versatility, it does look a bit different in each of those areas as far as how treatment is done.
Four Categories of Emotionally-Related Problems
For individuals, the therapist will first explore the origin of emotionally related problems which can fall into four categories: avoiding emotions, being unable to regulate emotions, maladaptive emotional responses, or difficulty with developing meaning behind experiences. These patterns or problems typically develop from patterns that were formed within the ways we learned about emotions and how to respond to them when we feel a particular one. Once origins are determined, the therapist can then explore different types of emotional responses based on their discoveries in exploring the origin.
- Are these responses based on primary adaptations, for instance, getting sad when you experience loss?
- Are they maladaptive and served you at some point but no longer serve you?
- Are they secondary in the ways that you’re feeling something in response to another emotion, like feeling helpless in response to feeling loss.
- Are these responses instrumental in that you learned that if you do a particular thing it will elicit a particular emotional response from you or from others.
Once the origin and response is explored, the therapist will then give the client various tasks in various areas including: empathy based, relational based, experiencing tasks, reprocessing tasks and action tasks. These tasks will assist the client in developing new appropriate or healthier emotional responses.
For couples and family therapy, the process is similar but slightly different as the therapist must balance multiple emotional responses between a couple or family members. The first thing a client can expect in these types of sessions is the therapist to de-escalate, assess and stabilize the emotions between the clients. This will look like the therapist understanding the couple or family’s positive and negative interactions and joining them to unite against the problem rather than each other.
The next stage then examines how to restructure and, oftentimes, widen the emotional experiences of the clients so that they can accept each other’s experiences and emotions rather than using them as barriers to communication and connection.
Finally, the therapist will help the clients integrate and solidify these new patterns of communication and emotional connection into their relationships. Overall, whether in individual, couples, or family client systems, emotionally focused therapy can help recognize maladaptive emotional responses and replace them with adaptive ones.