Western culture views independence as a virtue. We’ve been taught that a truly strong person doesn’t need anybody to survive and thrive. But being attached to your partner is actually a good thing.
In fact, a secure attachment underlies the strongest relationships. And both partners in such relationships tend to feel “calm, connected, centered and safe,” Emotionally Focused Therapy. Also, a secure attachment helps partners as individuals, too. “Good secure bonding helps you be bolder in the world and feel more empowered.
Founded by Drs. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg, emotionally focused therapy or EFT draws on attachment theory, which asserts that humans are hardwired for strong emotional bonds with others. According to EFT, couples have relationship problems when they’ve “experienced emotional disconnection with their partner at key moments, which then leads to struggles” with negative cycles of criticism and anger (among other emotions and reactions). Therefore, the aim of EFT is to help couples overcome these negative cycles, re-establish their connection, and strengthen their emotional bond.
Research has shown that EFT is highly effective. “Seven out of 10 distressed couples [who seek EFT] show marked improvement, move out of distress and stay there,”. (The International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy website lists several noted research publications.)
What It Means To Be Securely Attached
A secure attachment signifies a successful relationship. So what does a securely attached couple look like? According to EFT, both partners in a secure relationship are able to tune into, identify and accept their own emotions and needs. They’re able to recognize when they’re feeling disconnected and distant from their partner and to speak candidly about their needs and emotions.
Take the example of a wife who’s working on several big projects at work, which take her away from home more and more. Her husband understands and supports his wife. The first week he’s perfectly OK with the situation. The next week, though, he starts to get uncomfortable. By the third week, he’s angry and “prickly toward her.” At this point, he considers his feelings and behaviors. He realizes that he’s feeling lonely and like work has become his wife’s number one priority over him. He’s able to tune into his feelings, identify them and accept them.
(On a side note, many people, especially men, feel ashamed about feeling lonely or needing their partner. Again, there’s an expectation in our society that we shouldn’t need anyone. But remember that we’re hardwired for closeness. So don’t put yourself down for these thoughts and reactions.)
Trust is another part of a secure relationship. Both partners must be able to reach out to each other and trust that they’ll respond sensitively. Again, take the above example. The husband knows that when he talks to his wife about his feelings, she will care and listen to his needs and feelings. He’ll be able to be vulnerable with her and reveal that he misses her and ask her to make more time for their relationship.
In response, the wife may apologize and thank her husband for being honest. She also might suggest they hire a babysitter and enjoy a night out. In other words, she responds compassionately and appreciates that he can articulate his needs and emotions. As a result, he’s then comforted by her response and able to move on. So after such a conversation or series of talks, “the bond is restored and strengthened,”.
For many couples, the interaction goes awry when one partner becomes angry at having to ask for attention or care. And one or both of them “puts on the armor,”. Instead of discussing their concerns and needs, they lash out. For instance, the husband in the above example might’ve said: “You haven’t been around for weeks. I’m taking care of the kids and you have yet to thank me. Do you think you don’t have a family anymore?”
“With this approach, his wife only hears anger and an attack, which causes her to defend herself—missing his hurt and then not able to respond sensitively to his need,”. Other times, partners will withdraw. The same husband might think, “I don’t need her. I can be an independent person. I’m going to make plans with my friends. I don’t care if I don’t see her for another month.” “He then pulls further away from her and the rift between them widens,”.
A Sample EFT Exercise
Therapist described EFT as giving couples a “new language and lens to understand their relationship, and offers a map for getting back on a closer, more connected course.” Distressed couples get caught up in a negative dance, where each reacts to the other, both perpetuating the negative spiral.
Therapist highly recommend founder Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. It helps couples dissect their debates and dig deeper beyond dirty dishes and financial spats. That’s because, according to EFT, repetitive arguments are really about either one or both partners “not feeling securely attached.” Johnson calls these repetitive fights “demon dialogues.” “The first step to getting out of the negative spiral —the demon dialogue—is to chart out what’s happening.”
In one of the exercises in Hold Me Tight, Johnson helps couples see how their negative dance unfolds and how both are responsible for the arguments. Each partner describes their “steps in the dance:” “The more I _______, the more you _________.” Take the example of a husband who gets upset every time his wife invites her mother over to their house. The husband might say “The more I tell you that I’m mad about your mother coming over, the more you pull away from me, go into the office and shut the door and refuse to talk to me, then the more I demand you talk to me. You get angry and tell me what a terrible husband I am for not wanting my mother-in-law around.”
The wife might say: “The more I don’t include you on the decision to have my mom over, the more you feel angry and upset with me and give her the cold shoulder and then the more I just want to leave you in the dust and not even engage with you.”
According to EFT, “This mutual description gives both partners a chance to see what’s happening to them when they get caught in the negative dance and begin the process of changing the ‘music.’”
Johnson, S., Hunsley, J., Greenberg, L. & Schindler, D. (1999) Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Status & challenges (A meta-analysis). Journal of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6, 67-79.
Dan and Lily Vignette:
Dan and Lily were referred to therapy after Lily had started individual treatment with another therapist. She and her husband had begun to argue frequently, and the therapist thought that a couple’s evaluation was indicated.
In the first session, each partner expressed anger and disappointment with the other. Dan complained that he had lived with Lily’s anxiety symptoms for 15 years of marriage, and yet, almost immediately after she began therapy to get help for “her problem,” she stopped talking to him. She responded that throughout their relationship, he had never spoken to her about his thoughts and plans. She had just become frustrated with “having to figure everything out by myself.”
Although both partners were angry, they also had many positive elements in their relationship. Divorce had been discussed, but neither seemed to want this. Dan was skeptical about therapy and resentful that he had to participate. Lily seemed more hopeful about therapy but worried that Dan might not commit to the process.
Dan was a busy engineer who traveled a lot in his work. Lily was a middle-school teacher who shouldered most of the responsibility of caring for their three young children. She felt overwhelmed much of the time and had been on Paxil for depression and anxiety for several years. Although she loved and respected Dan, she was hurt that he often failed to follow through on commitments that he had made to the family. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she questioned his real caring for her.
Describe marital patterns that contributes to conflict within the marriage using Emotionally Focused Therapy, approach (hint: I am asking you to conceptualize).