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What do you do in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?

I’m always looking for ways to explain and talk about what happens in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) so I was really excited recently when a colleague sent me this clip of a variety show that aired in the early 1950′s called “Your Show of Shows”. Among the sketches, it featured a couple played by Sid Caeser and Imogene Coca. I’m so impressed with the show’s ability to portray the dynamics of a couple having an argument and also make it funny! This clip is a sketch called “The Birthday Present” and is a classic example of a couple getting “caught” in a negative conflict cycle:

Watching this clip, you may notice a few things! One thing I notice is how important the non-verbal signals are to the couple – they are exaggerated for comedic effect, but this happens in real life in a more subtle, but nonetheless extremely impactful way! The husband lying down and taking a nap after giving his wife her gift, the critical tone in the wife’s voice, the sarcastic tone of the husband’s birthday song, the wife’s body language – hands on hips, and facial expression. These are the moment to moment things that couples tend to react to when having an argument. Generally, it is the non-verbal signals that mean more than what is actually said! If this couple came in for a session, the EFT therapist would help the couple go back to a moment like this, and track what they were seeing, hearing, and feeling – like a time lapse photography segment – to help the couple uncover the important meanings that get lost in the heat of the moment.

On a verbal level, the other thing I notice is that the couple rarely seems to say what they mean! You may notice how Imogene’s character is very critical of her her husband. If this couple were to come in for a session in real life, the therapist would help the wife slow down and look at what she was actually needing from her husband. It’s pretty obvious as an observer of this couple, that the wife wanted her husband to reassure her of her specialness to him. Even after all these years of marriage, she wanted to know that he was thinking of her and what would make her happy on her birthday. You may also notice that the husband is very defensive with his wife. Interestingly, he DID get her a thoughtful gift but he seems to need to know that his wife has faith in him, and won’t automatically assume that he’s “a rat”. Another thing that would happen in an EFT session, is the therapist would slow each person down and direct each of them to pay attention to what they are going through emotionally and to talk about what they need underneath the protective guard of things like criticism and defensiveness.

In the EFT world, this is Stage I of the therapy – track the conflict cycle, slow it down, look inside, notice what the emotional needs are – with support from the therapist, each partner then talks to the other about these needs in a more open way. This diagram is a helpful visual of what the therapist is helping the couple to track.

One of my favorite things about the EFT model, is it helps people make sense of these really overwhelming moments in relationships because in real life, these things happen so quickly that we rarely grasp the full extent of what is happening to us or our partner! Couples come into therapy and say things like, “we had the dumbest fight” or “we don’t even remember what it was about”! In EFT, there are no dumb fights! – and every fight is about the same thing – do I matter to you? are you there for me? will you respond to me? These really important questions are related to the needs that we all have for connection with our beloved that are included in the heart part of the diagram above.

I hope this helps demystify the beginning stages of EFT Couples Therapy! As always, your comments and questions are welcome!

For more info on the science of EFT, Love Sense is an amazing book!

To find an EFT therapist in your area, click here:

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