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Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples

Good couples therapy is more about the feelings than events.

The discipline of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) stems from the work of Dr. Sue Johnson. Dr. Johnson's work as a marriage and family therapist has inspired many humanistic/relationally oriented therapists around the globe to do better therapy. Obviously there are far more clients and couples that have benefitted from her work, most likely via those same inspired therapists! For me, good couples therapy (just like good therapy in general) is more about the feelings that each partner has in response to events, more than the events themselves.

If one spouse feels offended or let down by their partner coming to bed late, to me, (and I'm sure Sue) exploring the resulting feelings and their origins (how they learned to feel "offended" and their prior experiences of feeling "let down") along with their partner's feelings around why they came to bed late: would be far more effective therapeutically than trying to get them to agree to go to bed at the same time every night. Focusing on logic is a long way from getting to the heart of things: the emotions.

Emotional responses to words or actions, and the meanings we each attach to certain words and actions, can guide us to understand the problems/challenges we have to overcome within ourselves far more effectively than getting lost in the details of the actions or words we experienced. Life is experiences. Our Emotions inform us about how we feel about subjective experiences. We could seek to change the behaviour of our partners so that they do not trigger our associated feelings, or we could explore the feelings and really start to understand ourselves and our partners better. That is good therapy.

Communicating well with our partners is the single best way to grow in our understandings of one another and to minimize the impacts of misunderstandings and mis-communications, particularly when we are discussing how we really feel about things. Therapy can provide a safe place do do exactly that, and more!

I came across Dr.Johnson's work via the Milton Erickson Foundation (recognized Grandfather of Hypnosis and Brief Therapy) and the wonderful conferences that great therapists like Sue teach at, such as “The Evolution of Psychotherapy” conference and the “Brief Therapy” conference. Sue Johnson has taught quite regularly at the Brief Therapy Conference, and to witness her working with couples is inspirational (yes I’m one of those inspired therapists).

Having been in the studio to witness her interview with Lorna Douek, I was delighted to see her providing Lorna with the experience of what it would be like to be blamed for not providing Sue with something she needed, and an alternate experience of taking ownership of needing something and requesting it instead of the blaming way. That moment in the show really encapsulated for me what an attuned and strategic therapist’s role is in good therapy: provide memorable experiences through exercises and emotionally focused conversations. I’m sure (even though it was done in jest) that Lorna had some feelings triggered by being pointed at and blamed, that would let her really know what that’s like to feel (rather than discussing the potential behaviour and thinking about what it might be like to feel). Good therapy is all about feelings, so I really appreciated Sue making that point so clear for Lorna and for Context viewers. Bravo!

I really hope it inspires the viewers to re-think any marriage counselling they may be dissatisfied with, and to seek a therapist a more experiential therapist. It would be great to think that others considering good couples therapy may now be better informed in their future choice of a therapist that is inspired by Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and the brilliant work of Dr. Sue Johnson.