An overview of the therapy
The approach used at the Sydney Couples Counselling Centre is emotionally focused therapy, developed by Dr Sue Johnson. It is based on adult attachment theory - the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with another person, which is no different from our need to sleep, eat, and find shelter. Initially researchers developed this theory to explain the caregiver-child relationship and it was later realised that this need does not disappear when a person reaches adulthood but rather it transforms itself into our need to form a partnership with another person. This partnership is important for survival as it helps us get through life's obstacles better as two are stronger than one. However, in adult attachment, unlike a caregiver-child relationship in which the child is predominantly getting their needs met by the caregiver, both partners need to meet each other's needs. To make this partnership work well, we must be able to navigate through our differences and ask for our needs to be met in a way that the other person can understand and respond to.
The therapy works in 3 stages:
- Stage 1 (also known as de-escalation) targets the conflict. This is important because a lot of damage gets done to each person and to the bond between the two in these moments and also because we need to have safety between the two people for the alternative way to take place (see stage 2 for the alternative). In certain couples, where there is no conflict, stage 1 helps them understand where they are getting stuck in their own attempts to resolve their issues. Stage 1 typically about lasts about 4 sessions but can range from 1 to 6 sessions for some couples.
- Stage 2 (also referred to as building the alternative) is where couples are helped to build the alternative way to resolve the differences and get their needs met, which was triggering the conflict. The conflict is occurring for a reason and so it is not enough to just not do the conflict, we need to have an alternative way to resolve these issues, as well as any other issue we will face in the future. In couples in which the main issue is an infidelity or other such event, stage 3 is focused on helping them heal from this event. Couples usually need about 6 sessions in this stage, although it can range from 4 to 8.
- Stage 3 (also called maintenance) is where couples are helped to ensure the changes they have created in their relationship carry on as the move forward and encounter new challenges and stressors. Usually 2 or 3 sessions are enough for stage 3.
DOES IT WORK?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that over 30 years of research has shown that emotionally focused therapy is the most effective approach for couples that are experiencing difficulties. Studies have found that after completing the therapy, 70-75% of couples were no longer distressed and 90% had improved. This applied to everyone, no matter the level of severity of their problems when they started therapy. Even couples with the most severe of problems improved as much as those who had low levels of conflict!
There is an academic article published in 2016 that overviews the evidence behind emotionally focussed therapy, which we have made available to you here.
More on emotionally focused therapy
Find out more on emotionally focused therapy by watching a video from Dr Sue Johnson, the creator of this therapy. She developed it in the 1980s when she started working with couples using the only evidence-based approach of the time - behaviour therapy for couples. Discontent with the results she was getting from this approach, she started video-taping her sessions and then watching the thousands of hours of tapes to try and understand what was at the core of her clients' conflict and distress. One day it clicked - these couples are fighting for survival. Nature has made us depend on our partner for survival and when this connection becomes lost or threatened we react - either shutting down to prevent further harm to ourselves and the relationship or pursuing the other person to try and re-establish this connection.