Emotionally-Focused Therapy: Why it isn't Futile

The “Opinionator/Couch” series of articles in the New York Times – it has apparently been running for years – is a personal favorite.  Written from a clinician’s or patient’s first-hand perspective, it documents the inevitable struggles and successes in therapy.  In a more recent piece, titled “The Futility of Couples Therapy,” a woman wrote about how couples therapy saved her marriage, but not because it worked.  On the contrary, it only seemed helpful because successive attempts at it proved unhelpful – and (in my humble opinion) the work being done bordered on "what not to do in couples therapy."  I try not to judge because I don’t know what it was like in the sessions with this couple – some couples are decidedly difficult – but it sounded as if the author and her husband bonded over their mutual distaste for the therapists they saw.  It was as if it was the one thing they could agree upon.  While it was effective in this one example, it seems that thousands upon thousands of couples do not end up in this same lucky boat. As a social worker in community mental health, I felt only marginally successful in any couples work I was able to do.  Upon entering into private practice, a few couples sought out my help; I remember making suggestions to them such as those the author of the article spoke of (a “boilerplate” in the field of therapy seems to be “try using ‘I’ statements").  The inevitable back-and-forth ensued about arguments they would have; at least I got a real glimpse into their home life.  In the content of the debate versus its process, we focused on the content of the fights – the issue at hand.  It would go back and forth, and forth and back, and maybe a fight or two would get resolved, but the underlying “foundation” feelings each person had for the relationship seemed to be consistent regardless of resolution: insecure.  But I can only say this looking back, post-EFT training. Somehow I found Emotionally-Focused Therapy.  The realization came early on that in order to be good -- or even halfway-decent – at couple’s therapy, the key was specialized training.  So much happens when there are two people sitting on the couch that it can get out of hand very quickly (which seemed to be what happened in the Times article).  There is a lot of emotion; it is a lot of energy in the space when two partners feel vulnerable at the same time and one or both find that hard to tolerate (having difficulty being vulnerable – because of injuries – is a common issue afflicting couples. Even with the training it still can get out of hand quickly. But knowing where to go with those vulnerabilities has proven to be immeasurably helpful. What the model is capable of doing is fascinating.  Through the use of Attachment Theory, and adapting it to observe the bond between partners (as opposed to the mother-infant bond that Attachment Theory originally observed), it lays out a step-by-step guide to creating more attachment security in the relationship.  It is far more normalizing than the author’s experiences – she referenced a therapist telling her husband that he would need to “quit bugging me about my drinking.”  Unfortunately for the author, her husband was bugging her for a reason.  While the reason may not be quite “logical” in that it probably doesn’t help treat the symptom of drinking, it is happening for a reason that is related to her husband’s “stuff,” and likely related to the way her husband felt insecure in the relationship.  Perhaps the attachment fear is that she is not available to him emotionally because of her need to drink on a daily basis. When couples can focus more on their feelings about the relationship – that risky and vulnerable “stuff” about “mattering” that seems to matter the most – they can also enact a more positive cycle when their partners are ready to hear this.  It is most powerful when it happens experientially, in the office, because it can then be processed as such and used to create more secure attachment.  So that when her husband bugs her about her drinking, she might feel secure enough within the relationship to not take this as criticism, but rather a protest and longing for more connection. -DK