In the realm of couples therapy, one approach has garnered significant attention and research support over the past 25 years: Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, EFT is a transformative model that helps couples understand and reshape their relationship dynamics. This article delves into the core principles of EFT, exploring how it can help couples strengthen their emotional bond and build a more secure, satisfying partnership.

The Science Behind Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

At the heart of EFT lies the concept of attachment theory, which posits that humans have an innate need for close, secure relationship1. Research has consistently shown that the quality of attachment between partners is a significant predictor of relationship satisfaction2. EFT aims to help couples create a more secure attachment by identifying and changing negative interaction patterns that hinder emotional connection.

One groundbreaking study conducted by Johnson and colleagues found that after just 12 sessions of EFT, 70-75% of couples reported significant improvements in relationship satisfaction3. These findings have been replicated in numerous other studies, solidifying EFT’s position as an evidence-based approach to couples therapy4.

The EFT Perspective on Relationship Distress

EFT views relationship distress through the lens of attachment theory. When couples experience conflict or disconnection, they often engage in what Dr. Johnson calls “demon dialogues” – negative interaction cycles that perpetuate insecurity and emotional distance5. These dialogues are rooted in each partner’s attachment style, which influences how they perceive and respond to relationship triggers.

For example, imagine a couple where one partner has an anxious attachment style and the other has an avoidant attachment style. When the anxious partner feels neglected, they may pursue their partner for reassurance, leading the avoidant partner to withdraw further. This creates a vicious cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, leaving both partners feeling misunderstood and alone.

EFT has been heralded by the New York Times and Time magazine as relegitimizing and substantiating couple therapy as an effective science-based intervention. Research studies find that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements.

Susan Johnson 8,9

The EFT Process of Change

The goal of EFT is to help couples break free from these negative interaction patterns and create a more secure, emotionally connected relationship. Through a structured process, EFT therapists guide couples to:

  1. Identify their negative interaction cycle and the underlying emotions driving it
  2. Access and express their deeper, more vulnerable emotions in a safe, supportive environment
  3. Reframe the problem as the cycle itself, rather than blaming each other
  4. Develop new, more positive ways of interacting that foster emotional connection and security6

Throughout this process, EFT therapists pay close attention to “attachment injuries” – past incidents where one partner felt deeply hurt or abandoned by the other7. By helping couples work through these unresolved wounds, EFT allows them to heal and strengthen their bond.

Real-Life Application of EFT Principles

So, what does EFT look like in practice? Let’s consider a couple, Brittany and Zachary, who have been struggling with frequent arguments and emotional distance. In therapy, they learn that their negative cycle involves Brittany criticizing Zachary for not being attentive enough, which triggers Zachary to defensively withdraw.

As they explore the deeper emotions beneath this cycle, Brittany reveals that she fears Zachary doesn’t truly love her, while Zachary expresses feeling inadequate and afraid of failing in the relationship. By vulnerably sharing these fears and needs with each other, Brittany and Zachary begin to develop a new, more empathetic understanding of their dynamic.

With the therapist’s guidance, they practice expressing their emotions and needs in a softer, more direct way. Instead of criticizing, Brittany learns to say, “I miss feeling close to you and need reassurance of your love.” Zachary, in turn, practices responding with openness and engagement, such as saying, “I’m sorry I made you feel unloved. You mean the world to me, and I want to be there for you.”

Practical Takeaways for Couples

If you’re struggling in your relationship, EFT offers a hopeful path forward. Here are some key insights and tips to take away from this approach:

  1. Your relationship distress is not a sign of failure, but an opportunity to grow and strengthen your bond.
  2. Beneath conflict often lie deeper, unmet attachment needs. Strive to understand and express these needs with vulnerability.
  3. Instead of blaming each other, focus on understanding and changing the negative cycle you get stuck in.
  4. Prioritize emotional connection and responsiveness in your daily interactions. Small moments of turning towards each other can have a big impact.
  5. If you’re struggling to break free from negative patterns on your own, consider seeking out an EFT-trained couples therapist for support.


Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy offers a powerful, research-backed approach to healing and strengthening relationships. By understanding the attachment dynamics at play in their interactions, couples can learn to create a more secure, loving bond. With empathy, vulnerability, and a willingness to change, even the most distressed relationships can find their way back to emotional connection and joy.



  1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books. 
  2. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  3. Johnson, S. M., Hunsley, J., Greenberg, L., & Schindler, D. (1999). Emotionally focused couples therapy: Status and challenges. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6(1), 67-79. 
  4. Wiebe, S. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2016). A review of the research in emotionally focused therapy for couples. Family Process, 55(3), 390-407. 
  5. Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. Guilford Press. 
  6. Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge. 
  7. Zuccarini, D., Johnson, S. M., Dalgleish, T. L., & Makinen, J. A. (2013). Forgiveness and reconciliation in emotionally focused therapy for couples: The client change process and therapist interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(2), 148-162.
  8. Johnson, S. M., Hunsley, J., Greenberg, L., & Schindler, D. (1999). Emotionally focused couples therapy: Status and challenges. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6(1), 67-79.
  9. Wiebe, S. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2016). A review of the research in emotionally focused therapy for couples. Family Process, 55(3), 390-407.

Originally published March 11, 2016