February 10, 2024

How does Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) work?

A woman with both hands in chest while taking a deep breath



  • The 3 Stages of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) 
  • What to expect during EFT assessment sessions
  • What normal Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) sessions looks like
  • What you will be able to do after completing EFT couples therapy
Afro Spouses Hugging Happily After Reconciling On Marital Counseling

The 3 Stages of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT)

Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT or EFCT) is an evidenced based couples therapy approach that is completed in 3 therapy stages: decreasing distress, developing new patterns, and using new skills for lingering problems. 

Stage 1: Decreasing Distress. 

The first stage of Emotionally Focused Therapy is all about decreasing the distress that couples are feeling. Part of how we do this in EFT couples counseling is by identifying the negative communication pattern that you may be caught in. While there are more variations, the most common communication patterns couples experience are: 

  • criticize – defend (the high conflict pattern)
  • pursue – withdraw (the “I’m doing this all on my own” pattern)
  • withdraw – withdraw (the roommate pattern)

Once you can identify your communication pattern, the next step is to start identifying the emotions that leading you both to reacting to each other versus being able to respond to each other. By understanding what is leading to your own and your partner’s behaviors, you can start to change the pattern. 

Stage 2: Developing New Patterns (that lead to closeness and connection).

In the second stage of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT or EFCT), the focus is on helping you both cope differently with the painful emotions driving the original communication pattern. In this stage of EFT couples therapy, an EFT therapist will help you turn to each other for emotional support, validation, and empathy. When you can identify your emotions, share them with your partner, and get support from your partner, this is called relational coping. Over time, a new pattern involving relational coping is developed. This pattern helps couples feel safe, comforted, accepted, understood, and emotionally close and connected. 

Stage 3: Using New Skills to Solve Lingering Problems 

The final stage of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT or EFCT), involves using the new communication skills and relational coping skills to problem solve any lingering concerns. These concerns could include things like your sex life, differences in parenting style or money management, or any other concerns that are still lingering. Once you’ve used the new skills for lingering problems, you are ready to end EFT couples therapy!

Sweet picture of older couple embracing on a beach

What to expect during EFT assessment sessions

At the very beginning of EFT couples therapy, you will engage in an assessment process which services two purposes: 1) to get to know your EFT therapist better, and 2) for your EFT therapist to get to know you better. 

Session 1: Orientation and Relationship History

During the first session, your EFT couple therapist will meet with go over things like their policies and procedures to help you get oriented to what EFT couples therapy will be like. Then they will ask to hear more about your relationship history, your love story, the concerns that are brining you couples counseling, and what you both how to achieve out of the EFT couple therapy process. 

Sessions 2 & 3: Individual Sessions

During the second and third sessions, your EFT therapist will meet with each partner individually. All questions will be the same for each partner, but this allows the therapist and each partner to get to know each other one-on-one. The EFT couples therapist will likely ask questions about your individual relationship history, what it was like to grow up in your family, and if there are any mental and physical heath concerns impacting you in the relationship. If needed, your therapist may refer you to additional support services such as helping you find an individual therapist or medication provider. 

Session 4: Summary Session

In the fourth session of EFT couple therapy, your EFT therapist will provide a summary of the assessment process and what to expect next n EFT couples therapy. This may include a discussion about how normal cultural or family differences have led to differing expectations in the relationship, or how past relationship insecurities may be showing up in the relationship. They will likely also include a summary of what seems like it is really going well in the relationship and the relationship strengths that you have as a couple.  Depending on the length of time needed for the overview, t’s typical that your EFT couples therapist will start helping you figure out your communication pattern in this session if they haven’t done so already. 

couple holding hands looking towards the mountains

What normal Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) Sessions look like

After the initial four sessions, each session of EFT couple therapy will be very similar throughout all three stages of the work. The EFT therapist will work to help you notice if your communication pattern is showing up in the conversation. The therapist will then work with one partner at a time to help them identify what is going on emotionally in the moment. Next, the therapist will assist you in sharing that with your partner in a new and different way to see if it had a different emotional impact on your partner. Once the EFT couple therapist finishes this with the first partner, they will do this same process again with the second partner. Ideally, you and your partner will both practice sharing and listening at least once in each session if not more. Toward the end of the session, the EFT therapist will provide a summary of what you each did that was different and helped lead to a new and more positive outcome. They may also contrast this to your typical communication pattern to help you know what you can work on doing differently at home. 

couple hugging on the bed

What you will be able to do after completing EFT couples therapy

The length of time it takes to complete Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) varies on many factors, such as: complicating physical and mental heath challenges, history of relationship betrayals and affairs, the level of experience of the marriage counselor, the frequency of sessions, and how long the couple waited to attend couples counseling. Generally speaking, it takes 1-2 years of weekly counseling to for most couples to complete all three EFT stages. 

At the end of EFT couples therapy, couples feel less reactive, emotionally closer and more confident in their relationship. Couples have an internal sense that they are a team and are there for each other. They are able to confide in each other and share concerns in a more clear and direct way, as well as listen to each other with empathy. Couples end EFT coupes therapy knowing how to provide validation and emotionally attune to each other; and their relationship is characterized by accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. 

Looking to start Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy?

Elizabeth Polinsky Counseling provides online Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling, as well as weekend-long Marriage Intensives, throughout the states of Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. Click the button below to schedule a complimentary consult. 

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.


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