Research is showing that more and more couples are opting into couples therapy – and not because their marriages are more fragile now than before. In particular, millennial couples view couples therapy as regular maintenance to keep their relationship strong, rather than a last-ditch effort to save it.
Previously criticized for being ineffective and largely considered theoretical, couples therapy is now going through a bit of a revolution. Contributing to this change are new studies being done on the science of love, a continued demand for help finding happiness in relationships (isn’t that what we all want in life after all?), and the de-stigmatization of mental health services in general.
With 44% of couples participating in couples therapy before they even get married, and a success rate of up to 75%, increased attention has been given to understanding the different methods used. There are two primary approaches to couples therapy: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and the Gottman Method. Both methods are well-regarded and successful ways to bring peace and understanding back into a relationship.
Your therapist will decide which method will be most beneficial for your relationship based on your communication styles, willingness to be vulnerable with each other, and the nature of your interactions.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is an attachment-based therapy approach based on bonding research and the ways we interact with each other in patterns and cycles. Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and author, EFT works to recognize and change unproductive or unhealthy patterns of interaction during conflict. This process is proven to change the emotional responses each member of the marriage has toward the other.
EFT focuses on strengthening the emotional bond between the couple rather than changing thoughts and behaviors. EFT typically takes between 8-20 sessions with a licensed therapist, but the length of time spent in therapy and the success of the process depends on each partner’s willingness to be vulnerable, learn new skills, be on the same team, and feel empathy for the other. Couples therapy can only be successful if both members of the team are willing to make changes to some aspect of their behavior, empathically making space for their partner’s needs.
There are three stages of Emotionally Focused Therapy:
The couple recognizes how their negative responses to each other drive a self-reinforcing cycle of conflict.
2. Restructuring the Bond
The couple creates new emotional experiences. Each partner vulnerably shares his/her emotional needs and fears. This new way of connecting builds a secure attachment through cycles of care and understanding built on the needs of the other.
3. Consolidation of Change
The couple practices using their new, more secure bond and improved connection to solve everyday problems. They build a new narrative of resilience in their relationship.
During an EFT session, your therapist will likely work through issues in the moment. They will listen to the couple discuss issues as they are coming up in conversation in real-time, pausing to ask, “can you tell me more about what you just said…?” or, “let’s talk about what just happened.” Change happens in the present moment when issues are recognized, the pain behind the conflict is vulnerably revealed, new actions are created based on the new emotions, and finally, everyone takes a step back to notice what has been accomplished. “Look what you just did!”
EFT is effective in couples that are still emotionally connected in some way and are open to learning how their behavior is contributing to the issues they are experiencing. It’s also important to have a trusting, deep connection with the therapist they are working with. EFT is less effective when a couple is experiencing violent behavior, dysfunctional communication, or after a couple has already decided to separate.
For more on EFT, listen to this podcast with Dr. Johnson about love and relationships from beginning to end through the lens of Emotionally Focused Therapy.
This research-driven method is based on the assumption that there is real science behind that mysterious feeling called “love”. As a result, the Gottman Method focuses on skills-based interventions, meaning the therapy process helps the couple to identify and practice the tools needed for managing their relationship and gaining insight into why the relationship dynamic is the way it is. Founded on the research of psychology power couple, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, this method is based on over 40 years of research and award-winning couples therapy work.
Couples entering Gottman-style couples therapy will begin the process with an assessment of the relationship, including joint time and individual interviews with the trusted therapist. From there, a framework for the frequency and duration of the therapy sessions is established. This can range dramatically depending on the needs of the couple. Sometimes, an intensive schedule (many focused hours over the course of 2-3 days) will be used in crisis cases.
Then the work begins. Interventions are designed to progress the relationship in three areas: friendship, conflict management, and the creation of shared meaning. The couple will learn skills to replace negative conflict patterns and reactions with positive ones.
There are four goals in The Gottman Method:
There are nine principles in the Gottman’s Sound Relationship House Theory:
The Gottman Method is effective with couples who are struggling with ineffective or unhealthy communication patterns and works if the couple is dealing with resolvable or perpetual problems. The couples that do not find success with the Gottman Method are those who are experiencing violent behaviors or physical dominance. Those couples should seek help from a shelter, hotline, or treatment center.
-Dr. John Gottman, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
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