Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

Emotionally Focused Couples TherapyEmotionally Focused Couples Therapy is an evidence-based approach to relationship satisfaction.  Developed by British clinical psychologist Dr Sue Johnson, this is a highly effective model of couples counselling. Scientific studies found that with Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery. Approximately 90% show significant improvements.

Are you there for me?

Condensed below are Johnson’s key findings into the bonding process between couples. This will help you evaluate whether Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy might suit you and your partner.

First, a couple relationship is an interdependent system. The health of your relationship depends on the interpersonal dynamic between you and your partner. As your Emotionally Focused Couples therapist, I will help you both understand the forces that shape your dynamic.

Secondly, looking for significant attachment figures is a primary driver of relationships across the human lifespan. Therefore, the attachment style of both you and your partner influence your approach to conflict resolution. It is my responsibility to help you both identify how your attachment styles impacts how you feel and react when you feel emotionally disconnected.

Thirdly, the emotions you express to your partner are key indicators of how secure and satisfied you feel in the relationship. As someone extensively trained in how emotions drive human actions, I will help you each understand and articulate the needs your emotions are trying to express in the context of your relationship.

Fourthly, in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, the relational exchange between you as a couple as a ‘dance’. Unhappy couples often seek therapy when their dance ‘steps’ become predictable and repetitive in an unhealthy way. That is, they are in a negative cycle. When you get stuck in your dance, it is my role to help you devise a way to stop and create a healthier cycle.

Ultimately you both want reassurance that the other is emotionally available when they are reached for. You want to feel confident that you will receive an affirmative to the question, “Are you there for me?” So let’s explore what all this means further.

The Couple System

Essentially, when we enter a romantic relationship, our wish is that our significant other becomes a safe haven and secure base. When each partner is emotionally available and responsive to the other, a healthy bond is created. When it is, the experience is a shared a feeling of connection.

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, we look to change the interpersonal system between the couple rather than change a person’s mind or sense of self. The communication between you as a couple is a feedback loop. Even silence communicates something. Problems occur when you or your partner perceive the other as not responding in a satisfactory or reassuring manner.

Emotionally Focused Couples therapists do not believe that difficulties between you are the result of one person’s behaviour. Rather, we observe how each person’s actions influence the other’s reactions and responses. Attempts at conflict resolution in the relationship follow a predictable pattern – the negative cycle. What a negative cycle looks like depends on the attachment styles alive in your relationship.

Attachment styles

How you each respond to emotional disconnection from your partner depends on how you each experience your attachment in the relationship.

If you feel connected in your relationship, you are typically experiencing a secure attachment. You expect that you will be positively responded to when you communicate any emotional distress. When you receive this reassurance, you feel comfortable being apart from your mate. Secure partners tend to be assertive and collaborative and use rejection less than those with other attachment styles.

If you, or your partner, lack trust in the strength of your relationship connection and this consistently drives feelings of distress, you have an anxious attachment. Your fear of separation may be manifesting as anger. Periods of physical and emotional separation are hard to bear and reinforce your anxiety. Anxious partners can appear clingy and difficult to appease.

Partners who suppress emotional displays and focus on tasks tend to present with an avoidant attachment style. When their partners try to engage with them emotionally, the avoidant partner is more likely to be dismiss and unresponsive.

The goal of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is to help you develop a secure relationship. Secure relationships have greater levels of intimacy, trust and satisfaction. Part of the therapeutic process is to help both of you understand how your attachment styles maintain the status quo. It is also to help you find new ways of dealing with feelings of separateness, which are a normal part of a relationship but do not always signal that it is doomed to end.

The role of your emotions

Emotionally Focused Couples therapists think of emotions as the ‘music’ to your dance. Emotions are the guide to your relationship needs and wants. Humans are emotional creatures. You are driven by your emotions, even if those feelings sit outside of your awareness. Your primary emotions (joy, fear, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness and shame) tell you what is truly important to you. Your secondary emotions tend to mask your primary emotions when you are unable – or do not feel safe enough – to communicate your true needs. For example, you may express anger when you are actually afraid of letting your partner down. A partner who uses an emotion as a way to provoke the other into action is using it in an instrumental way.

All types of emotions are key pieces of information and give energy to your relationship’s negative cycle. It is my job to help you and your partner identify and appropriately express the emotions that most effectively communicate your needs.

Negative cycles

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, the negative cycle indicates the attachment insecurity and a protest against separation. There are five types of cycle: –

The most common cycle is Pursue-Withdraw. This is where one partner, in order to stave off separation, becomes demanding of the other, who then reacts by withdrawing (distancing) themselves. Imagine that in this example you are the Pursuer. You perceive a lack of emotional accessibility from your partner (the Withdrawer) and become verbally aggressive towards them in a bid to be responded to.

Your aggression (or panic) is the secondary emotion covering up your primary fear of rejection. However, being verbally aggressive is likely to achieve the very opposite of the desired effect. Your partner’s response may be to seek safety by becoming less responsive. The primary emotion experienced by your partner is fear – that is, fear of not being enough for you. You experience their withdrawal as being ‘stonewalled’ or shut out. You escalate your demands to be responded to as your distress intensifies; and your partner continues to withdraw further.

Withdraw-Withdraw occurs when both partners do not engage emotionally as a matter of course and continue to withdraw further when conflict arises. This can occur when the pursuer from a Pursue-Withdraw couple reaches burnout. Continuing our example from above,  you persist to be responded to, but you do not receive the assurance you hope for. You have started to grieve and detach from the relationship. You are feeling burned out by your seemingly fruitless pursuit of emotional connection. Your partner maintains their stance of withdrawal and you feel hopelessness and also stop engaging.

In Pursue-Withdraw relationships, the Withdrawer, pushed to their limit by the Pursuer’s irate demands, may themselves react angrily. Once the aggression is over, the Withdrawer retreats back to their withdrawal stance. Where this becomes the new dance it becomes an Attack-Attack cycle.

In relationships where anxiety and avoidance are high – such as trauma-survivor relationships – Complex cycles may come to pass. The pursuing partner may become coercive in their demands, escalating the pressure on the withdrawing partner until the Withdrawer attacks the Pursuer in self-defence. Following the withdrawal of both partners, the Withdrawer may fall into a depressive state. After a while the Pursuer begins their pursuit. The Withdrawer responds and a fleeting period of sexual intimacy follows until the cycle begins again.

Please note: any form of verbal, emotional, physical and/or sexual coercion or abuse is unacceptable. If you think you are in a domestic violence situation, see below for useful numbers and websites.

A Reactive Pursue-Withdraw cycle will develop over time. In this example, you, the original Pursuer in the relationship, eventuall withdraws and gives up trying to achieve emotional engagement. You decide to end the partnership. In a bid to avoid separation, your partner becomes the panic-stricken Pursuer. You are wary about these attempts at emotional engagement but you agree to seek therapy. You are willing to explore whether your relationship can be saved.

These cycles form the couple’s ‘dance’. It is my job to work with you to identify your cycle and construct the new steps of a healthier dance.

Is this the right therapy for you?

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy seeks to help couples identify what happens to each partner when they are in conflict. That is, what you both need in order to feel secure and connected. I help each person feel safe enough to explore and express their needs in ways that can be heard by their partner. The result is a new and more positive emotional experience that move you both to deeper levels of intimacy and trust.

If you are open to the process, and develop a good working relationship with me as your therapist, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy will be beneficial for you and your partner. I will help you and your partner identify the primary pattern that is preventing you both from creating a relationship where you both feel loved and supported. Then I will help you find effective ways to ask for your needs to be met and to hear the needs of your significant other.

Each session is structured and 90 minutes long. As a guide, they usually require a short-term commitment of 8-20 sessions. It is strongly suggested that these are conducted regularly in order to maintain the momentum. Once you have achieved your goal, I will suggest a check-in after an agreed later period, just see how you are both travelling.


However, this form of therapy is not recommended for certain situations for which. They are: –

  • where you and your partner do not share the same goals for your relationship.
  • if one partner is not emotionally invested in the relationship and you are separating.
  • when severe abuse is a feature of your relationship. Please see below for some useful numbers.
  • when substance abuse is involved.
  • if you and/or your partner has significant depression or psychiatric illness.

If you are not sure whether any of these apply to you, please discuss this during our introductory consultation.


“We decided to come and see Louisa after a period of feeling disconnected from each other. We were open to the idea of counselling, but were a little unsure and didn’t know what to expect. Louisa is kind, caring and immediately made us feel comfortable in our first counselling session with her. She has helped us to understand the underlying causes of our relationship issues and in doing so, we have learnt more about each other as individuals and as a couple.

It was important for us to have a neutral and safe space, away from our home environment and daily routines, to be able to talk to each other and listen to each other with Louisa’s assistance to help us to understand what was happening in our relationship.

We now have a better understanding of each other’s emotions and emotional responses to arguments. We are learning to work through our issues together as a couple and to communicate with each other in more effective ways. Louisa is helping us to reconnect and to regain positivity within our relationship. Our lives together are improving each day.”

L & K

Relationships can be hard but they can also be great learning experiences. I’d like to help you and your partner learn from yours so to make an appointment contact me direct today.

Recommended reading:

Hold Me Tight Sue JohnsonDr Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy has written, Hold Me Tight. This very accessible book is aimed at helping couples learn how to nurture their relationship and ensure a lifetime of love. Available at reputable bookshops.



Useful numbers:

If you or any members of your family are in an unsafe situation, please contact one of the organisations below:

1800RESPECT Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line

1800 737 732


Kids Help Line 24 hour counselling service for young people aged 5-25 years

1800 551 800


LifeLine 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention

13 11 14


Mensline 24 hour information and referral service for men with family and relationship concerns

1300 78 99 78


No to Violence For men who are wanting to stop their violent or abusive behaviour towards their family members

1300 766 491


Police or ambulance Call 000 at any time if you are worried about you or your children’s safety