What approach will be taken in Couple Counselling?

I use an approach called Emotionally Focused Therapy when working with couples as it has been shown to provide quantifiable positive outcomes for Relationship therapy. In research compiled in 2003 couples receiving EFT therapy showed a 70 – 73 % recovery rate from marital distress in 10 – 12 sessions of therapy, and a 90% rate of significant improvement. (1)

It is a tried and tested technique carrying weight in psychological practice and is recommended by Kim Halford, an advisor to the Australian Federal Government on marriage and family policy. He claims it is one of three preferred approaches to couple therapy and yet many counsellors are not using it in their clinical practice:

"People tend not to do in routine counselling what's been shown to actually work, - namely insight-oriented couples therapy, emotion-focused therapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy”. (2)

Emotionally focused therapy has been established in Sydney for a number of years largely thanks to the work of Dr Michelle Webster who established the The Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy in Annandale in 1987 www.EFTherapy.com.

Originally devised by Dr Leslie Greenberg (Professor of Psychology at York University, Toronto) and his colleagues in the early 1980s, EFT aims to provide a short term (8 -20 sessions), evidence based approach to couple therapy.

How does Emotionally Focused Therapy work?

Emotion focused couple counselling involves taking a holistic and individual approach towards the Relationship itself. Therapists look at the Relationship as a whole helping couples to identify the patterns and structures apparent in the union and how they have become stuck in certain ways of relating.

At the same time therapists are alert to the individual needs and wants of each person in the Relationship. Using both a systemic and individual lens to look at a Relationship helps to ensure the counselling will be respectful, balanced and focused on the needs of the individual in the context of the relationship.

Emotions are at the core of this therapeutic approach as negative emotions like anger, hurt, fear, pain and sadness arise when our adult needs are not being met. Emotions tell us when something is not right in our relationship as they are primarily an adaptive mechanism or warning system showing us that our needs are not being fulfilled.

EFT therapists harness these emotions and work with clients so they can regulate their emotions and use them to ensure a Relationship is healthy and a source of happiness for both participants. If we can identify and express our emotions openly with our partner it can ensure our needs, wants and desires are achieved within the context of a loving relationship. Conflict arises when our needs are ignored, devalued or deemed to be unimportant.

Our needs have the best chance of being met within a relationship!

Dr Greenberg states that we have 3 main adult needs and that a Relationship is the best place to ensure gratification of these desires (3)

  • Connectedness – to be close and secure with our partner

  • Validation – to be confirmed and approved of by our partner

  • Affection – to gain warmth, joy and pleasure from our partner

So when Partner A feels sad and alone and pursues for more contact often in the form of anger or blame and partner B often feels afraid or inadequate and withdraws or stonewalls, then partner A may directly criticise in order to try and change the withdrawer which results in the distancer becoming inaccessible and rejecting.

And so a vicious cycle gets going as each partner gets locked into their own stance or position unable to break out from the circular causality or in layman's terms “You nag because I withdraw and I withdraw because you nag and so forth!”

Accessing some of our emotions underlying these patterns and communicating them directly to our partners can allow such interactional positions to shift and change. Expressing such emotions as fear, loneliness, shame, assertive anger and hurt can evoke compassion and bonding from the other partner and lead us to feel positive emotions such as calm, joy, validation and closeness.

  1. Jacobson et al 'Research on couples and couples therapy: What do we know? Where are we going? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 351-355 quoted in Johnson S, 'The practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy', Routledge: New York, 2004, p 6
  2. Halford, K, quoted by Arndt, B in 'Till therapy do us part', SMH, July 5th 2003.
  3. Greenberg, L, Workshop Emotion Focused Therapy, Sydney, 13th Feb, 2010, p3-11

Ask not what your Relationship can do for you but what you can do for your Relationship!

When I'm working with couples I try and remember the above adage as it helps to keep me focused on the Relationship itself and how each partner can help to nurture and positively shape the direction and nature of their union.

By turning the question around and asking "What does this Relationship need from me?" rather than 'What can I get from this Relationship"? helps to shift the centre away from the individual to the partnership itself.

At a recent public lecture at Balmain Town Hall, Imago Relationship founder Harville Hendrix, author of "Getting the Love You Want" suggested that conflict can sometimes arise when partners find it difficult to accept the differences or "otherness" of the spouse.(1) He claimed that accepting the other person as they are (without trying to change them) moves us towards love and benefits the relationship as a whole.

Likewise Dr Leslie Greenberg, the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy in a recent Couple Therapy Training Workshop claimed that it is easy for couples to lose sight of the fact that the other person is a subject in their own right as we often objectify our other half

It is easy to slip into the state of mind of thinking to ourselves "Is my partner meeting my needs?" rather then turning it around and thinking of them as a subject in their own right with their own dreams, needs and wants. Greenberg asks us to have "Compassion" for our partner and "the ability to see that the other like oneself is seeking happiness and have concern for their suffering".(2)

The ability to reveal our subjective, personal primary emotions like fear, sadness or shame, showing our vulnerability to our partner, can be a powerful means of accepting differences and finding a place for them in our Relationship. As Harville Hendrix says "Want a great marriage be a great partner!"


1. Harville Hendrix, "Living Your Dream Relationship: the Four Non-Negotiables", Public Lecture, Balmain Town Hall, 17th Feb 2010.

2. Dr Leslie Greenberg, Emotion Focused Therapy; The transforming power of emotion in in couples", Workshop for practitioners, Sydney, 13th Feb, 2010.

How Couple Counselling Can Help

* Reduce conflict and tension so both partners can be heard

* Re-establish connection & intimacy

* Provide a safe environment where needs and wants can be discussed

* Find new patterns and ways of relating to self and other

* Focus on taking the responsibility for improving the relationship

* Understand more about silence, withdrawal and anger in your relationship

* Become aware of underlying emotions beneath the anger, silence or criticism

* Improve communication with your partner

* Identify your needs in the relationship whilst hearing your partner's concerns