What to Expect from Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling: 3 Stages of the Process

Couples counseling of any type–and especially emotionally focused couples counseling–is a journey. We all want to know where we are going and what is going to happen. As in any journey there are flat tires, detours, and unexpected exits.

People always want to know “How long with this take?” or “What will it look like?” The question is one we always want to know when we are in pain: When will the hurt and suffering be over? If I had a crystal ball I could maybe answer these questions, but every couple is unique with unique situations. There are many variables:

  •  How long have you been together? Three years or thirty years? 
  • Are there children involved?
  • Lots of money to divide? Or no money? Finances are a scary reality we discuss and work with couples contemplating separation. 
  • Is your goal increased communication? Decreasing arguments? 
  • Is there an attachment injury we need to work with (an affair for example)? 

And then there is the financial commitment. Quality emotionally focused couples counseling with an experienced and skilled clinician can be expensive. The clinicians who accept insurance typically are generalists who treat all issues and are learning the craft of couples therapy. (Read more about why we don’t take insurance.) It takes thousands of hours of direct couples work to be a certified expert in this field.

To help along this journey, we’ve created a roadmap. Our work together will not always be linear, but this map gives you a great idea of what to expect. For ease of explanation, the emotionally focused couples counseling (EFT) process follows three stages. Within these stages, there are nine total steps.

Stage 1 of Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling – Identifying and Understanding Strengths in Your Relationship and the Patterns that Have Created Difficulty

Emotionally focused couples counseling stage 1

Step 1: We will set goals for the couples counseling. This will allow us to explore and understand some of the ways your relationship history affects your relationship now.

Step 2: We will then work to discover and describe your negative patterns of interaction. We will break down, slow down, and analyze your interactions.  This will help us to identify how and where your communication gets stuck.

Step 3: We will explore what happens to you when you get triggered and share this with your partner.

Emotions are bound to get stirred up in your relationship, especially when you find yourself in negative communication cycles. Emotions drive the negative cycle. You may first become aware of a feeling of anger, frustration, anxiety, numbness or even withdrawal. It is my job to help you notice other emotions that may be beneath the initial feelings. These often include hurt, sadness or fear.

With your permission, I will then help you share these more hidden, vulnerable emotions with your partner. Over time, this process will enable you to diffuse and avoid negative cycles.

Step 4: We will describe your cycle and recognize your triggers.

We will explore how you protect yourself and your relationship to help you both identify when a negative cycle is in motion.  We will look at how both of you might co-create the following kind of negative cycle:

“Look, we are in it again.  It’s the same the negative cycle.  The more I try to reach for you, the more you close down.”

I help you to slow down your conversations so that you can both tap into the feelings that are beneath the surface of this process when it is happening. By slowing down and unpacking what is happening for you individually beyond this surface level, you will both discover that the cycle is the cause of unhappiness in your relationship.

It is then possible to know and trust that your partner is not the enemy.  Rather, it is the cycle that needs to be combatted. I will then help you work together to notice, identify, and gain control over the cycle before it becomes hurtful and damaging.

Stage 2 of Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling – Creating a New and Safe Relationship Bond by Changing Communication Cycles

Emotionally focused couples counseling stage 2

Step 5: At this stage, you will be able to talk about and explain your feelings with each other in a way you might not have been able to before.

With less friction and more compassionate understanding between you, greater safety will develop.  This will enable both of you to explore your experience more safely and, therefore, more profoundly.

We all have fears about our relationships and what it means to depend on others. Many of us struggle to trust others to be there when we need them. I will help you talk about these problematic places or “raw spots” with your partner. As you feel safe enough to take these risks, your partner will begin to understand where your experience is coming from.  In this way, you can develop greater empathy for each other.

Step 6: This is where I help you stay engaged and listen to your partner’s “raw spots”.

You may find yourself being surprised at your partners’ disclosures. It may feel disorientating or even hurtful that you have not heard this before.  These and similar feelings are very common.

I will help you understand what your partner is saying emotionally, without you needing to change their experience or place responsibility for it on yourself.

Step 7: We will then explore what helps you feel deeply connected, and therefore what is most vital for you in your relationship.

I will then support you in finding ways to ask for what you need with clarity and compassion.

As this way of communicating becomes more robust, you will both feel safer, closer, and able to be more intimate.  You will feel more secure to share and listen with an open heart and offer reassurance when needed.  This will create and consolidate a felt sense of “being there” for each other.

Stage 3 of Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling – New Communication Patterns Are Established to Help Solve Old Problems in a New Way Helping Intimacy Grow

Emotionally focused couples counseling stage 3

Step 8: We can now look at repeated triggers.  These might include parenting, finances, sex, family issues, health, or work concerns. As we work through them, they will feel less burdensome as you will feel heard in a new way. I will support you both to keep focused on staying accessible, responsive, and engaged with each other while talking through issues. You will both feel it is now possible to face life’s challenges together as a team because you have each other’s back.

Step 9: At this final step, you have both worked hard to reshape communication in your relationship.  This has created greater closeness, safety and intimacy. It is essential to acknowledge and celebrate the process you have undergone together and what you have achieved.  It is equally important to put safeguards in place to protect your relationship as you move forward. We will find ways to keep this new way of relating and the bond between you strong in the short, medium, and long term.

Pursuing emotionally focused couples counseling can be one of the greatest investments you will ever make in your relationship. It doesn’t have to be scary! Let us walk you through the journey. Schedule your appointment today.

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