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Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families


I came to read Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families on the recommendation of Drs. John and Julie Gottman.  (See The Science of Trust, The Relationship Cure, and Eight Dates for their work.)  I had reached out to them to connect John’s early work with attachment theory and the changes that were being seen, where couples with one securely attached person caused both partners to trend towards security.  John suggested that Sue Johnson (who refers to the Gottmans’ work in her writings) would be best positioned to know the answer.

Johnson’s work is quite squarely positioned on the concept of attachment and provides a framework for helping people develop productively in that context.  It weaves together Erik Erikson’s work on child development, including the need for autonomy, and Bowlby’s attachment work that speaks of the need for relatedness.  (See Childhood and Society for Erikson’s work.)

Autonomy and Relatedness

At first look, autonomy or individuality seems to be in conflict with the idea that we’re in relationship with others.  It’s as if we see the bonds of relationship not as a net that catches us when we fall but as restraints that can hold us back from expressing our full selves.  Of course, neither position is completely correct, as both are a part of relationships, but the question is the degree to which we experience these with each relationship.

Mary Ainsworth (Bolwby’s colleague) exposed a fundamental truth about our relatedness with the Strange Situation test.  The more attached children were, the more likely they were to explore.  So, the relationship with the parent wasn’t constraining the child, it was freeing them.  This can easily be explained by an unnamed but well-known force: fear.  By providing the safety net, the parent freed their child to explore an unsafe world.

It turns the concept of relationships restraining us on its head and exposes that there will always be things that hold us back, but that relationships can do more for our autonomy because of their ability to push back fear.  Pithy quotes like, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” (Franklin D. Roosevelt) undermine the power of fear to restrain us.

For a long time, I’ve believed that fear is our greatest enemy.  It’s associated with a host of bad choices, as humans, much like our animal cousins, lash out when backed into a corner.  When we feel the most fear, it seems like we’re the least likely to be able to respond in ways that make our situation better.

Calculated Risks

In life, we all take calculated risks.  Even the most risk-adverse person takes risks.  They get into their car to go to the grocery store.  They place their money in a financial institution.  The difference in the long term between those who are successful and those who are not is the degree to which they can take calculated risks.  In Superforecasting, Phil Tetlock explains some of the things that prevent people from being good at forecasting future events and what we can do to get better at it.  What he hints at is how our feelings can pull us away from accuracy in our forecasts.  That means we’re less likely to calculate accurately our outcomes.  Fear is a powerful emotion.

It’s important to note that fear is the emotion that’s closest to the line of a cognitive process rather than an emotion.  Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains there’s an evaluation in play of the potential impacts of an event, the probability of those impacts, and our ability to cope.  While this happens unconsciously, it can be brought under conscious control.  Without conscious control, our relationships and our belief about the way that the world works shapes our sense of fear.

Creating Conditions for Growth

We have a natural bias towards wanting to control outcomes – but we can’t.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)  All we can do is create the right conditions to allow for the emergence of the outcome we desire.  (See On Dialogue for more on emergence.)  We give plants soil, water, air, and sunshine and hope that they grow.  We don’t define the placement of leaves or specify their growth trajectory.  In relationships and in our experience of life, we seek to create the conditions which most likely result in health and happiness. (See also Images of Organization for how viewing things change results.)

New Endings

We all know how things ended for real.  Whatever the situation, we’re sure we know the outcome – and often the outcome isn’t what we want.  It isn’t helpful.  As strange as it may seem, it’s possible to keep this in mind and simultaneously have an image of it ending differently.  It can’t bring people back or undo accidents, but thinking about different kinds of outcomes can lessen the trauma – without disconnecting from the reality of the situation.

Learning to Tango

The heart of the book is the idea of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which has five “moves” that help clients.  They are:

  1. Mirroring Present Process – Acknowledging the existing situation and feelings.
  2. Affect Assembly and Deepening – More deeply exploring emotions.
  3. Choreographing Engaged Encounters – Creating scenarios for working with troublesome thoughts and emotions.
  4. Processing the Encounter – Ensuring learnings from the scenarios.
  5. Integrating and Validating – Integrating the learnings from the scenarios into the rest of the person’s feelings.

Constructing Experience

One would think that everyone can naturally describe their thoughts and emotions about life and about their experiences.  However, because we so often shut down these sensations, we often don’t know how to describe and express what we’re feeling and what it means to us.  Sometimes, we need to help others recognize what is going on with them through observations and questions.

Relationships are the mirror through which we see ourselves.  Being a good mirror means helping people better see themselves –particularly in ways that it is hard to see.  (See Changes that Heal for more.)

Fixing Relationships, Helping Children

The unpopular truth is that fixing the parents’ relationship may have positive effects on the children in ways that direct work can’t.  We underestimate the degree to which children are trying to predict situations and themselves.  Chaotic parental relationships are difficult for children, because they perceive their safety is at risk, and this creates challenges that leak out in other ways.  (For more, see How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed.)

There’s a lot to attachment theory, but what matters most is Attachment Theory in Practice.