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Understanding EFT Pt. 1: Demon Dialogues

Emotionally-Focused Therapy is an empirically-based couples therapy technique established by Dr. Sue Johnson in the mid-1980's. This technique aims to bring partners closer together through experiences of emotional processing, in-the-moment awareness, and secure, healthy connection between two partners.

I've often discussed various therapy modalities with my non-therapist friends, such as CBT, DBT, ACT, EFT, etc. One recurring remark I've noticed is that acronyms such as these can prove to be isolating for those who haven't studied these techniques in an academic sense. The reality is that all therapeutic techniques are framed and marketed in certain ways to popularize what is, at the core, basic intuitive methods of understanding human connection and healing.

I'd like to take a moment to introduce you to some basic concepts of Emotionally-Focused Therapy, which you can become aware of and perhaps begin to discuss with your partner. We'll start with a common dialogue that often brings couples into therapy in the first place; EFT refers to these dialogues as "Demon Dialogues," which are often unconsciously aimed at demonizing and distancing between the hearts of potentially loving partners.

Those we love and connect with on the deepest levels are commonly also the people who know our most vulnerable parts. In a sense, opening up to the experience of love is opening up to a new dimension of vulnerability. Like a baby bird in the hand, love is certainly something special and filled with life, but also quite fragile at the same time. Knowing heartfelt ways of holding your partner, and yourself in partnership, is vital for sustaining the life of any relationship.

The first toxic dialogue that Dr. Johnson details in her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, is called "Find the Bad Guy." In this feeling-state, we often feel so hurt by a rupture in our relationship, however major or minor, that we adopt a strategy of self-protection that comes off as attacking, accusing, or blaming our partner. We lose our sense of safety in relationship and then become ever vigilant to how the "bad guy" may hurt us once more. This commonly turns into a cycle of expecting the worst from our partner, and through this process, the hurt emotions that lie beneath the surface stay frozen.

We may find ourselves bringing up past content to "prove" that our partner was against us; we may criticize and blame cyclically, with seemingly no end in sight. However, Dr. Johnson writes, "The secret to stopping the dance is to recognize that no one has to be the bad guy. The accuse/accuse pattern itself is the villain here, and the partners are the victims."

In addition to working together on noticing patterns such as these with a therapist, I believe this is something that can be notices at home as well! The first step is to stay mindful of the present moment and focus on what is happening between you and your partner. Does something feel familiar about this argument? Perhaps this conversation feels like falling into a black hole, a repetitive cycle that leaves you feeling sour. What do you notice coming up in your body? Take a moment to slow down, and perhaps even name what you're noticing to your partner; this might change the direction of the conversational winds.

After you've started centering yourselves in the present moment, expanding awareness of the cycle, notice the circle of criticism. You're both being spun around by this circle, and placing blame on "who started it" often leads nowhere. From here, you can begin to notice that the cycle has no true "start." Once you create a distance between yourselves and the cycle, you can move to name the dance itself as the enemy, rather than your partner.

It may be helpful for you and your partner to write out what happened in your fight. Can you draw out the circle of criticism that trapped you both? How did you begin to paint a picture of the other person, and how does that look now that you're seeing your actions from a clearer place? What did it feel like for both of you after your fight? Were you able to re-open a door of communication, and what was that like for you? If not, how did each of you cope with your own hurt feelings and loss of safety?

Questions such as these can open up doors of revitalization and energy in your relationship. Establishing the courage to explore your relationship in the moment may take time, but just remember that this is a journey that we all struggle with from time to time. I'm a therapist myself, and I'm grateful that there is still so much for me to learn in the realm of establishing healthy bonds. 

If you'd like to learn more about EFT, stay tuned for more blog posts, check out Dr. Sue Johnson's book here, or schedule an intake via this link to get started with one of our therapists.

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov @alvinmahmudov

All the best,


Greg Tilden, AMFT is an Associate therapist at San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Greg provides couples and individual therapy at our Duboce Triangle office location in SF.

Greg Tilden, AMFT is an Associate therapist at San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Greg provides couples and individual therapy at our Duboce Triangle office location in SF.