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A Biblical Assessment of Emotionally Focused Therapy

Truth In Love 364

Emotionally Focused Therapy is a common approach to couples counseling. But where does it come from? Is it compatible with a Christian worldview?

May 23, 2022

Dale Johnson: And here we are again, in the month of May. It is mental health awareness month, and as has been our custom the past several years. I do want us to turn our attention to consider this whole paradigm, this idea of mental health, and certainly, it’s very common to us. People don’t question that paradigm often. What I’ve really enjoyed doing the past couple of years is either doing some sort of looking back into history, so that you have a better understanding of mental health, where it came from, where that language comes from, what builds the idea of mental health, how we got to the point to where we are today. Then we’ve also done particular critiques, looking at things through the biblical lens, trying to have a biblical analysis of different types of therapy. I want us to consider a therapy that I think has really impacted us, maybe unknowingly, you may or may not know, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). Maybe you’ve never heard of it, but I would guarantee you that you’ve been impacted by some of the ideologies that are found in this idea of Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Today on the podcast, I have with me, one of my PhD students, Marshall Adkins. I’m so grateful for Marshall, his service in Bardstown, Kentucky at Parkway Baptist Church. He’s the pastor of adult discipleship there. He’s married to his wife, Rachel, and they have three young kids. He’s ACBC certified back in 2020, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Marshall through his relationship with me as a student, and just his work. I’ve been very impressed and really encouraged by the work that he’s doing, and actually this topic came out of a paper that he wrote for a PhD seminar, you’re going to find out that maybe those things aren’t as boring as you once thought they were. And so, it’s an exciting topic for us to talk about. Marshall, listen, I’m so grateful that you’re here to help us think through this and to discuss this issue today. So, thanks for joining us!

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, thank you, Dr. Johnson. It’s a delight to be on the podcast with you.

Dale Johnson: So, what I want to do, Marshall, if we can is, let’s take a look at this idea of Emotionally Focused Therapy. And like I said, many people hear that term and they really don’t have a category for that. They’re not sure. Number one, what is that? And number two, why in the world are we discussing this on the podcast? I want to start by just saying what in the world is EFT and why in the world should we talk about it?

Marshall Adkins: That’s good. So, EFT is an approach to couples counseling. It’s primarily aimed at marriage relationship, and couples counseling, it was primarily developed by a psychologist named Susan Johnson. She is actually a British woman who is Canadian and went to school and has done some work in Canada. She developed EFT during the 80s and 90s, and it really aims to help couples work through times of difficulty, to help them re-establish what they would call an emotional connection with one another, so that they can have, you know, what she would describe as a mutually-satisfying relationship. So, she’s written a lot of stuff at the academic level. The book that probably is the go-to learn about her theory is called “The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.” But she’s also written several popular level books that have, I think, taken her ideas and her models to a wider audience. For example, she wrote the book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.” She wrote another book called “Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.” Actually that first one, the book “Hold Me Tight.” There’s a Christian version of that called “Created for Connection: The “Hold Me Tight” Guide for Christian Couples.”

So, this is a model of couples counseling and marriage therapy that has got some steam. It’s widely practiced among MFTs (marriage and family therapists). So, as you know, pastors and church leaders, if our folks are going to receive marriage and family therapy, it’s likely that they may encounter EFT. And in addition to that, EFT has also gained some interest among Christian counselors, and of course through those books, the popular books, a wider Christian audience likely reading her work. 

Dale Johnson: Alright, I think that definitely gives us enough understanding at least to start out. And then, I think it’s important the points that you made relative to how does this impact us. For those of you who are pastors out there, maybe you’re just lay people and you befriend others, and you find a couple who’s not doing well. If you were to send them to someone there’s a good chance that they would encounter a Christian counselor who might even practice something like EFT or some version of it. It is that popular. It has influenced that much. The humanistic style of Psychology from which it’s born out of is really dominant, and as you mentioned with marriage and family therapists, I mean, this is a common thing, certainly in the secular world, but I would also argue in the integrated world as well. And so, it is important that we can recognize some of these ideas. Often times, like I said, it’s not named by EFT. Many of you may have never even heard of it. But as we get into this next segment where we’re talking about the philosophy behind it, you’re going to start to recognize some of the ideas. You’re going to start to recognize some of that thought, even in popular level Christian books where we hear some of the same type of language.

Marshall, I want to get into some of that if we can. What are some of the big ideas, right? That we could pay attention to, that we might even recognize that’s really driving the philosophy or the philosophical foundation behind Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, I appreciate the question and part of the reason why we want to ask it that way, is when we encounter EFT we are probably going to hear about the methods, the techniques, the actual what’s happening in the counseling room with our church member or whatever the case might be. However, there is a philosophical foundation underneath EFT that’s important to understand if we’re going to get a good grasp on what it is and how we can assess it biblically. And Susan Johnson, would actually agree with this. In her book, she writes that a therapist needs a theory of healthy functioning, a formulation of how problems occur, how they disrupt, and how to produce change. So, you can hear it right from her. She’s not unaware of this. In fact, she actually helps us. It’s great when theorists do this. She helps us because she very clearly articulates the defining beliefs that she has about human nature, the nature of human problems, about the goal of treatment, and even the process of change. And that’s all very important to how this therapeutic framework is constructed.

She actually offers a set of three sets of questions. She asked questions, for example, “What is happening? What is the problem? What is the target intervention? What should be happening in the relationship? What is healthy functioning look like? What is the goal of treatment? What should the couple do to bring change about and move toward a healthier relationship? What should the therapist do?” As we can see, Johnson is clearly trying to establish a firm philosophical foundation through the way she presents EFT. And if I were to boil it down, I think her formulation is very concise. She boils it down to four big ideas that form the foundation of EFT, and I’m going to very shorthand paraphrase them. The first idea is the importance of Attachment Theory or the emotional bond. The second is the importance of the emotional experience of the individual and the couple. Thirdly, it’s the idea that people, and specifically, their alleged needs and longings, desires are essentially good and adaptive. And finally, she would suggest that change centers around when the individual and couple have a different emotional experience and a re-secured, emotional bond. That was a mouthful. That’s a lot. I think it might be helpful to sort of work through some of the high points of that.

The first big idea there, the importance of the emotional bond. EFT and Johnson writes this in a book, they believe that one of the most primary human needs, that’s an important word, one of the most primary human needs is to have a secure emotional connection and attachment with those closest to us, and that’s coming right from her book. And the theory would see romantic relationships as a vehicle essentially through which a person satisfies these innate needs for security, safety, for being understood and loved, and accepted by another person. So clearly, it’s coming from Adult Attachment Theory. So, it’s the belief that we as human beings are hard-wired through evolutionary processes to seek out these secure attachments, and we find for example in a mate, the satisfaction of these needs for safety, for what we would need for survival and reproduction in other words. And Johnson actually says that explicitly in this way, she says that social bonding mammals is what we are, as human beings. And that evolutionary, so-called evolutionary impulse is what she would offer to us as the most fundamental way of understanding the human relationship, specifically, the marriage, or romantic relationship. It is essentially seeking to meet these so-called attachment needs. 

Dale Johnson: Now, we need to pause here for a second. I mean, this is like paramount. Number one, I want to go back to something that you said earlier that Susan Johnson wrote that she understands the fact that these things work in a system. That there’s a philosophy that’s being applied here. We understand people from a certain disposition and methodologies and techniques certainly flow out of that. I definitely want us to talk about methodologies and techniques maybe at another time. But what I want to do now, is to emphasize that point we can’t see this type of therapy outside of its philosophical foundations. And I think this Attachment Theory idea that you’re describing here is paramount. What she sees a person as driven by an evolutionary impulse, which makes this need something that’s foundational to us and our happiness, and our ability to function appropriately, and in the way that she describes this. You never hear the evolutionary philosophy connected to it, but this is a type of need-based description that we hear often in a lot of our Christian literature that we’re trying to detach it from the evolutionary impulse, but that’s impossible to do. Honestly, and she even recognizes that, and that’s pretty paramount.

Before I rudely interrupted you, you were talking about some of these philosophical ideas and connecting them for us. I think Attachment Theory is a big issue. We don’t have time to dive into that today. I think this is something that maybe at some point you’ll explore further as a PhD student at least, I hope. Maybe that’s something that’s important. It’s certainly an issue that’s talked about a lot in the Biblical Counseling world. How do we think about this in terms of adoption and needs and all these kinds of things relative to the marriage and compatibility and so on. This is a big topic, and we can see the roots of where some of these is coming from. So, thoughts about that, and then keep moving on the big ideas here.

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, that’s right. So, she essentially sees the romantic relationship as an emotional bond through the lens of the Attachment Theory. And so that’s how she’s understanding the human person, and then the way we relate to one another in the marriage relationship. I think that first foundation, the importance of the emotional bond really does help us understand the philosophical foundation of the theory. The second part, and of course in the name, Emotionally Focused Therapy. She sees the emotional experience; an EFT sees the emotional experience as vital. You mentioned that it’s humanistic, the origins of the theory. It is a reaction to sort of the over and overcompensation toward the cognitive and behavioral and the psychoanalytic. So, it’s very much so in sort of the humanist stream, and the way that they understand the emotional experience is what she calls the response system. And what it is telling us in her estimation is how well or how poorly our emotional needs are being met. So, when you find in a couple, emotions like anger or anxiety, hurt, sadness, or despair, these are indicators to her, that one or both of them are not meeting the emotional needs of the other, the attachment needs of the other. She would see emotions as—this is the third big idea that I mentioned earlier, that people are essentially good, and in other words, their so-called needs, their longings, and their desires are essentially good and adaptive. And what she means by that is emotions are basically morally neutral and they’re adaptive. So, the anger it has a function in her ideology where it helps the person understand that my emotional needs are not being met. And so, if you see a couple who is stuck in a pattern of anger and hurt and conflict, she will see that it simply symptomatic of a stress in their emotional bond. And so, what the couple would need in her estimation is that they need to help have a new emotional experience individually, and then between one another as a couple in order to re-secure this attachment, to meet these sorts of emotional needs. And what the goal would be is that each partner, which I’m not a fan of that particular word, but each spouse in a marriage, would be seen and heard and understood and feel safe and accepted by the other spouse.

She actually uses the acronym A.R.E; it’s Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged. So, in other words, when she sits down with a couple or when an EFT therapist sits down with a couple, what they’re looking for is, “Do these individuals understand each other’s emotional needs, and are they seeking to meet those adequately?” And if there’s conflict or distress in the relationship, it’s probably because there’s not awareness or action being taken to those ends.

So, to summarize the philosophical foundation, basically, what the EFT is presenting to us, is that humans are social bonding mammals, and what we’re striving to do through marriage, or any sort of romantic relationship is get our attachment needs met, and because of their view of human beings as innately good and adaptive, what they’re suggesting is that if that environment is provided, people will move toward growth and the person and the couple can experience a mutually-satisfying situation. 

Dale Johnson: Now, what we have to distinguish here, I think is her goal is she wants to see a good relationship. She wants to see a relationship that’s deep, emotional, and vulnerable. Those are not unknown to the biblical idea. The problem is how she thinks we get there, or why she thinks they’re broken, and that’s what I think often we miss in sort of the Christian worldview. I can totally see someone taking this idea and say, ‘Oh, she’s talking about something like 1 Peter 3:7 where a man is supposed to live with his wife in an understanding way.” We’re talking about two totally different motives here. A man is called to die to himself to the degree that he’s willing for the good and sake of his spouse to live with her and try to understand her. It’s not the idea of “I just simply want to meet your emotional needs so that I can maintain this emotional bond for me as a selfish pursuit.” Those are two radically different things, okay. And so, when we try to use the same language that we’re talking about two totally different things, I think this is the danger on the fringe of us imbibing these ideas from the secular world. Instead of saying, “Well, no, let’s clarify biblically, what we mean by these things.” We’re not saying that sympathy in a relationship is bad, or wanting deep emotional relationship with someone is bad. That’s good and healthy. It should be the most vulnerable relationship we have. But we need to distinguish what the aims are, and then how we get there. It’s in the paradox of Christianity. It’s by dying to self, not simply, you know, rubbing someone else’s back, so that you get something else in return from a reciprocal perspective.

So, before I get too far, in stealing what I want you to do, notice what we’ve done here guys, is we’ve tried to present this therapy as it’s presented. We’ve tried to build a case for her, in a way that I think she would agree with from her writings on Emotionally Focused Therapy. And then from that, what I want us to do now is to do a biblical assessment because that’s always important that we make that cross over to a biblical assessment of what’s happening. Marshall, that’s what I want us to do, take some of these philosophical ideas, and now let’s try to compare that, or maybe we will describe it the way we describe the court claims of EFT. Now, let’s give a biblical assessment; compare that with biblical doctrine, if you can.

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, that’s good. And I appreciate what you said, just a moment ago. You know, when you look at a theorist like Susan Johnson, or a theory like EFT. Nobody does this sort of work because they don’t want to see people succeed. She has a vision for what meaningful flourishing relationships look like, and she is creating a theory as best as she knows how to, and she’s trying to aim at that goal. The problem is that we know that those core assumptions aren’t derived from the Scriptures, and they don’t accord with what God has revealed to us, then we are going to be aiming at the wrong thing, and we’re going to be going about it the wrong way.

I think what we see in these philosophical foundations that the core claims of EFT, is first, it’s just a wrong view of man. Instead of seeing man as created by the one true God, and fallen and marred because of sin, and standing in need of redemption and reconciliation with his Maker. Instead, she positions man as a product of evolution and inherently good and growth-oriented. That’s a major problem. You know, if you start with a wrong view of what we are fundamentally, it’s going to go sideways at every other point just about. To get to the issue of sin without seeing things through the lens of morality or through the constructs that there are some things that are pleasing to the Lord and some things that are not, that causes things to go sideways. For example, when she comes to emotions rather than seeing the emotions as something that is an animation of what is happening in the human heart, that is either expressing godly or ungodly functions of the heart. She simply sees it in utilitarian terms. So that without God in view, none of these things are aligning with what we find in Scripture. And, of course, when we get to the marriage relationship itself, maybe as you’re saying, you know, we might see certain parts of these and try to create analogies or connect dots to other parts of Scripture. You might think of the emotional bond, and say, “Well, isn’t that kind of like the one flesh union?” Well, not really, because you know, the way God has established the institution of marriage in the early chapters of Genesis is as a relationship that does include companionship and vulnerability, but it’s built upon a self-giving love that images the one Creator God. And even when we get to the New Testament in Ephesians, marriage is presented to us as a reflection of Christ and the Church, where this is not merely in a, you know, a relationship of utility to get one’s meet needs met. That’s a devastating way to misunderstand what the marriage relationship is. I think it’s admirable that people want to see marriage has strengthened or for that, right, I think if we aren’t careful to see if these core claims are aligning with what we find in Scripture, then in our well-intended motives to help people, we’re never going to be able to do that. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, as we talked about this, obviously, we can go on and on and on, and we’re getting close to time. But biblical doctrine is not compatible with what you’re describing in EFT. That’s really the point. So, when we look at it, from the perspective of how she describes what’s wrong with man. Man is different in the Scriptures, he’s presented as something different, radically altogether. And therefore, when you see man differently from philosophical foundation, the way you describe the problems become radically different, and the things that you seek after for solutions become radically different.

I just want to raise this caution, and I think it’s helpful, Marshall for you to give us some awareness about EFT, what it is, where its foundations lie and then help us to start that pattern of comparing it to biblical doctrine. And what we see when we do it on this level is, we don’t see some sort of scientific proposal that ought to trump or inform our understanding of Scripture. What we see is a competing philosophy that’s out to tear down the biblical narrative of who man is, and what he’s striving for to live in relation to God and others in an appropriate manner that pleases the Lord, and those are two radically different things. And we need to be willing to make a distinction to be good thinkers by representing their position well. But also, being unafraid to speak the truth in love to these things, and to caution our counselors as it relates to the literature that is flooded with these types of ideas, and for us to be vigilant about that as we stand for the truth and proclaim it for the glory of Christ. Marshall, this has been great. Thank you, brother.