Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Pulling on the Heart Strings: An Emotionally Focused Approach to Family Life Cycle Transitions

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Pulling on the Heart Strings: An Emotionally Focused Approach to Family Life Cycle Transitions

Article excerpt

Transitions through the family life cycle can be stressful because they challenge attachment bonds between family members. Open communication and the processing of primary attachment emotions are crucial when family systems change. When family members are insecurely attached, such open communication is difficult, and people tend to get stuck in absorbing states of secondary defensive affect. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) can be particularly helpful by encouraging family members to express primary emotions. This expression then fosters renegotiation of bonds and the clarification of attachment needs and concerns. Case examples illustrate how EFT can be applied to each family life cycle stage.

As a family progresses through its life cycle, difficulties can occur during transitions from one phase to another. Stressful transitions pull on family members' "heart strings" and require significant changes among family members' closest emotional relationships. These heart strings feel pulled because life cycle transitions naturally tap into primary emotions and challenge attachment bonds among family members. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) can be effective in the treatment of difficult life cycle transitions because of the focus on emotions, interactions, and attachment. This article presents an overview of EFT and its application family life cycle issues.


Emotionally focused therapy is a combination of experiential and systemic therapies (Greenberg & Johnson, 1988; Johnson, 1996; Johnson & Greenberg, 1995). There is a dual focus in therapy on the emotional experience of each partner and how interactions are patterned and organized. The goal of therapy is to restructure a couple's interactional pattern by accessing and validating the emotions underlying the positions taken by each partner. This process reorganizes the couple's attachment bond.

A major premise of EFT is that emotions are essential factors in the creation of meaning, coloring views and cognitions about the self and others or events. Emotions also act as filters in communication and interaction and orient the self toward others in the environment. They are motivational and biologically adaptive. Further, emotions can also be organized into different classes: Primary and secondary. Primary emotions are defined as the small number of basic, core, universal emotions that researchers have identified, such as joy, anger, fear, sadness, grief, surprise, hurt, and shame (Izard, 1977; Plutchik, 1980). Such emotions are sometimes outside of one's awareness and are often unacknowledged and not validated. As a result, they often underlie rigid, patterned interactions. Accessing and validating these emotions are central to EFT. Secondary emotions are more defensive in nature and are reactions to-and help people cope withtheir primary emotions. They are more readily available on a conscious level and they often mask primary emotions. For example, couples may present for therapy in a position of defensive anger (secondary emotion) that masks underlying feelings, such as grief or fear (primary emotions) that their partner may leave them (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997).

Clients often present for therapy with secondary emotions at the forefront and are stuck interacting at this emotional level (Greenberg & Johnson, 1988). With its systemic and emotional lens, EFT emphasizes the reciprocity between emotional experience and patterned interactions; that is, not only do emotional experiences influence behavior, patterns of interaction reinforce and maintain emotions as well.

Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1988) provides the theoretical basis for this model of therapy. Emotionally focused therapists assess the security of the attachment between partners and emphasize this information in the understanding of interactional patterns. The result of a secure attachment is a safe haven to deal with stress and feelings of danger and a secure base to foster exploration and learning (Bowlby, 1988). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.