does marriage counseling work? a couple hold hands wondering if EFT marriage therapy in Reno will help

When Couples Therapy Misses the Mark: Why Some Approaches Can Worsen Conflict (and How EFT Offers a Solution)

Does Marriage Counseling Work? It Depends


I read a forum post recently where the author was gathering opinions about, “does marriage counseling work?” My internal voice was, “well of course it does!!” But this isn’t always true: it depends on a number of factors. In this article I’m speaking to couples who are wondering whether marriage counseling works, and perhaps more importantly, whether it will make things worse. After all, if things are bad then at least doing nothing isn’t likely to make them worse, right? At least you won’t go down the same road as your friends who ended up worse off after therapy.

In my years as an Emotionally Focused Therapist, I’ve had the privilege of guiding many couples through meaningful change and growth in their relationships. I’ve seen many couples reconnect and rediscover love and trust with EFT. However, I’ve also encountered situations where well-intentioned therapeutic interventions had inadvertently exacerbated existing challenges.

I recall one couple, I’ll call them Sarah and Mark, who sought my help after months of behavioral-based couples therapy. They were nearing the end of their rope, their communication patterns mired in blame and defensiveness. Mark felt unheard and dismissed, while Sarah felt perpetually criticized. Their previous therapist had focused on instructing them regarding communication techniques, but this only seemed to intensify their conflicts. Each new “technique” became another tool for discord. Conflict began to center around who was at fault for not following the therapist’s instruction!

Sarah and Mark’s experience is unfortunately not uncommon. Many couples enter therapy seeking support, only to find themselves feeling more disconnected and discouraged. Our local Reno therapists, Emotional & Relationship Counseling Associates, understand this potential risk.

The Challenges of Traditional Marriage Therapy

Often, traditional couples therapy can become mired in continually identifying problems and assigning blame. As Sue Johnson, the pioneer of EFT, aptly observes, “Many couples come to therapy talking about communication problems when what they really need is help with the underlying emotions driving those problems.” (1)

Instead of fostering understanding and connection, this approach can leave couples feeling increasingly isolated and misunderstood. John Gottman, a leading researcher on marital stability, echoes this concern: “Most couples therapy focuses on changing behaviors, but what really needs to change is the emotional connection.” (2)

Specific challenges of traditional couples therapy models include:

  1. The Blame Cycle: Some approaches inadvertently encourage partners to focus on each other’s perceived flaws, fostering criticism and defensiveness, which can further erode their bond.
  2. Surface-Level Focus: Traditional therapy may get caught up in the content of arguments, overlooking the deeper emotional needs fueling those conflicts. This is akin to addressing symptoms while neglecting the underlying cause.
  3. Neglecting Attachment Needs: Humans have an innate need for connection. When these needs are unmet, we often react with fear, anger, or insecurity. Traditional therapy may not always address these fundamental needs, leaving couples feeling alone and unsupported.
  4. One-Size-Fits-All Solutions: Many therapists rely on standardized techniques and interventions that may not resonate with the unique dynamics of each couple. This can lead to frustration and a sense of being misunderstood.

Does Marriage Counseling Work? EFT: A Path to Emotional Safety and Connection

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) offers a different path. It recognizes that conflict is often a cry for connection, a desperate attempt to get our partner’s attention and feel loved and secure. In simple terms, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples is a roadmap to understanding and healing the emotional wounds that cause conflict in your relationship.

EFT guides couples through a process of:

  • Uncovering Hidden Emotions: EFT helps you and your partner identify and express the deeper emotions that are often hidden beneath the surface of your arguments. These emotions might be fear, hurt, loneliness, or feeling unloved. Once these emotions are out in the open, you can start to make sense of them and address them.
  • Creating a Safe Space: Your therapist will create a safe and supportive space where both of you can feel comfortable sharing your emotions without fear of judgment or criticism. This safe space is crucial for healing and building trust.
  • Understanding Your “Dance”: EFT therapists help you recognize the negative patterns or “dances” you get stuck in during conflicts. These patterns often involve one person pursuing connection and the other withdrawing. Understanding this dance helps you break free from it.
  • Changing Your Steps: With the therapist’s guidance, you’ll learn new ways to respond to each other’s emotional needs. This involves expressing your own needs more clearly and responding to your partner’s needs with empathy and understanding.
  • Building a Stronger Bond: As you learn to communicate more openly and connect on a deeper emotional level, you’ll start to feel closer and more secure in your relationship. Trust and intimacy will grow, and you’ll be better equipped to handle challenges together.

Does Marriage Counseling Work? Only if it gets to the root of distress

Think of EFT like learning a new language – the language of emotions. Instead of speaking in accusations and criticisms, you’ll learn to express your needs and feelings in a way that your partner can understand and respond to. This new way of communicating can transform your relationship from a battleground into a safe haven.

It takes time and effort to change deeply ingrained patterns. I saw this positive change unfold with Sarah and Mark. As we delved into their deeper emotions, they began to understand the pain and fear that fueled their conflicts. Mark realized that Sarah’s criticism stemmed from a fear of abandonment, while Sarah recognized that Mark’s withdrawal was a way of protecting himself from feeling hurt. As they learned to express their needs more vulnerably and respond with compassion, their relationship began to heal.

Very importantly, when Sarah and Mark found themselves stuck in their negative pattern at home, they had a strategy. They were able to slow things down and realize they were bogged down. This gave them an opportunity to regroup and talk in more emotionally vulnerable terms. Specifically, to describe how their respective criticism and defensiveness were reactions to feeling disconnected and misunderstood.


Does marriage counseling work? Couples therapy can be a valuable tool for healing and growth, but only when it addresses the root of the problem: the emotional disconnection that drives conflict. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), as offered by practices like Emotional & Relationship Health Counseling Associates in Reno, offers a roadmap for couples to navigate their emotional landscape, heal old wounds, and create a more secure and loving relationship. If you’re considering couples therapy, choose wisely. This article outlines questions you might ask a prospective therapist. Your relationship is worth it.


(1) Johnson, S. M. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection. Brunner-Routledge. (2) Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Harmony.