Your Health

Couples counseling: What's new and why it finally works


Couples counseling has been around a long time, but it always seemed to have a major flaw. You might even call it a dirty little secret. The problem was that it did not seem to be working. Or more accurately, it wasn’t working well.

Most couples counseling has been based largely on improving communications between partners. Counselors would advise people to “be a better listener.” Or to try parroting back what your partner just said. Or to work on compromising and being flexible. While that sounds OK, the problem is that after a short time, when inevitable life stresses or disappointments continue or arise, people get emotional and forget. They may become angry or withdrawn, and the script goes out the window.

Couples counseling has a poor record because it has traditionally not been based on an understanding of the fundamental nature of human beings and how that fundamental nature translates into behavior. Counseling has not used that knowledge as the foundation of a well-crafted therapeutic approach. That is, until recently.

There is a relatively new psychological theory, based on scientific evidence, generally referred to as “attachment theory.” Human brains are wired to have a dominant emotional connection with another special human. You can understand it as an infant being totally dependent on its primary caregiver, usually its mother. That’s actually how attachment theory began, by the psychologist John Bowlby observing infants and young children during and right after World War II in England.

However, it took several decades before the light went on – and the evidence came in – that this fundamental need for a single rock-solid connection didn’t stop after eight months of life, or eight years or even 80 years. It is simply how our human brains function – and that is all of us, with no exceptions.

Humans go through a huge range of experiences while growing up, from the beautiful and supportive to the horrific and traumatic. These experiences help determine how a need for attachment manifests itself, and even why some people become loners.

In this short column, I can’t lay all that out, but there are excellent books now on the subject. Our experiences and their impact on our behavior can indeed be understood, not just by a couples counselor, but also by ourselves. This understanding helps us achieve the stable and satisfying completion of our basic need to be bonded to that special person, our partner.

One leading psychologist, Sue Johnson, has crafted a couples therapy method based on attachment theory called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is gaining much popularity now, because it actually works, scientifically proven with success rates of 70 to 75 percent. For many couples, just reading her books “Hold Me Tight” and “Love Sense” can be an eye-opening experience and can go a long ways toward helping mold their relationship as they hoped and dreamed it would be.

However, for many couples experiencing difficulty, and for pre-marital counseling, working with a trained therapist can be truly beneficial. Experience shows that for many, just a few months of weekly counseling can bring couples to that safe and loving place we all seek.

Nancy Andersen provides Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit

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