Conference Recap



By Larry Daniels | MAMFC, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist


There is an old saying, “we are hurt in relationship, and we are healed in relationship.”  First and foremost, this is true from our sinful humanity, and the healing we receive in relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. Starting from the Garden of Eden, this is true. Adam and Eve became broken, in relating to the serpent, and God sought them out as they were hiding in the Garden by asking, "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9) God’s first response is one of seeking to restore His relationship with us, by first understanding our whereabouts; and, as if to say, "I miss you, I want you back, please return to your safe haven."

According to Dr. Sharon May (pictured above), the number one predictor of divorce is whether or not a couple is able to stay emotionally connected.  All couples long to be emotionally connected with their spouse.  Yet, inability to deal with differences, unresolved hurts, rigid fighting patterns, and busyness of life can get in the way. 

There is one counseling modality that focuses on helping couples unravel their fight cycle, heal their hurts, and emotionally connect—Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).  Based on attachment theory, EFT aims to foster a close emotional attachment bond between a couple by accessing and expanding a couple’s emotional experience to create new ways of interacting.

At the conference last month, Pathways counselors, along with other professionals, had the wonderful opportunity to learn from Dr. Sharon May, Director of the Safe Haven Relationship Center, as she presented a workshop on “Fostering Safe Haven Marriages: Emotionally Focused Therapy.” The workshop gave an overview of EFT, its core assumptions, and how it brings about lasting change in distressed couples.


Dr. May states that Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy has 28 years of research, and is the most researched marital model. It touts a 70–85% success rate, with 90% of couples reporting “significant improvement.”  Dr. May says this model works because it gets to the heart of a couples conflict; that “we do better in life when we know we are loved and have someone to love.”

The ways in which a couple interacts can trigger differences and attachment insecurities; causing couples to absorb negative emotions as they arise. This can prime rigid, constricted patterns of interaction that make safe, emotional engagement and caring responses difficult—keeping couples protesting one another, and protecting themselves. Such negative interactional patterns create insecure attachment bonds, leaving couples to perceive each other as a source of conflict and pain.

Dr. May teaches that conflict brings out our “dragons” of anger, fear, shame, insecurity, etc. At this point, our amygdala (emotional center of the brain) is hijacked, creating a stress response (fight, flight, fix, or flee). This leads to hurt emotions, causing each person to protect themselves emotionally, and ultimately to react—usually in harmful ways that bring insecurity to the relationship, and puts the safe haven of marriage into jeopardy.


What’s a couple to do?  Well, by using the Safe Haven Model, an EFT counselor can help in re-building the foundation of the marital bond. The Safe Haven model assists with this by encouraging couples to:

  • Safely get close to one another

  • Choose one another

Re-enter their marital Safe Haven by:

  • Trusting each other with their hearts

  • Being accessible and available (both physically and emotionally)

  • Making repair attempts on their disconnections and disruptions

  • Turning towards one another in healing

  • Finding comfort, care, love, support and play with one another

  • Resume “becoming” again—together, being on a journey of self-reflecting and growth

  • Further secure the marriage as a Safe Haven: Where both spouses venture out to grow and become; both can find meaning, purpose, and significance; and both can play and create


  • Choreograph a Safe Haven

  • Identify their negative cycle and each person’s position in the cycle

  • Access underlying attachment emotions

  • Re-frame their distress in terms of attachment significance, fears, and unmet needs

  • Access and process vulnerabilities that are under the protesting/protecting

  • Accept each other’s vulnerabilities, and their willingness to be more vulnerable, engaged, open, and real with one another

  • Turn towards one another:  To reach and share needs; ask for comfort and in return, listen; understand and give comfort, which allows a deeper, softer, more vulnerable space for longings to arise

  • Put in motion new interactional patterns where secure bonds are fostered, so hot topics can be resolved

  • Form a new story regarding their journey back home to their Safe Haven



  1. Reflect the present process (what is happening here and now—within and between the couple)

  2. Access and process “dragons”—primary and vulnerable emotions

  3. Choreograph an enactment—spouses turn towards one another and share vulnerabilities

  4. Process the enactment—“how it felt to tell”, “how it felt to hear”

  5. Integrate, validate, reflect the process; this produces a healthier and shifted view of self, other, and the relationship

The therapist listens with their body, face, heart, and tone of voice, reflecting with attuned empathy. They connect with the couple’s experience, asking clarifying and open-ended questions to understand and to help the couple explore how they are feeling and what they are needing, instead of “seeking the right answer.” By tracking and reflecting their processes and patterns, the therapist invites the couple into a deeper engagement, and a safer haven with their emotions and experiences.

Dr. May says that emotions move us, inform us of our world, give our world it’s meaning, and powerfully organize us, our relationships and our world. An EFT counselor helps a couple to re-create an emotional experience in the therapy room, feel it in the moment—not just to talk about it cognitively—and then to safely choreograph it into a new pattern of behaving, speaking, and relating so that the couple returns to a Safe Haven of vulnerability with one another.


Such a brief article can only hit the highlights of EFT. To learn more, you are invited to read any of Dr. Sharon May’s books on Emotionally Focused Therapy, or Safe Haven Marriages; and/or to visit her website at You may also call Pathways to schedule an appointment with a Pathways Professional Counselor, to enrich, or return, your marriage to a Safe Haven.