EFT and ORT are a Match Made in Heaven

By Elisa Joy Seibert

Emotionally Focused Therapy and Open and Relational Theology are a perfect fit.

Have you ever had two friends you really want to meet each other? That is how I feel about Open and Relational Theology (ORT) and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). They are perfect for each other! If you are reading this book, you are likely already sold on ORT and see its deep value. Allow me to introduce you to EFT, what it is, why it is such a great fit for religious practitioners and therapists who embrace ORT, and how it is so powerful in helping people heal.

Relationship and Attachment are at the Heart

Both ORT and EFT embrace the core values of relationship being at the heart of all that is and love being “our ultimate ethic,” in the words of Thomas Jay Oord. They additionally affirm the value of science and that deep transformation can be realized. Dr. Sue Johnson, the originator of EFT, states it this way: we are created for connection.

To understand EFT, we must see relationship (and I would add, the relational nature of God) is woven into the universe through the science of attachment. British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s theory of attachment puts into words what many of us instinctually know: we humans (and many animals, like the cats and dogs we love!) are wired to connect at a deep level. We need at least one other person to be there for us, to hear us when we call, to soothe us when we are in distress, to help us know we matter, and to be there completely for us. In Western cultures, we tend to acknowledge babies have attachment needs. We concede they would not survive if they didn’t have someone completely there for them. But most people don’t realize attachment covers the entire life span. We all have those same needs. Yes, even as adults. Attachment, at its core, is about survival. Our brains were made to cope relationally, not individually as the culture dictates. Load-sharing is the path to a healthy life.

The revolutionary and empirically validated Emotionally Focused Therapy flows from attachment science. There are vast implications for attachment theory and EFT. For example, EFT is the only therapy proven to help people actually change their attachment style from birth (such as from anxious or avoidant attachment) and earn secure attachment. In turn, secure attachment impacts our view of ourselves and others, helps us cope with stressors and trauma more effectively, parent from an attuned place, and experience greater relationship satisfaction. Secure attachment and EFT also correlate with improved mental health, more resilient immune response, lowered perception of pain, and reduction of heart attacks, among other benefits. Secure attachment and EFT are powerful!

For our purposes here, as we keep the lens of attachment and EFT, I want to focus on the way God’s love has positive ripple effects in how therapists can help people experience that same love in their most important relationships, starting with the therapy process itself.

What Does God Have to Do With It?

One of the most fundamental beliefs in the Christian faith is that God is love (1 Jn 4:16). The very essence of love is that it is uncontrolling, in Oord’s words. That love has led God to reach out in connection to humans over the millennia, seeking to connect with us, the created ones. Not only does God reach out to us, but God made us, down to the neurotransmitter activity in our brains, to be wired for connection—with God, others, and ourselves. We were made to reach back. Perhaps you have experienced the mystery and beauty of a newborn baby instinctually grasping your finger with their tiny hand. That is attachment at work.

For us to have secure attachment with God, we must see God as a safe haven and secure base (John Bowlby’s phrase). Uncontrolling love is key. Uncontrolling love says, “I am here for you, no matter what. You are allowed to have all of your feelings. You may have your protest come up, your fear, your deep longings. I can make space for them all. No feeling will be shut down, and at the core I will stay with you, present, open, engaged, responsive. I will be real with you as you are real with me, and I will stay connected with my primary (soft, vulnerable) emotions even if you go to armored secondary, reactive emotions like anger and numbing out. I am here for you… no matter what.” You can hear in these words a calm centeredness and openness, a warmth that gives space for the other to be authentic. It is safe. All of this is the opposite of control. Control is fueled by anxiety. Anxiety restricts the possibilities and can be experienced as repressive, even violent. That is not God! God is not anxious and does not pressure us, only invites us with welcoming love.

The Role of the Therapist in EFT

Part of the delightful privilege of being a therapist is that we get the profound and sacred opportunity to live out that love as a safe haven and secure base with the clients who come to us. There is a beautiful parallel process that emerges. God loves us and provides a secure base for us as therapists. God is our Stronger Wiser Other (in Bowlby’s terms). God reminds us of the secure base we are to be and how to show up for our clients as God does for us. We then take that experienced relationship with God and live it out with our clients as their temporary Stronger Wiser Other until they can walk into it with each other. Does this matter? Actually, it is almost the only thing that matters! Just as people are wounded in relationship, so they heal in relationship. In EFT we see that the deepest healing therapeutically does not come from merely changing our thoughts or behaviors but from deeply experiencing the loving safety, security, and acceptance of another human in our places of vulnerability. It is all about relationship. Emotions, “the music of the dance” and “language of love,” as Johnson says, are the place where it all comes alive and where we must hover to help that deep healing happen.

God’s uncontrolling love invites us to welcome our clients into their vulnerable journey. We start at the shallow end of the pool of emotion, building safety. We walk slowly to the deep end at a pace their nervous systems can tolerate. God’s uncontrolling love invites us to compassionately see through their armor to the pain underneath. We do not force them to do anything they are not ready for (as control would do). We help them gently expand their window of tolerance and support them in noticing, distilling, and sharing their pockets of pain, to use Kathryn Rheem’s words. In EFT with couples, this sharing helps their partner start to see the vulnerable places underneath that fuel the destructive patterns. If something is too hard, we slow down and validate, hover, and explore with supportive curiosity. We slice it thinner and help them name what is going on and what is so hard. Control would push, dictate a plan, fix. Uncontrolling love comes alongside gently, staying present, and not moving ahead until they are ready.

Attachment theory tells us that attunement is the fastest way to independence, not forcing independence as control (and Western culture) would do. We see this with toddlers. When learning to walk, they vacillate between excitement at the adventures ahead and fear of leaving their parent. They look forward and backward. If they return to their parent for reassurance and the parent smothers or leaves them alone (as control and non-attunement would do), they become clingy, anxious, dependent, or distant. If the parent tunes in, sees and validates their fear, stays gently present, supports them when they are ready, then they will become confident, secure, and more independent faster. This is called Interdependence, or Effective Dependence, as Johnson says. This is what God invites therapists to do with the clients who come seeking a new way of being with themselves, God, and their important others in the world.

If we take this slower attuning path of validation, hovering with emotion, and making space, miracles can happen in the therapy room. I see it all the time as couples take risks, reach, respond, show up for each other, grow safety they never experienced before, and discover love they never thought possible. This is what awaits us as therapists when we live out the uncontrolling, patient, attuning love modeled first by God. And EFT provides a powerfully effective roadmap and attachment-based process to help us get there.

Next Steps

If you are curious how to live out uncontrolling love in an attuning way, read Sue Johnson’s Attachment Theory in Practice. Connect with other like-minded therapists through an EFT Community, like the Central PA EFT Community of which I am a part. And if you want to be transformed, get training in EFT (starting with EFT Externship). We can’t learn this model alone, and through connection we can make a difference by living out God’s uncontrolling love in this world!

Elisa Joy Seibert, Ph.D., M.Div., is a Licensed Psychologist, ICEEFT Certified Emotionally Focused (EFT) Therapist and Supervisor, Counselor Educator, former chaplain, and co-founder of the Central PA EFT Community. A graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and Gannon University, she has a passion for equipping therapists seeking to learn and live out EFT with excellence (www.GrowingConnections.live) and specializes in helping couples transform their connection.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love