Are you struggling in your relationship or do you want to learn more about how they work? Well, Dr Sue Johnson is an illuminating guide. She’s been described by a scion of the relationship world, Dr John Gottman, as “the best couple therapist in the world.” The best? Well, that’s a big call but she's so knowledgable and prolific ... plus she’s Canadian, so that always piques my interest.
The mode of therapy she co-created, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is said to have a success rate of 70 to 75% for couples in distress. That’s remarkable! The results appear lasting, even with couples who are at high risk for divorce.
A great introduction to Dr Johnson’s work is her book, “Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships”. It’s difficult for me to do justice to her 30+ years of research in one book review so I’ll include a list of related resources of varying types and complexities in an upcoming blog: A Relationship First Aid Kit with Dr Sue Johnson, PhD.
Dr Johnson has written “Hold me Tight” for all couples seeking a lifetime of love - young, old, married, engaged, cohabiting, happy, distressed, straight, gay. Although, it’s not recommended for people in abusive or violent relationships, or those with serious addictions or in long term affairs.
The basis of “Hold me Tight” is the explanation that love, from the cradle to the grave, is a form of attachment-bond based in evolution. The way to enhance – or save - a relationship is for a couple to preserve and re-establish this secure emotional attachment. This idea, once controversial has been widely adopted by therapists throughout the world.
Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) focuses on creating and strengthening this attachment bond between partners. Dr Jonson shares the EFT method in the book through case studies, advice and practical exercises so that couples can learn to nurture their relationships – or reignite them – and ensure “a lifetime of love”. The EFT approach is built on 4 main elements: “the science of love”; “disconnection and attachment panic”, “the demon dialogues” and “the conversations of reattachment”.
The science of love
In “Hold Me Tight”, Dr Johnson traces the evolutionary science of love. According to Dr Jonson, love is a survival mechanism - it drives us to bond emotionally with only a few others who can give us safe haven from the storms of life. This drive to emotionally attach – to find someone to who we can turn to and say “hold me tight” has been wired into our genes and bodies over millions of years. Thus, the drama of love is all about the human need for safe emotional connection.
Emotional Disconnection & Attachment Panic
Because we have evolved to seek a partner who can be our shelter in life – who can keep us safe - when that partner becomes emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we feel out in the cold, alone and helpless. Losing connection with our loved one jeopardises our sense of security. We feel anger, sadness, hurt and above all fear. The alarm goes off in the brain’s amygdala, “Fear Central”, triggering an automatic response.
We don’t think. We feel! We act! And when we act, we are likely do one of two things – we either become demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner (Notice me! Be with me! I need you) or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to sooth and protect ourselves (I won’t let you hurt me. I will chill out, I will try to stay in control”).
Dr Jonson calls these responses “attachment panic” and it fits perfectly with the underlying evolutionary approach of her work, because when safe connection seems lost, partners go into fight-or-flight mode. Partners blame and become aggressive to get a response, any response, or alternatively they close down. One partner may be frantically trying to get an emotional response while the other partner, hearing that he or she has failed at love, will freeze up. Immobility, like a dear in the spotlight, in the face of emotional danger is a wired-in way to deal with a sense of helplessness.
Such a couple is caught up in dealing with their own hurt or fears – so instead of emotional responsiveness, you get emotional disconnection. You can’t connect with your partner, nor can you get your partner to respond to you. So, emotionally, you are alone. In fact, both partners are terrified, they are just dealing with it differently. If the couple does not reconnect, the struggle goes on.
These strategies for dealing with the fear of losing connection are unconscious, and they work, at least in the beginning. But as distressed partners resort more and more to either demands or withdrawal, they set up vicious spirals of insecurity that only push them further and further apart. It’s a form of miscommunication, not understanding the need underneath your partner’s words and actions.
The longer partners feel disconnected, the more negative their interactions become. Researchers have identified several damaging relationship patterns, and they go by various names. Dr Johnson calls these negative patterns “the Demon Dialogues” and the three most common are Find the Bad Guy, the Protest Polka and Freeze & Flee.
No matter what their names, I’m almost certain you will recognise the pattern. In fact, the patterns are the same even though the content of the conversations – or 1000s of arguments - will vary from the mundane “Why were you late?” to the serious “I’ve been fired.”
The Protest Polka - the demand-withdrawal pattern - is by far the most dominant of these Demon Dialogues. In this dialogue, one partner becomes critical and aggressive and the other defensive and distant. Eventually the attack-withdrawal interaction becomes a loop generating more and more negative responses and emotions; the more one partner withdraws, the more frantic and cutting becomes the response.
When couples reach this point, their relationship is marked by resentment, caution and distance. They will see every difference, every disagreement through a negative filter. They will listen to idle words and hear a threat. They will see an action and assume the worse. Of the different dialogues, this Polka Protest is the most damaging, and according to Dr Jonson, 80% of couples who get stuck in this pattern will divorce within 4 or 5 years of marriage.
The Polka Protest, or the demand-withdrawal pattern, is not just a bad habit, it reflects a deeper underlying reality: such couples are starving emotionally. They are losing the source of their emotional sustenance, their partner. They feel deprived and they are desperate to regain that nurturance.
Every bond has moments of painful disconnection but as long as the connection can be restored, the emotional bond is safe again. By recognising the dance you are in, rather than blaming your partner, the couple can move from “it’s your fault” to “we are stuck”. What Dr Johnson teaches is how to reconnect with your partner when you get caught in such patterns.
What’s the solution? Reconnection through “The Conversations”
Sue Jonson’s solution to repair the emotional disconnection is “The Conversations”. Conversations that are designed to re-establish and maintain the emotional connection couple’s need.
Dr Jonson teaches couples, through guided conversations and examples, how to express their needs and bring the other closer. The conversations are aimed at encouraging a special kind of emotional responsiveness that is the key to lasting love for couples. It’s about knowing how to step out of the pattern, reach for each other, to calm and sooth.
These are conversations which create secure bonding, attachment and connection. They provide an answer to the question “Are you there for me”?
Bonding Through Sex and Touch
I’ll come back to this section of “Hold Me Tight” in another blog but for now you might be interested in these lines “Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection” and want to reflect on the following sentences from “Hold Me Tight”:
“Think of sexual distress as the relationship version of “the canary in the mine”. What’s really happening is that a couple is losing connection; the partners don’t feel emotionally safe with each other. That in turn leads to slackening desire and less satisfying sex, which leads to less sex and more hurt feelings, which leads to still looser emotional connection and around it goes. In shorthand: no safe bond, no sex; no sex, no bond.”
Just “be there”
In the end, it is all comes down to encouraging couples to pay attention to their relationships. The attention is the oxygen that keeps a relationship alive and well. If we can do this, Dr Jonson writes, love can do more than last – it can flower again and again.
Would you like to hear another explanation of relationships and their 5 elements? Listen to my interview with Dr Kerryann Cook, a wonderful guest and psychologist with 30+ years experience focusing on couples.