“Rather than probing for deep secrets to explain away your neediness, EFT admits and embraces emotional dependence on your partner and works instead to strengthen that bond.”

Zoomer magazine

What Does a Relationship Expert Give as a Wedding Present to Her Child? A meditation on wedding vows and the meaning of modern commitment.

P/C: Nihan Güzel Daştan / Pixabay

Depending on where you live, it might be the height of wedding season, folks.

And I just heard that next year my son will be one of the ones getting married!

As a relationship expert, I found myself thinking about what I would like to tell him and all the lovers who are about to commit to each other, especially at a time when the word on the street is that relationships have a “best-before” date, and that lasting love with a mate is a rare and elusive thing available only to the lucky and the few.

I will tell him that, even though it is scary, commitment matters. We all “know” that love makes a safer world. But in his famous experiments where partners hold hands and so radically reduce their brains alarm response to threat, my colleague Dr. Jim Coan tells me that he finds this Safer World effect only happens when partners are explicitly committed to each other. Closeness with a loved one calms our nervous system and increases our confidence that we can deal with our world, but only when we feel that we matter to our lovers and that they will be there for us no matter what. 

I will tell my son that we now have a science of romantic love and bonding. The structure of love and how it works or not is now an open book. Instead of giving him yet another copy of Hold Me Tight, I will offer him our new online course that will take him into core bonding conversations that really make a difference in a relationship. It’ll help him understand what happens in the dance with his partner and how he can shape this dance with intention. He doesn’t have to leave his love relationship to chance or to the guiding angels of romance novels. 

I will tell him that the path to love is now clear – but not easy! The dance has many twists and turns and we all lose our way at times.

As a wedding present, I’ll give my son and his partner a week away in a quiet place to sit and write their vows to each other. Vows about what kind of relationship they long for and how they will create this together. This means not only visioning where they want to be in 5 or 10 or 20 years time but what they will do, every day, to get there. Never mind the circus of outfits and the theatre of the event, marriage is a promise and a journey. We need to know specifically what direction we are going in.

And what does the new science of love and attachment tell us about making vows like this?

As someone who studies this science, I would suggest that the most potent vow of all might be something like, “I will struggle to be open to you and to respond to you from my heart, my emotions, even when I am angry or afraid or hurting. I will take the risk of reaching for you when we are stuck in distance. I will still turn and risk – choosing to believe in you and our bond.”

Over 35 years of watching distressed couples transform their relationships has taught me that when partners can stay open and responsive, they can have what I call Hold Me Tight conversations. They can then share their vulnerabilities and their needs rather than closing down or resorting to critical anger. The safety this creates allows them to find a way through differences, solve challenging life problems together, and shape the lasting connection that we glimpse in those romance stories.

This commitment and this journey is not for those who like easy sentimental illusions; it takes guts to move into a Hold Me Tight conversation, for you to tell your partner

“I am avoiding here because I am scared of hearing that you are disappointed in me right now. I want to be here and maybe I need some reassurance that, even when things aren’t going well, I am still your special one. That I have room to mess up and that this relationship is worth struggling for.”

Science says that when we have a secure emotional bond we have a resource that keeps on giving and leads us into emotional balance, better health, resilience to stress, and a more positive sense of who we are.

And Oh, it brings us JOY! We are wired to feel a rush of joy when we move into the vibrant connection that we call intimacy. It’s our brain telling us that we are home, where we are meant to be.

I wish all the couples who will marry this summer joy and secure connection – and the time to really explore what they need and want to give in a love relationship – so their vows are a compass that can guide them over the years.


What does the Sex Recession tell us about today’s sexual landscape and emotional isolation?

emotional isolation sex recession

There was a fascinating article about the “Sex Recession” in the December 2018 edition of The Atlantic by Kate Julian. Apparently, in the age of sexual tolerance, Grindr and Tinder, and ubiquitous sexting, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex! Over the last twenty-five years, the percentage of high school students who had had sex dropped from 54 to 40 percent. Young adults are also on track to have fewer total sex partners than those of the two preceding generations.

So… how come? Well – the article is long. For me, the most interesting explanations that Ms. Julian covers seem to be:

1) Perhaps “sex for and by yourself” is becoming the new norm.

People are now accustomed to avoiding the risk of connecting with and experiencing another person. They focus on masturbation, probably as a result of access to porn, sometimes called the new “drug,” or the use of vibrators. (After all, who can resist the Power Toyfriend?) A constantly available screen or a machine offers risk-free orgasm that is totally under one’s control.

2) Reaching out to and taking risks with others is becoming foreign territory.

There’s hook-up culture, sometimes called the “lack of relationship” culture. Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who teaches her popular “Marriage 101” course at Northwestern, uses the question “If I get the flu, will you bring me soup?” as a litmus test of how related young people are. In most of her classes, most folks were neither getting nor giving soup. As more people only find hook-ups through the internet – most often after many hours of no one swiping right on them — they become less and less confident and competent at social interaction, and so become more and more confused as to HOW to actually date. They also become more dedicated to impersonal sex and are more likely to utilize their phones or social media for a superficial, distracting pseudo-connection with others.

3) Porn-normative, casual, or detached sex doesn’t seem worth pursuing – especially for women.

Another argument is simply that sex is now simply less appealing! Young people report distress at the sexual landscape, especially implicating ubiquitous porn, which Julian suggests has “given men some dismaying sexual habits.” Anal sex and choking to enhance orgasm are the key “habits” listed – both of which are associated with fear and pain by many women! Porn also teaches that woman orgasm by penetration alone, which is not most women’s experience. Casual sex is also just less satisfying for most of us than sex with a regular partner; the article suggests this is because regular partners learn each other’s needs and wants and how to respond to them skillfully. Given the images of perfection we see in the media and our rampant body dissatisfaction, being naked and being seen, in themselves are threatening.

4) Perhaps, even though we live in unprecedented physical safety, our nervous systems are so geared to danger or to the helplessness of depression, that this is derailing our purportedly “most basic” instinct – to copulate.

The last explanation offered is the well-documented rise in the rates of depression and anxiety and how both tend to suppress desire and engagement with others. It’s hard to be fully sexual – or indeed fully present to anything – when you are depressed and anxious.

***

The article asks many questions but draws no conclusions. But after my many research studies, and years of helping couples as they struggle with their relationship, I have some ideas as to why there’s a sex recession. These conclusions, outlined especially in my book Hold Me Tight, come from the last two decades of bonding science. These ideas center around the fact that emotional isolation messes with our most basic survival strategies and traumatizes us.

First, we know from neuroscience that biology links mating and bonding. Sex is often not just recreation. It’s a bonding activity and, at orgasm, you are flooded with oxytocin, a bonding hormone. And we also know that secure bonding – feeling emotionally open and responsive and really engaged with each other — is the key ingredient in building a loving bond. Secure lovers trust each other so they can experience painful rifts and still risk turning back and reaching for each other.

 

The key question in love is not, “How many orgasms can I have with you?” It is, “A.R.E. you there for me?” where A.R.E. stands for “emotionally Accessible, Responsive and Engaged.”

This quality of emotional connectedness also seems to translate into the bedroom and erotic connection. Securely bonded lovers report more and better sex. They are more confident in bed and can deal with sexual disconnects and problems together. When you are safely connected, you can relax, let go, and give in to sensation. You can take risks and reach for erotic adventure. You can share and respond to each other’s deepest needs and desires.

The best aphrodisiac may just be emotional connection, especially for women, who are more physically vulnerable in sex and generally more sensitive to relationship cues. I call sex that is enhanced by the sauce of emotional connection “Synchrony Sex.” Moving in synchrony – in attunement – primes joy in the nervous systems of bonding mammals. We see this in the mating dances of birds, in partners dancing tango, and in images of sexual passion.

Second, all the evidence tells us that the lack of safe emotional connection undermines eroticism. That safety matters as much if not more that the much-toted novelty. Anxiously attached partners who worry about rejection and being deserted, report that they make love mostly to gain reassurance and that excitement, and orgasms are not that important or pleasurable. Avoidant partners, who prefer to keep others at distance and deny their own needs for closeness, report focusing in on sensation and performance. They are more emotionally detached in sex. Sex while keeping your distance and your guard up is like dancing without music: there’s something missing. So these lovers have to hype up physical sensation and constantly change sexual cues to get high. This fits with Kate Julian’s comments on porn-induced detachment and with her points about how avoiding risking and reaching for others seems to limit our sexual experience.

Lastly, as to why we are so caught up in depression and anxiety to the point of losing our natural sexual verve, this is not so hard to understand. Detachment from others, withdrawing into oneself and not being able to reach for others, taking our images of sex and relatedness from a screen, especially a porn screen all add up to ISOLATION! Nothing freaks out and depresses a social bonding being like this kind of emotional isolation. Less overt sexuality in young people may be the canary in the mine here.

We need to let science teach us about our emotional needs, just like it has taught us about the necessities of hygiene and nutrition. We need to get that emotional connection is our core essential requirement as human beings, more than our need to satisfy our sexual drive, even. We need to treat relationships as essentials rather than incidentals, as the loneliness researcher John Cacioppo suggested. We have to see the costs of detachment and help young people learn to connect, in bed and out of it.

Bonding science tells us how to do this. Our latest study in The Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy shows that when we help partners have bonding conversations, their sex life improves significantly and stays that way over time, and they don’t even have to talk about sex directly. It is time for us to learn from this science and let it help us to make strong, lasting, passionate connections – to help us come home!


Emotional Labor and What’s Really Upsetting Women

emotional labor

There is a new book out by Gemma Hartley called Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. Interesting! This labor is defined by Ms. Hartley as “unpaid invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” The point is, this labor is mostly considered women’s work and women resent it.

When you really get down to it, this labor turns out to be mostly about housework and who does it, although it does include administrative tasks like remembering family birthdays and scheduling events. Ms. Hartley also stresses that this division of labor is bad for both sexes. And I agree, as would most professionals who work with couples and families, that it doesn’t help men to teach them that the “emotional landscape” is somehow not worthy of their attention or is somehow not “masculine.” All this pinpoints that the caring responses that are simply expected of women, are – well – WORK!

But, for me, this book is still missing a vital element. I have listened to literally hundreds of women in couple therapy and in relationship education groups weep about feeling unappreciated and taken for granted in ways that fit into this concept of emotional labor. However, the real source of desperation and rage is nearly always more specific.

Women are usually more sensitive and attuned to the levels of closeness and emotional security in relationships than men, and so naturally take on the role of “Closeness Monitor and Regulator.” It is THIS labor that women desperately want their partners to share. After all, if only you notice that something is missing when the vital elements in love – focused attention, intimate confiding and affection – are dialled down to “off,” how can you ever feel valued or secure?

Yes, women get mad because their men do not join them in the tasks of running a household, but they get even more desperate, afraid, and frantic when their men do not help them take any care of the emotional bond that makes them a couple. Most often, they then express their pain, often cloaked in frustration.

An example:

Edith says, “How come you never take the time to talk and hold me before we go to sleep now? It’s like we are roommates who just share a bedroom and a bed. It’s lonely, is what it is.”

 

Unfortunately, Ted hears only criticism coming at him and counters, “God, you exaggerate. Really, you know how busy I have been. Do you always have to be so negative?”

 

He continues, “I am working hard for this family if you haven’t noticed,” and he turns away from her.

 

This leaves Edith feeling – wait for it – even more alone.

The stage is then set for the dance of distress that I call the Protest Polka. This dialogue takes over relationships and predicts future divorce. The whole relationship becomes stuck in a dreary pattern of angry demands, followed by defensiveness and distance. Both partners are flooded with the pain of rejection and isolation but neither feels safe enough to reach out or try to reconnect. For Edith, Ted, and their family, this is a tragedy in the making.

The new science of bonding is clear. Secure connection with a loved one – usually a partner in most adult lives – fulfills our most basic need: to belong, to know you matter to another. This sense of belonging calms our nervous system, gives us emotional balance, strengthens our sense of our own value and protects us from being overwhelmed by our own vulnerability. It is our deepest need.

In a good relationship, the work of maintaining this sense of safe belonging and of repairing rifts in that belonging are shared. It seems to me that Edith does not, in fact, always need Ted to remember the kids’ birthdays or to manage their schedules. That’s nice, but it’s not essential.

But it is essential for Edith that Ted sometimes opens up and reaches for her – that he responds emotionally. This emotional responsiveness is the core element that defines the viability and happiness of a love relationship. “Sharing the load” looks like Ted realizing that he is missing the emotional music in his dance with his partner.

Can you imagine what might happen if Ted turns back to Edith and says,

“Wait a minute. Maybe you’re right. I am so tired these days. I guess I don’t hold you like I used to. I miss that too. You are right, we don’t spend enough time together. I go on automatic. I don’t want us to be just roommates.”

Here, he moves to take care of the connection between him and his wife. Edith sinks into his arms – reassured. And she really doesn’t care if the next day he forgets to get his daughter a birthday card. But here’s the best part: Ted does not experience this moment as “labor” at all. This kind of loving interaction switches on pure joy and contentment in our set-up-for-bonding brains, just like when we are holding a baby or playing with our new puppy. Edith, knowing she is important to Ted, can now easily listen to his feelings of tiredness with empathy.

None of this feels like work. It feels like human connection. If love is a dance, both people have to be out on the dance floor – both have to show up emotionally. This is the “work” that has to be shared.

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NEW book : Attachment Theory in Practice

for blog on book
for blog on book

 

Just read the amazing reviews for my new book for therapists and counsellors  – coming out January 2019 – Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families. They are beyond positive. Talking about how the book will have an impact on the field of therapy – and that every therapist should read it! Oh and commenting that it is easy to read even! This feels like sunshine on my face!

The truth is that this book has taken me 30 years to write – 30 years of listening to individuals  – couples and families – listening to therapists telling me how they get stuck – reading research results and watching tapes of people in therapy sessions and educational groups facing their vulnerabilities and walking through them to find balance, peace and connection with others. I have had so many teachers. (more…)


What small steps do you take to reduce stress in your relationship and boost your bond?

All the research from the last 30 years from the most potent therapy for relationship growth and recovery on this planet and the new research on building intimate bonds with partners says the same thing. To foster connection we need, not just to spend time together as companions, but to risk sharing softer deeper emotions and learning to hold each others feelings in a way that calms our nervous systems and gives us a felt sense of safe connection. In our research we call them Hold Me Tight Conversations. When partners can do this, a huge horizon of possibilities opens up for their relationship and for each person’s sense of confidence  – belonging leads to becoming.We are wired to thrive when we know that we can share our vulnerability with a precious other and the other can just be present and engaged – they just have to be there with us.

So Brett, rather than shutting down when he feels stung by a comment from Cali, takes a deep breath and turns Towards her rather than Away. He says, “ Heh, I really wanted you to see how hard I tried here – I so wanted to please you. I need your reassurance that you do see how I try.” As she responds warmly to this, he then shares the problems that are happening at work that make him feel “small”. Cali feels honored that he is risking and sharing and proud that she is the one  that can help him with these emotions. Then they share the differences between them and Brett’s problems are work suddenly seem unimportant.

These moments spark a sense of safety and love in our brains – they are coded as “HOME”. Everyone wants to come home to someone, and science is showing us how to do it.

 

(more…)


At The Heart of Health

 

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In September 2016, Cardus Family released an in-depth report called Marriage is Good for Your Health. The purpose was to examine whether the rumours were true: Did marriage actually have a positive effect on an individual’s health outcomes, both physical and mental, in the scientific literature? (more…)


The Future of Couple and Family Therapy : Attachment Science in Action

APA International Conference: Crossroads of Couple and Family Psychology 2017

- text of plenary by Dr. Sue Johnson – 

As Sol Garfield points out, there are now over 1,000 names for approaches to psychotherapy and 400 systematically outlined methods of intervention. How the “talking cure” as referred to by Freud, first called “psychotherapy” by an English psychiatrist, Walter Cooper Dendy in 1853, has grown. Throughout history we have had many different perspectives on mental misery, symptoms and problems, more and more abstract labels for these problems and lots of varying ideas about how to fix them. (more…)


 

whatiseft

 

EFT stands for Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.

This approach to seeing relationships – as an attachment bond – and shaping more loving relationships is leading the couple relationship field into a new understanding of romantic love. (more…)


Attachment and the Dance of Sex: Integrating Couple and Sex Therapy

NETWORKER SYMPOSIUM: FROM ATTACHMENT TO CREATIVITY / WASHINGTON DC.

– TEXT OF PLENARY BY DR SUE JOHNSON –

Attachment and the Dance of Sex – Integrating Couple and Sex Therapy  

We are just going to chat here a little about a couple of small topics – sex and love – and how to really put them together and make them work – in just 50 minutes or so! (more…)