“We now begin to see love as intelligible and malleable.  We will be able to shift from an obsession with the FALL part of love to the MAKE aspect of love, and make this more than sexual connection.  We can develop confidence in our ability to work with and mold our most precious love relationships.  This changes everything!”


Dr. Sue Johnson

The Message of Marriage Story Works… Everyday!

marriagestoryfight

(I don’t always keep up with what’s going on in popular culture – so this blog post may seem a bit late.)

The recent Netflix film Marriage Story had its share of awards buzz this year, and deservedly so. It hits home because it shows all the nuances of an unravelling bond. There are the rituals of care that any two lovers develop over time, for example her cutting his hair and his tidying up. We see the soft feelings, with the lists of “What I love about my partner,” as well as moments of loss and terrible pain throughout win-lose battles set up by the lawyers hired by the couple. Marriage Story shows how the sinews of a relationship remain, as the bones – the emotional connection that provides the real structure – melt away.

This couple have a shared life, with a child and a mutual passion for theatre, but ultimately what they have not guarded is their emotional connection.

This happens to so many of us.

Like the Paul Simon song “Slip Sliding Away,” we let this core element in our relationships just …….slip. We take emotional connection for granted or dismiss its importance. But this connection – the attuning to each other’s softer feelings and longings – is the core of love. This kind of sharing FEEDS the emotional bond that is love. In our EFT couple therapy sessions and in my book Hold Me Tight, my team and I show just how to help people bring this connection alive and hold onto it!

As a couple therapist, I found myself yelling at the screen, as a rabid hockey fan would at their losing team.

In the movie, Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, digs at her partner or just stays distant. Can you imagine how things might have been different if she had been able to turn and tell him, “I am afraid. I seem to be getting smaller. Disappearing. I need you to ask me what I want – to know that the longing in my heart matters to you.” 

And if only Charlie, played by Adam Driver, had been able to respond to her plea. Or if Charlie had said to her, “We are so distant. I don’t know how to fix it. I feel alone and a friend is coming on to me – can we talk about what is happening to us? Are we losing each other? I don’t want to lose you. I need you.” 

Both Nicole and Charlie’s statements would make up what we EFT folks call a Hold Me Tight conversation.

Regarding divorce, the movie got it right as to how the PROCESS of divorce, especially how the legal system, which in North America, at least, is an adversarial system of winners and losers, exacerbates emotional pain and works against the collaboration and closure that is in the interest of kids and their parents.

Do Charlie and Nicole still love each other? Of course they do. That is very clear, but they do not have what you need to keep and repair a bond.

We call it A.R.E., as in ARE you there for me? THIS is the key question in love relationships always. In numerous studies of bonding science and in EFT, we lay out the

(emotional) Accessibility

(emotional) Responsiveness, 

and (emotional) Engagement

 

that defines the security of the bond between lovers.

They have lost this emotional connection. Nicole rejects mediation because she has lost hope and lost her sense of trust in Charlie and their relationship. She sees him as obsessed with his career and almost indifferent to her needs and wants. She was also wounded his by having a sexual fling.

We don’t see exactly how the ARE in their relationship erodes, just the end result.

If they had found an EFT therapist, our studies – 20 positive outcome studies of distressed couples – tell us that we could have helped them to repair their bond in about 15 sessions. We could have showed them the way back to A.R. E, and to a Hold Me Tight conversation where they share hurts needs and fears in a way that pulls them closer and closer. So the answer to the question, “ARE you there for me?” would then have been YES.

No one needs to just let the script of Marriage Story run its course any more. We can understand, shape, repair and hold onto love. After 30 years it still leaves me a little breathless each time I say this!

This is good news, not just on holidays that celebrate love, but every day. And as the Sondheim song at the end of the movie says, love is what makes us truly ALIVE!


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!


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…)


TALK as a Turn On

Having just come  back from the June Sex and Attachment conference in NYC, I was thinking about how we go for the sensational and the exotic in our public conversations and miss the obvious simple down to earth realities that truly define our sex lives. (more…)


Vulnerability & Monogamy

 

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Suddenly it seems as if everyone is having to defend monogamy. To defend the idea that love with a long time familiar partner can be just as erotic and passionate as a one night stand. (more…)


Pride

Pride

 

For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters, June marked a month of celebration and pride. All over the globe communities shared their support with beautiful parades, festivals, dances, concerts and parties celebrating LGBT Pride.

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Three Kinds of Sex

 

Attachment theory can help us understand sexuality better. In a secure attachment relationship, the three aspects of relatedness – sexuality, caregiving and attachment – are integrated. (more…)

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Love in the Pharmacy

 

 

We love pills. We rely on them. So often with a simple swallow they take care of our physical distress – and calm our hearts and minds into the bargain. So now we are starting to understand the chemistry of love, I guess its natural to wish for a pill the will turn on love or keep love coming  – a commitment or anti- infidelity pill.

(more…)

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