“Just as predicted by attachment science, contact with a loving responsive partner is a powerful buffer against danger and threat.  When we change our love relationships, we change our brains – and change our world.”

Dr. Sue Johnson

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.

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.


Sign up for my mailing list. We’re in the process of creating new content and improving my website – and I’d like you to be the first to know when these new features are released.

At The Heart of Health




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…)




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.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Marriage Makes A Difference To Your Brain

marriage brain


Marriage makes a difference to your brain – and the safety of your world.

We live in a co-habiting world. Many of us do not even bother to walk down the aisle anymore. So my neuroscientist colleague Jim Coan’s recent finding that our brains make a real distinction between formal marriage and living together in terms of how we deal with danger and threat is totally fascinating. (more…)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,