“For me there is life before Sue Johnson and after Sue Johnson. This book may change your life.”

W. Keller (Doylestown, PA), Amazon Reader

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!


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…)


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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Say Something I’m Giving Up On You

say something

 

Sometimes …

A song just gets to you. You find yourself humming it as you drive or make the coffee. “Say Something I’m giving up on you” by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera has taken over my brain.

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What Inspired Me To Write Love Sense?

 

It might have been, wait for it, my mother’s fault! My mother was, at once, the most delightful, engaging, loving woman and the most ruthless, dominating she-wolf you could ever meet. Learning the rules of engagement was vital, and I got to watch as my father tried but constantly failed to do this. As the two people I loved most in the world emotionally ripped each other apart, night after night, I moved from being anguished to mesmerized. What was this desperate drama all about? How did it work? As a six year old, sitting on the stairs in the dark, listening to the fights, I wanted to figure it out. I announced this to my granny who laughed and told me that no one had ever figured love out. So, of course, I decided I had to do it! (more…)

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A Quiet Revolution

 

A quiet revolution has happened over the last 15 years – a revolution that we all need to know about. A revolution that – at last- makes sense of romantic love.

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Monogamy: a myth or a possibility?

 

Is it natural for human beings to live a monogamous existence? When I ask this question, people look at me with surprise and answer derisively. A colleague from Europe tells me, “Oh, no-one is getting married these days. They are just so discouraged. What is the point? Monogamy is unrealistic, impossible.” My friend mutters, “It’s about time we gave up on that one! It’s a myth.” So when I am asked this very question by a television host, I take a very deep breath before I answer, “YES. I think we are naturally monogamous.” You can hear jaws dropping everywhere. (more…)

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