“Emotional responsiveness – tuning into and supporting the other, is the key defining element of love.”

Dr. Sue Johnson

tronick blog image

We have a new ten minute video for everybody. Dr Ed Tronick – one of the foremost experts in how babies interact with their mothers to build loving bonds, came to visit me in Ottawa on a wintery weekend and we sat and talked for about 40 hours about the new science of bonding.

We talked for ever, well about 40 hours anyway, about the common ground shared by infant and adult bonds. And how this common ground has so much to say to us about the make or break moments in romantic love relationships.

Then, one afternoon, Ed and I tootled down to my Institute and filmed a little clip on all this. Then we put this clip together with Ed’s famous video, called Still Face, that shows the heartbreaking impact a mum’s emotional shut down has on an infant together and added a parallel clip showing an adult couple moving into the same drama of shut down and freak out. This dance, often called demand –withdraw by couple therapists, is one of the key markers of relationship distress in adult couples who show up for couple therapy all over North America. It is a dance that reliably leads to depression and divorce.

One key point that we make in this video is that, the need to be close to and depend on a partner is so much a part of us that all this partner has to do to turn on the alarm switch in our nervous system is to simply refuse to respond and shut off emotional connection when we are feeling vulnerable. This sends a clear DANGER signal to our little bonding oriented brains. We find, in all our studies of helping couples repair their relationship, that adult lovers simply have NO idea about the alarm and pain that they deliver when they simply shut their lover out and become unreachable. These folks are often trying to avoid a fight, but in fact this disconnection turns up the heat and triggers frantic, and often negative, attempts by the other partner to get them to respond.

The other point we make is that the dance between infant and mum and two adult lovers is made up of the same emotions – the same needs and moves. Any love relationship is a dance of connection and disconnection – of reaching and, if there is no response, of protesting, turning away, emotional meltdown, and, if we can manage it – repair and reconnection.

BUT BUT BUT – so many of us don’t know how this dance really goes – don’t know the stuck places and don’t know how to shape repair and reconnection. Then chronic disconnection and emotional starvation take over the relationship.

The message is the same as in all my writing and my studies on bonding between partners – for example, in our brain scan study (2013).

We can, at last, with the help of science, understand love and loving

– and what we understand –


with delicious deliberation



This article was published on: 02/5/16 9:51 AM