Do We Know What Makes a Couple Strong? -Dr. Sue Johns

Do We Know What Makes a Couple Strong? - Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy            

Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy

At the dawn of civilization the great king of the Sumarian empire had his love song to his new bride carved in stone. It is now touted as the first recorded love letter. The song is basically all about how beautiful she is. But that is it. There is no nugget of wisdom about how he intends to make a strong loving bond with his lady.

But then – no-one, until about twenty years ago, really knew much about that topic. Popular wisdom was, and in some ways still is, that love is something you fall into and fall out of. It is sexual infatuation plus sentiment followed by a kind of semi-psychotic frenzy which, like all frenzy’s then fades and peters out.

 Not quite. Not any more. Modern science has changed our world and literally taken us to the moon. And it has also broken the code of romantic love so that we can make sense of love, shape it and keep it. That is a different kind of moon shot!

 In my books, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Life-time of love  and Love Sense; The new revolutionary science of romantic relationships, I lay out this new science of romantic bonding and how can give us the power to shape our most precious relationships and make them strong – strong enough to last a lifetime. You can also look at my website and watch a talk on the Laws of Love that I filmed. This new science has allowed myself and my colleagues to build and test the most effective couple intervention to date – Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy or EFT. We have shown that we can take 75% of distressed couples who feel lonely and disconnected, who are in despair and losing their love to distance and conflict, and move them into satisfying connection in 10 to 20 weeks. We can also help couples repair injuries like affairs and other betrayals. This is progress indeed, progress that is crucial given how lonely our society has become and how much we now turn to our love relationships for the support and caring that we all need to thrive in life and that once was available in our small communities or extended families.

 The key to a strong couple relationship is to understand and know how to shape your emotional bond. Evidence is that all couples fight and all couples lose most of the good communication skills they possess in a conflict. The emotion simply wipes out our ability to focus on skills and insights. There are now hundreds of studies to show that strong couples can:

 Accept and own their wired in need for emotional connection. They can pinpoint their need and communicate it clearly to their loved one. Emily tells Steve, “ I get mad because you are so busy. I start to feel like I am just on the edge of your life, that I am not important to you. I need you to turn to me every day and find moments to tell me how you feel about me – that you love and value me. Then I can tolerate times when we don’t have much time together.” Steve replies, “You are right. I need that too. If I just see you getting mad I start to feel like a loser husband and that hurts.”

 Accept that we are all vulnerable in love, not because we are weak or childish but just because we are HUMAN. We are bonding animals. We need to know that  a key special others are there for us, will come when we call. Then we can go out into life with passion and confidence.  So Steve can tell Emily, “ I do shut down and move away and I get that this leaves you lonely and unsure. I am so freaked out by the message that I am disappointing you, failing somehow. But I don’t want this distance between us, so maybe I can tell you when I am feeling like ‘Substandard Steve’ who isn’t sure how to do this relationship thing. Then we can learn together.” Emily smiles and hugs him. Emily talks of being triggered by distance and feeling deserted and Steve talks about feeling triggered by a sense of inadequacy – and this seem to be a pretty universal  pattern.

 Understand that moments of disconnection and misunderstanding are normal and inevitable and can be repaired. They do not mean that your loved one does not love you. The dance called love gets out of wack sometimes. Most often someone picks up on loss of emotional connection and asks for attention. If the other doesn’t respond, the ask louder and move into demands. If this sounds critical the other hears rejection and moves away creating even more distance. We call this the Demon Dialogue. Almost everyone does it. Strong couples can learn to SEE the dance ( not just the moves their partner makes) and help each other to step out and repair the rife. Steve tells Emily, “ We are doing that dance again, that spiral thing. You yell and I shut down and shut you out. We both hurt then. Lets talk about what triggered us. We don’t have to do this.”

 Risk and reach for each other in what we call a Hold Me Tight conversation. This conversation predicts success after EFT and a loving bond years later in our research. Strong couples learn how to hold onto their emotional balance and decide to trust their partner, asking for their emotional needs to be met in a soft way that makes it easy for their partner to respond. Steve tells Emily, “ I don’t always know what to say or do. I need to know that I can “fail’ here and you still want me as a partner. I need reassurance after our rifts.” Emily tells Steve, “ I need to know that I can reach you – that you will respond to me if I call. That my feelings matter to you. Then we can do anything and go anywhere together.”

 Emily is right here. Mutual emotional openness and responsiveness to what we call attachment or bonding needs are the key to strong and loving connection.

 Now we know this – just think what we can do, not on the moon but here on earth and here in our families and in our own hearts – hearts that are wired to long for loving connection.

 Dr. Sue Johnson



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