THEORY |. PSYCHOTHERAPY
THE REVOLUTIONARY NEW SCIENCE
OF ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS
By Sue Johnson, psychotherapy.net
In this excerpt from her most recent book, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, EFT founder Sue Johnson offers tools for couples and their therapists to repair wounded bonds and navigate the cycles of disconnection and reconnection that can make—or break—relationships.
The Rhythm of Disconnection and Reconnection
A love relationship is never static; it ebbs and flows. If we want love to last, we have to grasp this fact and get used to paying attention to and readjusting our level of emotional engagement.
“I just assumed that once you are married, you both know you are partners and you can kind of relax and take the relationship for granted,” Jeremy tells Harriet. “You can focus on the big picture. You know I love you. We aren’t mean to each other. I haven’t been unfaithful to you or anything like that. Can’t you just roll with the less romantic, less touchy-feely times?” Harriet sits up straight in her chair and declares, “No, Jeremy. I can’t. Not anymore.”
“Well, that is just very immature, then,” Jeremy replies.
He is right in a way. In a good relationship, where we feel basically secure, we can fill in the blanks left by our partner’s occasional emotional absence. We can substitute positive feelings from past encounters and accept that there may be legitimate reasons for the inattention. But only some of the time, and only if we know we can reconnect if we really need to.
Loving is a process that constantly moves from harmony to disharmony, from mutual attunement and responsiveness to misattunement and disconnection—and back again. But to really understand what happens, we have to zoom down into these interactions and atomize them. Think of Georges Seurat’s paintings: when we move in really close, we realize that the vast scenes are composed of thousands and thousands of little dots. Researchers are doing the same with love relationships. By freeze-framing videos of romantic partners talking or arguing, and of babies playing with a parent, they are discovering how love, without our being aware, is shaped, for better or worse, in micromoments and micromoves of connection and disconnection.
Up close, this is what love looks like: I look at you with my eyes wide open, trying to capture your glance, and you catch my expression, widen your eyes, and take my arm. Alternatively, you ignore my bid for your attention, continue talking about your thoughts, and I turn away. In the next step, we resynchronize and reconnect. I turn back to you and lean forward and touch your arm; this time, you get my cue and turn toward me, smile, and ask me how I am. This tiny, fleeting moment of repair brings a rush of positive emotion. Moments of meeting are mutually delightful. (I always think that if we stopped and verbalized our innermost thoughts at this point, we would say something like “Oh, there you are” or even “Ah, here we are together.”)
It’s important to emphasize that misattunement is not a sign of lack of love or commitment. It is inevitable and normal; in fact, it is startlingly common. Ed Tronick of Harvard Medical School, who has spent years absorbed in monitoring the interactions between mother and child, finds that even happily bonded mothers and infants miss each other’s signals fully 70 percent of the time. Adults miss their partner’s cues most of the time, too! We all send unclear signals and misread cues. We become distracted, we suddenly shift our level of emotional intensity and leave our partner behind, or we simply overload each other with too many signals and messages. Only in the movies does one poignant gaze predictably follow another and one small touch always elicit an exquisitely timed gesture in return. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that love is about always being in tune.
What matters is if we can repair tiny moments of misattunement and come back into harmony. Bonding is an eternal process of renewal.
Relationship stability depends not on healing huge rifts but on mending the constant small tears. Indeed, says John Gottman of the University of Washington, what distinguishes master couples, the term he gives successful pairs, is not the ability to avoid fights but the ability to repair routine disconnections.
We learn about mini-misattunement and repair in our earliest interactions. Tronick and his team have detailed what happens by analyzing videos of infants and their mothers playing a game of peekaboo that grows gradually more intense. At first the infant is happy, but as the game builds, he becomes overstimulated and turns away and sucks his thumb. Mom, intent on playing, misses this cue, and loudly cries “boo” again. The baby looks down with no expression. He shuts down to avoid her signals, which are suddenly too fast and too strong for him.
There are two basic scenarios for what happens next, one positive, the other negative. In the first, Mom picks up the cue that her child is overwhelmed, and she goes quiet. She tunes in to his emotional expression. She waits until he looks up and smiles at him very slowly, and then more invitingly, lifting her eyebrows and opening her eyes. Then she starts the game again. Misattunement and momentary disconnection shift to renewed attunement and easy synchrony. All it takes is a smile or tender touch.
In the second scenario, Mom ignores or doesn’t get her baby’s signal. She moves in faster and closer, insisting her child stay engaged with her. He continues to turn away, and the mother reaches out and pushes his face back toward her. The infant closes his eyes and erupts in agitated wails. The mother, annoyed, now turns away. This is misattunement with no repair, what Tronick calls “interactive failure.” Both mother and infant feel disconnected and emotionally upset.
Over time, thousands of these micromoves accumulate until they coalesce into a pattern typical of secure or insecure bonding. Tronick notes that at just seven months of age, infants with the most positive, attuned mothers express the most joy and positive emotion, while those with the most disengaged moms show the greatest amount of crying and other protest behaviors. Those with the most intrusive moms look away the most. We learn in these earliest exchanges with our loved ones whether people are likely to respond to our cues and just how correctable moments of misattunement are.
Those of us who wind up securely attached have learned that momentary disconnection is tolerable rather than catastrophic and that another person will be there to help us regain our emotional balance and reconnect. Those who become anxiously attached have been taught a different lesson: that we cannot rely on another person to respond and reconnect, and so momentary disconnection is always potentially calamitous. Those who become avoidant have absorbed a still harsher lesson: that no one will come when needed no matter what we do, so it’s better not to bother trying to connect at all.
We carry these lessons forward into adulthood, where they color our romantic relationships. “The past is never dead,” wrote novelist William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” Psychologist Jessica Salvatore, along with her colleagues at the University of Minnesota, studied the romantic relationships of 73 young adult men and women. They had all been enrolled since birth in a longitudinal study of attachment, and their relationship with their mother had been assessed when they were between twelve and eighteen months old. They were invited to the lab with their romantic partner, where they were interviewed separately. Then they were instructed to discuss a key conflict between them for ten minutes and then talk about areas where they were in agreement for another four “cool down” minutes.
Researchers videotaped these talks and observed how well the 73 adults could let go of their conflict and shift out of a negative emotional tone. Some made the switch quickly and easily; others persisted in talking about the conflict and brought up new issues; still others refused to talk at all. Those who were good at cool down were generally happier in their relationship, and so was their partner. And, as we might expect, those who had been rated securely attached as babies generally moved out of the conflict discussion most successfully.
But is a person’s own attachment history the key predictor of stability in a romantic relationship? Or is a partner’s ability to resolve conflict also a major factor? Salvatore assessed the 73 subjects two years later and found that even among those who had histories marked by insecurity, their romantic relationship was more likely to have endured if their partner was able to recover well from an argument and help them transition into a positive conversation.
I call this the buffer, balance, bounce effect. A more secure partner buffers your fears and helps you regain your emotional balance so you can reconnect. Then together, you both bounce back from separation distress, distance, and conflict.
We are never so secure that we do not need our partner’s help in readjusting the emotional music in our attachment dance. Relationship distress and repair are always a two-person affair; a dance is never defined by just one person.
Some of us, however, need more structured help in finding our way back to emotional harmony. Drawing from my discoveries in thirty years of practice and research and the findings of the new science of love outlined in these pages, I and my colleagues have created a powerful model for repairing relationship bonds, Emotionally Focused Therapy. The only intervention based on attachment, EFT is redefining the field of couple therapy and education. Sixteen studies now validate its success. Couples who have had EFT show overall increased satisfaction with their relationships and in the elements of secure attachment, including intimacy, trust, and forgiveness. Moreover, the more secure emotional bond remains stable years after therapy.
One of our newest and most exciting studies demonstrates through fMRI brain scans that after couples go through EFT and become more secure, holding the hand of their partner actually dampens fear and the pain of an electric shock. 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.
The science of love allows us to hone our interventions—to be on target and aim high. The goal is to create lasting lifelong bonds that offer safe-haven security to both partners. Recently we have also created a group educational program based on my earlier book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love that helps couples take all we have learned in decades of research and use it in their own relationship.
Repairing Bonds Moment to Moment
Lasting bonds are all about emotional responsiveness. The core attachment question—“Are you there for me?”— requires a “yes” in response. A secure bond has three basic elements:
When these elements are missing and alienation and disconnection take over, renewing a bond that is truly coming undone is essentially a two-step process. First, partners have to help each other slow down and contain the circular dance that keeps them emotionally off balance and hypervigilant for signs of threat or loss. Relationships begin to improve when partners can stop these runaway cycles that create emotional starvation and attachment panic.
To curb these demand-withdraw cycles, we first need to recognize that they are cycles. We get caught up in focusing on our partner’s actions and forget that we are players, too. We have to realize that we are in a feedback loop that we both contribute to. When we see that this is a dance we do together, we can stop our automatic, blaming, “You always step on my foot” response. This allows us to see the power and momentum of the dance and how we are both controlled and freaked out by it.
Prue accuses Larry of being hypercritical. “He’s always complaining about whatever I do—how I cook, how I make love. I feel picked on all the time. It’s devastating.” Larry argues that Prue always refuses to talk seriously about any problems they’re having. “She just goes distant. I can’t find her,” he says. In our sessions, they’ve now realized that they are prisoners of a pattern they call “the Pit.”
I encourage clients to give a name to their pattern to help them see it and begin to recognize that the pattern, not the partner, is the enemy. They have both unwittingly created this enemy that is taking over their relationship, and they must work together to wrest their relationship from its clutches.
Now we can explore the triggers and emotions that shape the pattern. Prue and Larry recount a specific incident when they fell into the Pit, and we bring it into high focus and play it in slow motion, scrutinizing each detail, until its impact on each partner and their bond is clear. They were on holiday in Europe after a period when Prue had been away taking care of her dying aunt and Larry had resented her absence. They were in a station heading to catch a train when Larry suddenly realized that it had begun moving. Afraid they would miss it, he jumped on the step and yelled to Prue, who was carrying a coffee cup, “Run.” Larry shouted to the conductor to slow down and held his hand out to Prue, but she froze. Finally, she grasped his hand and struggled onto the train, out of breath. Larry turned to her and said, “You are so damn slow.” Shocked and hurt, she refused to speak to him the rest of the journey. Inside, she vacillated between rage at Larry’s reprimands and dread that she really is too “slow” and too flawed for him to love. She shut him out and, preoccupied with her own fears of inadequacy, began a downward spiral into depression.
I turn to Larry and we go over and over this incident moment by moment and tune in to the emotions he was feeling then and how they reflect his overall feeling about Prue and their relationship. He says he feels “agitated” when she does not keep up with him on hikes. He notes she doesn’t take her arthritis medication consistently. “I get anxious when she does not stay with me. I can’t count on her.” He recalls the image of “distance” that flooded him when the train started to move off and Prue froze. “She wasn’t running, working to be with me,” he says. He felt panicked. Larry then begins to talk about his sense of isolation when Prue stayed with her aunt for three months and his habit of dismissing, or “pushing down,” this frequent feeling. Sometimes he can’t, though, and it rises up and engulfs him, and he winds up being angry and sarcastic. He begins weeping as he realizes just how much he needs her and is afraid that she will remain “unavailable.” The slide into the Pit begins with attachment terror.
For Prue, too, the terror that freezes her and turns her away from Larry is a hopeless certainty that she is flawed and worthless, so rejection is certain. As they recognize and find their balance in these emotional moments, they can see the drama of distress as it occurs in their everyday life and then help each other halt its momentum. They can limit the extent of the rift between them and find a secure base. The next night, Larry lashes out, and Prue responds, “Is this a panic moment for you? I am not going to freeze up here, and I want you to slow down.” Each partner begins to see the other in a new light: Prue sees Larry as afraid rather than judgmental and aggressive, and he sees her as protecting herself from rejection rather than simply abandoning him and “sulking.”
Recent research by psychologist Shiri Cohen and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School confirms that partners do not suddenly have to become masters of empathy or emotional gymnasts in this kind of process. Partners, especially women, really respond to signs that their loved one is trying to tune in and actually cares about their feelings. This, in and of itself, creates a new safety zone where partners can begin to expand their dance steps and take risks with each other. New ways of dealing with emotion shape new steps in the dance, which in turn shape new chances for reattunement and repair. But this ability to keep miscues and missteps in check is not enough.
The second step in renewing bonds is much harder but more significant. This is when we move into powerful positive interactions and actually reach for each other. Specifically, withdrawn partners have to open up and engage on an emotional level, and blaming partners have to risk asking for what they need from a place of vulnerability.
Withdrawn partners have to open up and engage on an emotional level, and blaming partners have to risk asking for what they need from a place of vulnerability.
Partners have to tune in to the bonding channel and stay there. They find this process risky, but if they follow it through, their relationship becomes flooded with positive emotion and ascends to a whole new level. This process is not only a corrective move that kick-starts trust but also, for many, a transforming and liberating emotional experience.
These experiences are deeply emotional; partners each reach for the other in a simple and coherent way that pulls forth a tender, compassionate response. This begins a new positive bonding cycle, a reach-and-respond sequence that builds a mental model of relationships as a safe haven. It addresses each person’s most basic needs for safety, connection, and comfort.
These kinds of primal emotional moments are so significant that, as with all such “hot” moments, our brain seems to faithfully store them, filing them in our neural networks as the protocol for how to be close to others. Our follow-up studies of EFT couples show that their ability to stay with and shape these emotional moments is the best predictor of stable relationship repair and satisfaction years later.
So what actually happens in these exchanges—I call them Hold Me Tight conversations—when real connection begins to form and a couple moves from antagonism into harmony? Until recently we have not known what specific responses in intimate exchanges make for tender loving bonds between adults. We have had, to quote psychologists Linda Roberts and Danielle Greenberg of the University of Wisconsin, “a typology of conflict . . . but no road maps for positive intimate behavior.” Years of watching couples reconnect in a therapy that deliberately builds bonds can offer us just this.
In Hold Me Tight conversations, couples have to handle a series of mini-tasks. Partners, whether pursuing and blaming or defending and withdrawing, attempt to:
John: “I did snap at you. But when I look inside, it’s that I find it worrying, upsetting that you go out to those clubs with your girlfriends. It somehow messes me up. It’s hard to tell you this. I am not used to talking about this kind of stuff.”
John: “I feel a little silly, kind of wide open saying this. But there it is. It doesn’t work to deny it and say nothing. Then we get farther apart. Can you hear me? What do you think?” His wife, Kim, comes and hugs him.
John: “I know I sometimes go off about you being tired after coming home late or the money you spend. But that is not it. Those are side issues. It reminds me of past relationships. I guess I am really sensitive here. I really find it difficult. It scares me. I wanted to run after you and say, ‘Don’t go.’ It’s like you are choosing them and the club scene over me, over us. That is how it feels.” His eyes widen, showing how anxious he is.
John: “You aren’t saying anything. Are you mad now? I want us to talk about this kind of stuff when I get unsure of us and not push things under the rug. I want to hear how you feel right now.” Kim tells him she is confused because she feels loyal to her friends but that his feelings are important.
John: “I want to know you are committed to us, to me. I want to feel like you are my partner and that nothing is more important than that. I need that reassurance that my needs matter. Then I can keep taking risks here. I am out on a limb otherwise.”
John: “I know I have been kind of controlling in the past. It’s a bit hard to hear you talk about it, but I know you need to make choices, and you have fun with your friends. I am not giving orders here. I want to know if we can work this out together.”
John: “Well, you have tickets for the concert, so I guess you will go. I can handle that. I hadn’t really shared with you openly about this. It helps if I feel included somehow, if you tell me about it afterward. And I appreciate that you are listening and telling me that you can consider how I feel about this.” Kim tells him she still feels scared to put herself in his hands completely. Her nights out are her statement that she is still holding on to her boundaries and showing she can stand up to him. But she hears his fears. She tells him that she does not flirt or drink too much on her outings, and she reminds him that she is going out less often now.
John: “I don’t want to tell you what to do. I know this upsets you. You have good reasons for this. I get that you are not trying to hurt me. I don’t want you to feel dictated to. I just get anxious about this stuff.” He reaches out for her, and she turns to him and holds him.When this conversation goes off track, John—and hopefully Kim—can bring it back and stay with the main emotional message, the need to connect. For example, if John gets caught up ranting about the “seedy” clubs she visits, she is able to stay calm and soothe him by telling him that she is concerned that he worries about this, and this brings him back to talking about his fears. Both partners help each other keep their emotional balance and stay in the deeper emotion and bonding channel. John is attempting to repair his sense of disconnection, and he does it by exploring his own emotions and engaging with Kim. In the past he had tried criticizing his lover’s taste in friends or making deals about how many times each could go out without the other every month. Now he goes to the core dialogue in an attachment relationship, the one that matters most, where the question “Are you there for me?” is palpable. He shares and asks for her emotional support, for her help in dealing with his attachment fears.
This is very different from the way attempts at connection show up in distressed relationships and even in routine interactions in relatively happy relationships. We often bypass the attachment emotions and messages. We do not say what we need. Our signals to our loved one remain hidden, general, and ambiguous. Hal tells Lulu, “I don’t think I have ever asked you for affection. It’s not what I do. When you just give it, everything is fine. But when you get depressed . . . So then I say, ‘Want to watch a movie?’ or ‘You should go for a walk and cheer up.’ But you turn away, and in two seconds flat I am enraged. In my head, I am still thinking it’s about the movie or you not taking care of yourself. Not that you have gone missing on me.” When Hal can express his sense of loss at Lulu’s withdrawal, they can deal with it and her bout of depression differently—that is, in a way that leaves them more connected rather than less.
The most intense and attachment-focused Hold Me Tight conversations build tangible safety and connection, even in secure, happy relationships. They can occur at times when partners do not feel disconnected but simply want more intense intimacy. Lulu opens up one night and tells Hal of a moment after their lovemaking when she felt herself “sinking into a certain soft place where we just belong and belong and there is no more fear of risking.” He responds and shares his similar feelings. Each time these lovers share their “soft places” and their need for each other and respond with empathy and care, they offer their loved one reassurance that he or she is the chosen, irreplaceable one, and the bond between them deepens.
Dr. Sue Johnson is one of the originators and the main proponent of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), now one of the best validated couples interventions in North America. She is Director of the Ottawa (Canada) Couple and Family Institute and the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy as well as Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa and Research Professor at Alliant University in San Diego, California.
She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Couple and Family Therapy Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the Research in Family Therapy Award from the American Family Therapy Academy. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association.
She received her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1984. She is a registered psychologist in the province of Ontario, Canada, and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy and the Journal of Family Psychology. She is a Research Professor in the Marital & Family Therapy Program at Alliant University in San Diego.
Her 2004 book (2nd Ed), The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Creating Connection (Brunner Rouledge) is a foundational text on EFT for couples. She is the senior editor of the 2003 book, Attachment Processes in Couples Therapy(Guilford Press), and the 1994 book, The Heart of the Matter (Guilford Press). She has also written a book on trauma and couples, Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors (2002).
She trains counselors in EFT worldwide and consults to Veterans Affairs, the U.S. and Canadian military and New York City Fire Department. Sue is an Approved Supervisor for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and is internationally known for her workshops and presentations on practice, theory and research in couple therapy, adult attachment and emotion in psychotherapy. She maintains a private practice and lives in Ottawa, Canada, with her husband and two children.