How to restore love

Say someone asks you to dance—but he’s never done this particular dance before and neither have you. While you’re dancing, intense emotions surface in both of you for inexplicable reasons. The result is an overwhelming sense of isolation from your partner. 

This, says couples therapist Sue Johnson, is precisely how most of us approach relationships. “If I take a step forward, you take a step back,” Johnson says, who—not coincidentally—is a tango dancer in her spare time. “If things go well, we dance in perfect rhythm. If things go wrong, the dance becomes demonic.”

Things often go wrong. Divorce statistics show that since the 1970s, the number of divorces in the U.S. has more than tripled. One in four American children lives in a single-parent family. The consequences are farreaching: Children from broken families run a greater chance of divorcing ­as adults.

Of course, there’s couples therapy. That sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t. Many couples therapists believe their clients should become more independent or less needy or learn to state their boundaries. To do that, these therapists coach their clients to communicate better with one another, to negotiate and make agreements—You take out the trash, and I’ll do the dishes. According to Johnson, who has been married for 24 years, that amounts to being angry or jealous more politely.

She doesn’t buy it. “We’ve tried to teach partners to communicate better, but the emotions break right through,” she says. “Communication skills are therefore a waste of time. If you want to understand love, you have to understand emotions. Emotion is what creates the dance.”

That insight led the professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa to develop Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples in the 1980s. EFT focuses on the underlying emotions we are inclined to repress, which Johnson believes makes it hard to achieve true intimacy. EFT helps partners connect with their emotions and thus acknowledge their needs and desires. Often, people seek safe emotional connections with their partners but turn out to be too afraid to allow such intimacy to happen.

Through EFT, partners learn not to see each other as enemies but as hapless players in the “demon dialogues”: vicious cycles of negative interactions. They learn to recognize the pattern of their relationship, to name their fears and needs within that pattern and to step out of it. By voicing their feelings for each other, partners break the cycle and find new ways to relate.

EFT is gaining increasing recognition around the world as an effective approach to marital problems. A 1999 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that more than 70 percent of “problem couples” are satisfied with their relationship and stay together after completing a series of EFT sessions. In 2005, Nathan Wood at the University of Utah compared several forms of couples therapy and published his findings in The American Journal of Family Therapy. EFT performed significantly better than other types of couples therapy.

Human beings have a fundamental need for connection with others: with our families, with our social groups and above all with our romantic partners. People are social creatures. That quality has helped humankind survive harsh conditions throughout our evolutionary development. Our brains are built to “read” others’ emotions and to communicate. Healthy attachments calm us and regulate our feelings. They also make us healthier: The risk of cardiovascular disease drops and minor wounds heal faster when we are part of healthy, intimate relationships. We are made to bond with others.

Johnson takes this primal human need as the starting point for what she calls “hold me tight” conversations, in which partners reveal their deepest feelings of loneliness and their desire for love. When one partner surrenders to vulnerability, the other can soften and open up, allowing them to re-establish their bond.

During a “hold me tight” conversation, Johnson believes stress levels drop and couples produce greater amounts of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, which plays a role in linking social encounters with pleasurable feelings in the brain. The conversation is so extraordinary because it dislodges vital words that many people never learned to speak as children. “At most, perhaps 15 percent of people are fortunate enough to have had parents who showed them how to keep a relationship intact, what love looks like,” Johnson estimates. “The rest have to figure it out in the middle of the struggle.”

That led Johnson to make the “hold me tight” conversation the core of her therapy. EFT appears to have a highly positive effect on a couple’s sense of connection and intimacy. Trust between partners increases, painful experiences are forgiven and feelings of depression decrease. Moreover, the results are lasting. Couples have a tool to help them take what they’ve learned even further, so they feel better and better.

Johnson herself grew up in her parents’ pub. Her parents fought constantly, but even then she was fascinated by what goes on between two people. Her most important lesson: Arguments and conflicts aren’t actually about what we think they’re about. It isn’t the dirty kitchen, the open tube of toothpaste or even the affair we’re angry about. The fear of losing the other lies at the heart of nearly every marital problem. That fear is so great, Johnson says, that it can cause an emotional short circuit.

A healthy relationship doesn’t mean a couple never argues and never loses that connection. “Loving partners know how to reconnect and restore the bond between them,” Johnson says. “They don’t give up, and after a while, trust begins to grow.”

According to Johnson, the most crucial thing we want from a lover is a sense of safety and security—the safety we felt with our parents. In this respect, EFT extends British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory.

In the 1970s, Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth studied the emotional bond between mothers and children and discovered three basic styles of attachment: secure, avoidant and anxious. A fourth style was later added: fearful avoidant. It turns out that adults also follow one of these four styles in their romantic relationships (see sidebar). Parents can transfer their attachment styles to their children, but attachment styles aren’t immutable; they can change through positive or negative experiences.

The fear of abandonment causes people to panic. A person who is securely attached can handle that fear and draw her partner closer through words. Most couples that visit therapists are unable to do that. They have an avoidant or anxious ­attachment style, and they shut their partners out or avoid contact. “If someone shuts down their emotions and locks down their facial expressions, it can create a massive panic response in the other,” Johnson says. “That person can then become more demanding or pushy, driving their partner even further away.”

The result is guerilla warfare. One partner’s tiniest action can suddenly seem like an attack on the other partner’s security. If he goes out for drinks with friends on ­Friday night, she feels lonely, helpless and abandoned. If she complains that he leaves his junk lying around everywhere, he feels unloved and misunderstood. The last thing most warring partners do is simply say, I feel so alone; please hold me! But those are precisely the words that can restore peace and strengthen the emotional connection.

Johnson says she is deeply moved every time a “hold me tight” conversation unfolds. “As soon as couples open themselves up, it’s like their hearts melt,” she says. Her eyes begin to shine even more than usual as she talks. “I feel like I’m walking on holy ground. Something that’s so extraordinary that it’s almost too much that I’m there. I usually slide my chair back a little, so they can give themselves over to the moment.”

After several EFT sessions, partners ­learn what lurks behind their aggressive or cold behavior, and they learn to accept their ­feelings of fear and loneliness. Johnson gives an example. “If an angry wife can say, ‘Yes, I’m mad, but mainly I’m scared and lonely, and I want you to comfort me, but I don’t know how to ask and that’s why I keep complaining and yelling at you,’ it changes everything. If the husband can then comfort his wife, the emotional bond ­changes even more.”

According to Johnson, we pull the wool over our eyes so we won’t have to feel and express our emotions. We constantly invent reasons why our relationship isn’t working and never will. That’s why we claim that romantic love lasts at most a few years and cannot continue forever. Or we have to love ourselves before we can have relationships. We have to learn to stand on our own feet.

Johnson calls these misconceptions. “People are not sufficient unto themselves,” she says. “Learn to turn away from others and close your heart—how could that be healthy? You don’t grow up and become independent by turning away from people; you do that by forming a bond with others.”

She also believes there’s something contradictory in all those reasons for avoiding a relationship—because even though our romances keep going wrong, we keep trying again. “When a relationship fails, we look for a new one. We don’t give up.”

According to Johnson, our brains are programmed to choose and hold onto attachment. She describes studies in which long term lover’s brains were observed with MRI scanners while they looked at photos of their partners. “On some scans you can literally see the love,” she says.

“Freud was wrong. Sex and aggression are not our strongest instincts; attachment is. If you show people a safe route to connection, they will always take it.”

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How to restore love

Say someone asks you to dance—but he’s never done this particular dance before and neither have you. While you’re dancing, intense emotions surface in both of you for inexplicable reasons. The result is an overwhelming sense of isolation from your partner. 

This, says couples therapist Sue Johnson, is precisely how most of us approach relationships. “If I take a step forward, you take a step back,” Johnson says, who—not coincidentally—is a tango dancer in her spare time. “If things go well, we dance in perfect rhythm. If things go wrong, the dance becomes demonic.”

Things often go wrong. Divorce statistics show that since the 1970s, the number of divorces in the U.S. has more than tripled. One in four American children lives in a single-parent family. The consequences are farreaching: Children from broken families run a greater chance of divorcing ­as adults.

Of course, there’s couples therapy. That sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t. Many couples therapists believe their clients should become more independent or less needy or learn to state their boundaries. To do that, these therapists coach their clients to communicate better with one another, to negotiate and make agreements—You take out the trash, and I’ll do the dishes. According to Johnson, who has been married for 24 years, that amounts to being angry or jealous more politely.

She doesn’t buy it. “We’ve tried to teach partners to communicate better, but the emotions break right through,” she says. “Communication skills are therefore a waste of time. If you want to understand love, you have to understand emotions. Emotion is what creates the dance.”

That insight led the professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa to develop Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples in the 1980s. EFT focuses on the underlying emotions we are inclined to repress, which Johnson believes makes it hard to achieve true intimacy. EFT helps partners connect with their emotions and thus acknowledge their needs and desires. Often, people seek safe emotional connections with their partners but turn out to be too afraid to allow such intimacy to happen.

Through EFT, partners learn not to see each other as enemies but as hapless players in the “demon dialogues”: vicious cycles of negative interactions. They learn to recognize the pattern of their relationship, to name their fears and needs within that pattern and to step out of it. By voicing their feelings for each other, partners break the cycle and find new ways to relate.

EFT is gaining increasing recognition around the world as an effective approach to marital problems. A 1999 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that more than 70 percent of “problem couples” are satisfied with their relationship and stay together after completing a series of EFT sessions. In 2005, Nathan Wood at the University of Utah compared several forms of couples therapy and published his findings in The American Journal of Family Therapy. EFT performed significantly better than other types of couples therapy.

Human beings have a fundamental need for connection with others: with our families, with our social groups and above all with our romantic partners. People are social creatures. That quality has helped humankind survive harsh conditions throughout our evolutionary development. Our brains are built to “read” others’ emotions and to communicate. Healthy attachments calm us and regulate our feelings. They also make us healthier: The risk of cardiovascular disease drops and minor wounds heal faster when we are part of healthy, intimate relationships. We are made to bond with others.

Johnson takes this primal human need as the starting point for what she calls “hold me tight” conversations, in which partners reveal their deepest feelings of loneliness and their desire for love. When one partner surrenders to vulnerability, the other can soften and open up, allowing them to re-establish their bond.

During a “hold me tight” conversation, Johnson believes stress levels drop and couples produce greater amounts of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, which plays a role in linking social encounters with pleasurable feelings in the brain. The conversation is so extraordinary because it dislodges vital words that many people never learned to speak as children. “At most, perhaps 15 percent of people are fortunate enough to have had parents who showed them how to keep a relationship intact, what love looks like,” Johnson estimates. “The rest have to figure it out in the middle of the struggle.”

That led Johnson to make the “hold me tight” conversation the core of her therapy. EFT appears to have a highly positive effect on a couple’s sense of connection and intimacy. Trust between partners increases, painful experiences are forgiven and feelings of depression decrease. Moreover, the results are lasting. Couples have a tool to help them take what they’ve learned even further, so they feel better and better.

Johnson herself grew up in her parents’ pub. Her parents fought constantly, but even then she was fascinated by what goes on between two people. Her most important lesson: Arguments and conflicts aren’t actually about what we think they’re about. It isn’t the dirty kitchen, the open tube of toothpaste or even the affair we’re angry about. The fear of losing the other lies at the heart of nearly every marital problem. That fear is so great, Johnson says, that it can cause an emotional short circuit.

A healthy relationship doesn’t mean a couple never argues and never loses that connection. “Loving partners know how to reconnect and restore the bond between them,” Johnson says. “They don’t give up, and after a while, trust begins to grow.”

According to Johnson, the most crucial thing we want from a lover is a sense of safety and security—the safety we felt with our parents. In this respect, EFT extends British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory.

In the 1970s, Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth studied the emotional bond between mothers and children and discovered three basic styles of attachment: secure, avoidant and anxious. A fourth style was later added: fearful avoidant. It turns out that adults also follow one of these four styles in their romantic relationships (see sidebar). Parents can transfer their attachment styles to their children, but attachment styles aren’t immutable; they can change through positive or negative experiences.

The fear of abandonment causes people to panic. A person who is securely attached can handle that fear and draw her partner closer through words. Most couples that visit therapists are unable to do that. They have an avoidant or anxious ­attachment style, and they shut their partners out or avoid contact. “If someone shuts down their emotions and locks down their facial expressions, it can create a massive panic response in the other,” Johnson says. “That person can then become more demanding or pushy, driving their partner even further away.”

The result is guerilla warfare. One partner’s tiniest action can suddenly seem like an attack on the other partner’s security. If he goes out for drinks with friends on ­Friday night, she feels lonely, helpless and abandoned. If she complains that he leaves his junk lying around everywhere, he feels unloved and misunderstood. The last thing most warring partners do is simply say, I feel so alone; please hold me! But those are precisely the words that can restore peace and strengthen the emotional connection.

Johnson says she is deeply moved every time a “hold me tight” conversation unfolds. “As soon as couples open themselves up, it’s like their hearts melt,” she says. Her eyes begin to shine even more than usual as she talks. “I feel like I’m walking on holy ground. Something that’s so extraordinary that it’s almost too much that I’m there. I usually slide my chair back a little, so they can give themselves over to the moment.”

After several EFT sessions, partners ­learn what lurks behind their aggressive or cold behavior, and they learn to accept their ­feelings of fear and loneliness. Johnson gives an example. “If an angry wife can say, ‘Yes, I’m mad, but mainly I’m scared and lonely, and I want you to comfort me, but I don’t know how to ask and that’s why I keep complaining and yelling at you,’ it changes everything. If the husband can then comfort his wife, the emotional bond ­changes even more.”

According to Johnson, we pull the wool over our eyes so we won’t have to feel and express our emotions. We constantly invent reasons why our relationship isn’t working and never will. That’s why we claim that romantic love lasts at most a few years and cannot continue forever. Or we have to love ourselves before we can have relationships. We have to learn to stand on our own feet.

Johnson calls these misconceptions. “People are not sufficient unto themselves,” she says. “Learn to turn away from others and close your heart—how could that be healthy? You don’t grow up and become independent by turning away from people; you do that by forming a bond with others.”

She also believes there’s something contradictory in all those reasons for avoiding a relationship—because even though our romances keep going wrong, we keep trying again. “When a relationship fails, we look for a new one. We don’t give up.”

According to Johnson, our brains are programmed to choose and hold onto attachment. She describes studies in which long term lover’s brains were observed with MRI scanners while they looked at photos of their partners. “On some scans you can literally see the love,” she says.

“Freud was wrong. Sex and aggression are not our strongest instincts; attachment is. If you show people a safe route to connection, they will always take it.”

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