Do adults bond with their partners in the same way that children develop attachments to their parents? Love Guru, Dr. Sue Johnson shows groundbreaking evidence to suggest that they do in her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Life Time of Love.”
In December 2011 I had the opportunity to attend a week long externship training with Johnson in Ottawa, where I got immersed in her empirically validated model called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).
Emotionally Focused Couple’s Therapy (EFT) is a short-term (8-20 sessions) therapy used to reduce distress in adult love relationships and create more secure attachment bonds. This approach is based on the assumption that relationships have a powerful impact on our mental and physical health. According to Johnson, lovers are regulators of each others physiology and emotional functioning and when there is relationship rupture this can send the couple into distress, panic, depression, trauma and forgiveness dilemmas. The good news is that each partner holds the key to unlock each others pain and loneliness. Emotional presence is the solution.
The message of “Hold Me Tight” is simple says Dr. Sue. “Forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, get to the emotional underpinnings of your relationship by recognizing that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing and protection”.
Dr. Johnson teaches that the way to enhance or save a relationship is to be open, attuned, and responsive to each other and to reestablish emotional connection.
Love is a very special kind of emotional bond. It is a basic need that is wired into our brain by millions of years of evolution. It is a survival strategy. Our brains identify isolation and abandonment as danger, and the touch and emotional responsiveness of loved ones as safety. When we experience a loss of connection from attachment figures, this triggers “primal panic,” a special set of fear responses.
According to the code of attachment theory we all need a safe haven relationship to turn to when life is too much for us and that offers us a secure base from which to go confidently out into the world. This is effective dependency.
Dr. Johnson shares that the heart of the matter in couples therapy is not about the arguments that play out around the kids or money. The fighting is really about the key attachment questions that drive a couple’s negative dance.
The key questions are: “Are you there for me?” “Do I matter to you?” “Will you turn towards me and respond to me?” Partners often do not know how to ask these questions, and therapists often miss them or even see them as a sign of immature dependency.
This externship gave me a new road map for working with couples and a deeper understanding for marital distress. Attachment theory seems to be the missing glue for all the other experiential and humanistic approaches I’ve been trying to piece together and integrate. I believe that this model is a truly revolutionary breakthrough in couples therapy. It has been exciting to bring “Hold Me Tight” conversations into my work with couples and families, as the evidence for its success is significant.
Larry Borins MSW, RSW is a psychotherapist in private practice and founder of Mind Health Toronto, a centre for emotional wellbeing. He holds a Masters degree from Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University. In addition, Larry has advanced training in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Mindfulness Based Interventions and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and uses these modalities to help his clients get out of the vicious cycles of negative emotions, recognize destructive patterns, find deeper connections, and explore new options for positive change.