According to a landmark study by Ted Huston, a professor of human ecology and psychology at the University of Texas, when marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause, but decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness. “Indeed,” comments renowned Canadian couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson, “the lack of emotional responsiveness rather than the level of conflict is the best predictor of how solid a marriage will be five years into it. The demise of marriages begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. The conflict comes later.”
Hold Me Tight is all about preventing the demise of love on time. Published in 2008, the book was the first to present Johnson’s trademarked “Emotionally Focused Therapy” (EFT), heralded by the New York Times and Time magazine as the marriage therapy with the highest rate of success. So, get ready to save and enrich your relationship with your loved one by redefining the nature of love and avoiding its most common pitfalls!
Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT for short) is – not only according to its originator and architect, Dr. Sue Johnson – a revolutionary and science-based approach to love, intimate relationships and couples’ counseling.
EFT finds its roots in the theories of British psychiatrist John Bowlby and was originally developed in the field of child development. According to Bowlby, what we talk about when we talk about child-mother love is actually a biological instinct that has been shaped by a myriad of evolutionary pressures.
At heart, when the child senses or perceives a threat or any kind of discomfort, it searches for proximity to an attachment figure, because this was its optimal strategy for survival for hundreds of thousands of years. This attachment behavior, in turn, anticipates a response by the attachment figure which should then either remove the threat or discomfort or ignore the call. It is the latter that interested Bowlby more – and it is his ideas on the nature of emotional unresponsiveness and separation anxiety that inspired Sue Johnson to translate Bowlby’s theory into the language of adult attachments.
During her therapy work with couples, Johnson realized that most of her colleagues’ counseling methods didn’t work, not because they were not rationally sound, but precisely because they were. As much as we’d like to fool ourselves, we don’t think in love: we feel and we act; just like infants. Adult attachments may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact when compared to parent-child relationships, but the nature of the emotional bond remains the same. Love, in other words, should be redefined from scratch, because adult relationships aren’t bargains – that is to say, deals about profit and loss – but emotional bonds, replicating the parent-infant dyadic attachment relationship. They are, in essence, all about the innate need for safe emotional connection – and it is the lack of this connection which leads to conflicts, not the other way around.
In other words, in EFT, our loved one is perceived as a sort of surrogate-parent to our inner infants, our shelter in life. When that person is unresponsive or emotionally unavailable, we face being out in the cold, alone and helpless. We are assailed by emotions – anger, sadness, hurt, and above all, fear.
And as anyone who has ever traveled by plane knows, fear is not a rational response. No matter how much you know about the safety of air travel, there’s still something that makes it scarier than a road trip. And that something is the amygdala, the ancient almond-shaped area in your midbrain, which triggers an automatic response irrespective of your wishes or conscious efforts.
Fear, simply put, is our built-in alarm system that turns on when our survival is threatened. Losing connection with your loved one – since it repeats the event of losing connection with a parent as a baby – is the greatest threat of all, one that severely jeopardizes your sense of security. “Love is the best survival mechanism there is,” writes Johnson, “and to feel suddenly emotionally cut off from a partner, disconnected, is terrifying. We have to reconnect, to speak our needs in a way that moves our partner to respond.”
And that’s the basic premise of EFT: the drama of love is actually “all about [the] hunger for safe emotional connection, a survival imperative we experience from the cradle to the grave.” Hence, all the lovers’ spats and arguments are protests against disconnection and can only be quieted by a lover moving emotionally close to hold and reassure – nothing else will do. Finally, it is because of this that the key moments of change in a relationship are those of “secure bonding,” the ones when you realize that your loved one is there and will come when you call.
Couples therapy is usually all about making grand romantic gestures, learning to argue better, experimenting with new sexual positions, or Freudian analyses of early childhood. Forget all about that, says Johnson: you can never reignite love through any of these acts because love is not a bargain, but an emotional bond. Recognize this and admit to yourself that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is dependent on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection – and act accordingly!
EFT focuses on creating and strengthening this emotional attachment between partners by “identifying and transforming the key moments that foster an adult loving relationship: being open, attuned, and responsive to each other”. In essence, that’s what emotional responsiveness consists of:
Accessibility means staying open to your partner, even when you have doubts and feel insecure. It means being willing to struggle to make sense of your emotions – so these emotions do not stand in the way of your partner’s need to reach you. You must be able to tune in to your lover’s attachment cues when they feel emotionally insecure, so you must be “reachable” and “connectable” at all times.
Merely being accessible is not enough: you need to also be responsive. A father who mumbles “yes” and “no” to his son’s questions while watching a football game may be accessible, but he is definitely not responsive. You need to show your partner that their emotions have a real impact on your being. Place priority on the signals your partner conveys and send back clear signals of caring and comfort when that’s what they necessitate. Remember: “sensitive responsiveness always touches us emotionally and calms us on a physical level.”
Finally, responsiveness should develop into engagement, that is the act of being absorbed, attracted, pulled, captivated, pledged by the needs of your loved one. To use a clichéd phrase, you need to be emotionally present for your partner in a way that makes them feel safe and taken care of. They need to know that you are not faking it and that you are there for the long haul.
One easy way to remember the three elements of EFT is to think of the acronym A.R.E. (accessibility, responsiveness, engagement) and remember it via the all-important phrase: “Are you there, are you with me?” In essence, that’s what love is all about.
“The basis of EFT,” writes Susan Johnson, “is seven conversations that are aimed at encouraging a special kind of emotional responsiveness that is the key to lasting love for couples.”
There are a lot of things that can be said about each of these seven conversations – and quite a few anecdotes can be borrowed from Johnson’s book to describe them – but due to the limitations of our summary, we’ll focus on merely defining them. Bear in mind that the seven conversations are recovery steps – you should go through all of them with your partner to heal your relationship, starting with the first one, and ending with the last.
When we cannot connect safely with our partner, we get stuck in three basic patterns, that is three types of “demon dialogues.” And the fundamental step toward recovering reconnection is the recognition of these three patterns. The first of these so-called demon dialogues is “the dead-end pattern of mutual blame” called Find the Bad Guy, which is usually just a brief prelude to “the most common and entrapping dance of distress,” the Protest Polka. This dance – in which partners protest against the loss of secure attachment – is fittingly labeled by marriage counselors as demand-withdraw, because it usually brings out that dynamic of one partner demanding responses to their connection cues, while the other is withdrawn and doesn’t respond – and vice versa. When the dancers of the Protest Polka are overcome with tiredness, the pattern takes another, more damning, form: the Freeze and Flee withdraw-withdraw dance. This, expectedly, is the most dangerous dance of all.
After recognizing the demon dialogues, lovers should be ready to move on to the second conversation, which is all about looking beyond the immediate reactions and veering deep into the forces that have shaped the notion of safety for the partner’s emotional attachment. For example, if your partner has been abandoned by a parent, they might feel emotionally untended when you are habitually late. That’s their raw spot: everyone has one.
In the third conversation, the couples should move on to revisiting a rocky moment in their relationship, replaying a time when they themselves got stuck in a demand-distance loop, i.e., one of the demon dialogues. Couples usually do this before conversations 1 and 2: they can only be ready for this afterward.
The first three conversations de-escalate the tension and prepare couples for the fourth one, the one that actually transforms relationships. Hold Me Tight is a conversation during which partners should learn to become emotionally accessible, responsive and engaged. This is the “Are you there?” conversation.
“Forgiveness is a lovely idea,” once said C.S. Lewis, “until you have something to forgive.” And when that is the case, you can only forgive if you’re truly engaged and connected. When you’re deep into the Hold Me Tight conversation, you can understand why forgiveness is not only about the forgiven, but also about the forgiving one: it is a way to get rid of the past.
Passion is usually seen as a passing sensation. It is, in fact, a durable force. And just like infants need to be touched by their parents to feel love, adults need to be physically near their partner to experience the same feeling. “Good sex is a potent bonding experience,” says Johnson. “The passion of infatuation is just the hors d’oeuvre. Loving sex in a long-term relationship is the entrée.”
Unlike everything else, love doesn’t move or change: we need to “make” and “keep” it. It is not a passive experience, but a collection of active deeds. The last conversation comes only after all issues are a thing of the past – and it encompasses the rest of your life. It is a multi-step conversation that entails everything from celebrating the positive moments and planning rituals around those of separation to creating a resilient relationship story and writing your future love story. Envision yourselves five years ahead – and allow your partner to make your vision a reality.
If Howard Markman of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver is right in thinking that “this is moonshot time for couple therapy and education,” then Sue Johnson’s work, by way of analogy, can probably be compared to the work of those guys that brought us Apollo 11.
EFT is not just another couples counseling method – it is perhaps the most honest one and one of the very few that are at least based in serious academic research. Unsurprisingly, since Hold Me Tight was first published in 2008, it has been studied and elucidated numerous times by several authors, but this was the book that first presented these ideas to the public, so it deserves all the praise it has received throughout the years.
According to some statistics shared by Dr. Sue Johnson and at least two respectable magazines, 4 out of 5 couples who undergo emotionally focused therapy make significant changes in their relationship. So, if you have problems of this kind, we strongly encourage you to read Hold Me Tight and enact its recommendations!
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