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. The result is an overwhelming sense of isolation from your partner. This, says couple therapist Sue Johnson, is precisely how most of us approach relationships. “If I take a step forward, you take a step back,” Johnson says. “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 far reaching: Children from broken families run a greater chance of divorcing themselves.
Of course, there’s marriage counseling, which sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t.
Many couple 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 partner but turn out to be too afraid to allow such intimacy to happen. Through EFT, partners learn to see not 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 reestablish 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 a child. “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.