Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is a couples focused, practically-oriented example of emotionally focused therapy. The “emotional focus” stems from the fact that unlike other forms of couples therapy it does not view the romantic relationship as a form of rational calculus designed in order to achieve the greatest amount of happiness but the formation of dependency upon a partner to fulfill emotional needs. By working towards strengthening the bonds between partners that identify and transform the foundational moments that contribute to a loving adult relationship the couple is able to become more open and responsive to their each other’s needs. This focus is summarized by Dr. Johnson early on when she states that we need to “forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand emotional gestures or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent upon your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing and protection” (7).
One of the hallmarks of EFT, indeed all therapeutic interactions, is a willingness to commit to alteration of behavioral and conceptual habits. If one partner expresses an unwillingness to commit to them, or expresses such a desire but does not follow through, than EFT as well as any other form of connecting practices are impossible. Operating upon such a presumption, Johnson then outlines her theory of love, which is an inter-personal theory of romantic attachment. The cases studies which she uses to build up her definition of attachment is varied, but rather than this being a failure to operationalize her terminology I see this broad, positivistic term more reflective of the variety of human experiences. Attachment, like love, changes over time – a fact reflected by the increasing gray divorce rate – and also is understood differently by people based upon their upbringing and value system. That potential criticism dealt with, love is largely viewed within the framework of the classic romantic sense. Its attributes and operation are linked to physical attraction and basic human needs for security, safety, connection. With these we feel generally empowered, more confident, positive and peaceful. Lacking this sense of attachment not only damages our love life, but can have a huge impact on our health. Citing psychological research literature, she points out that hostile criticism from and conflict with loved ones increases our subjective self-doubts, creates a sense of helplessness, mars one’s self-image and leads to a tenfold likeliness for depression. When a relationship is good, however, loving contact and interaction with a partner acts as buffer against shock, pain and stress due to the hormones and chemicals released by this interaction.
Dr. Johnson follows this explanation of biochemical regulation related to attachment by illustrating how it is that couple can fall into a spiral of insecurity. When one partner becomes emotionally unavailable, unresponsive or even sadistic we feel that that once robust connection is at risk and this pushed the other partner into a primal panic. Whatever possibility at effective emerging from this dynamic is destroyed as a spiral of insecurity develops due to the lack of safety. Power struggles begin and making demands rather than requests is just one example of how once loving expressions become tainted, decreasingly responsive and alienating for both.
The seven conversations that follow all build upon the above theoretical framework and scaffolds on each other in a way that leads to a process of reconnection so as to create greater intimacy, security and compassion between the couple. By focusing on the emotions that are evoked in situation rather than the situation itself the negative habits of blame and the flight-or-fight response are circumvented and it becomes easier for new patterns of loving, connected action to emerge. While the book is directed to couples on the metaphorical rocks, the questions and experiential practices presented are good for any couple seeking to gain a better understanding of their partner and obtain a deeper their connection to them.