Sue Johnson—developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)—passed away at the end of April after a three-year battle with cancer. A leading force in the field, Sue was also a longtime contributor to Psychotherapy Networker. She was the 2022 recipient of the Networker Lifetime Achievement Award, a dear friend to many on our staff, and a remarkably clever writer, who could inspire deep insights and genuine laughs with her honest, down-to-earth stories.

Whether she was describing a long-suffering couple whose relationship she’d transformed, what she’d learned growing up in Britain as a pub-keeper’s daughter, or how she believed the entire field of psychotherapy needed to shift on its axis, Sue didn’t mince words or shy away from ruffling feathers. She was always uniquely Sue—a powerful presence who was also endlessly curious, constantly evolving, and beloved by many.

But her impact extended far beyond our community and the vast community of therapists she trained worldwide. Sue changed the field—radically and for the better—and in the process, created a ripple effect of healing that continues to transform countless relationships. John Gottman, describing her impact, put it this way: “Before Sue came along, couples therapy was behavioral and cognitive. She succeeded in showing that emotional interaction itself needed to be the substance of our work. Through data and research, she helped build a science of love.”

What follows is a mosaic of what we best remember about Sue through the many articles she contributed to this magazine over the years.

Remembering Sue Johnson

The Origins of EFT

Sue had a way of capturing the comedic aspects of human behavior alongside the tragic interactions that sometimes accompany romantic love. In “Are You There for Me? Understanding the Foundations of Couples Conflict” (September/October 2006), she summed up her first impression of couples work in a way most couples therapists will relate to: “People who seemed perfectly sane and reasonable often become totally unglued with their partners—enraged and aggressive or almost catatonically mute.”

Recalling the genesis of her career, when she first started seeing couples as part of her doctoral program’s clinical placement in the 1980s, she gave a particularly succinct and memorable description of couples acting out: “I remember one woman, who mostly communicated with her husband by screaming at him, sitting in my office and describing in gruesome detail all the horrible things she was going to do to his body as he lay asleep in bed that night.

As usual, he ignored her completely, except to occasionally yell back, ‘You’re absolutely crazy! You belong in a nuthouse!’ Sometimes a wife would sob to her husband, ‘I love you, I love you—you have my heart in your hands.’ Then a minute later, she’d scream, ‘You bastard! I’ll never let you touch me again!’ Partners wept, made outrageous threats, and sat sunk in depression, all the while knowing perfectly well they were destroying their relationships, but unable to help themselves.”

As a beginning couples therapist, unsure of how to help these couples with the techniques many analysts and behaviorists used at the time, she floundered. But she didn’t give up. Rather than growing discouraged, she became fascinated with “the dramatic, intricate, baffling dances” that couples enacted in her office. Where other therapists backed away from the unpredictability of couples work, Sue’s commitment deepened. Her desire to make a difference led her to study tapes of couples’ in vivo interactions, create research studies, decipher the data, and unearth previously hidden emotional truths beneath clients’ out-of-control behaviors.

As she wrote, “I realized what should have been the most obvious truth of all: marriages were primarily about the emotional responsiveness that we call love; about fundamental human attachment. These bonds reflected deep, primal survival needs for secure, intimate connection to irreplaceable others. These needs went from the cradle to the grave. How had we ever decided that adults were somehow self-sufficient?”

EFT—one of the most influential and effective couples treatments, taught in more than 40 countries—evolved out of her fascination with couples, her desire to help them, and her wish to give clinicians a way of supporting couples in forging deep, long-lasting bonds.

Remembering Sue Johnson

Dance as Metaphor

Dance was, for Sue, the quintessential metaphor for connection. Anyone who’s read her bestselling book Hold Me Tight, worked with an EFT therapist, or trained in the EFT model is familiar with phrases like the EFT Tango and the Protest Polka. As a longtime tango student herself, Sue used dance as a metaphor to capture—in a simple, relatable way—complex elements of therapy, communication, and relationships. In “The Dance of Sex” (January/February 2016), she described two different tango partners of hers—one an accomplished dancer, the other not—to illustrate nuances of true connection and attunement.

“With the accomplished partner, I had to match his fancy performance moves, which, while varied and novel, quickly became emotionally predictable. But with the second, far less skilled partner, I never knew what was going to happen next because he was picking up from me as much as I was picking up from him. Any time I started to lose my balance just a little bit, I could feel him right there with me, and we readjusted. There was one move in which I had to step around him while we shaped our bodies together. By then, we’d established our connection and were completely in sync, attuned. It was such a thrill—and this is what gives tango that erotic edge.”

Contrary to the now popular view in our field that excitement and novelty is the answer to long-term couples’ sexual disconnection, Sue insisted that “the way back into eroticism is through more intense connection.”

Remembering Sue Johnson

An Emotion Focus Beyond Couples Work

In “The Best Love Story Ever” (May/June 2019), Sue issued a call to action: “It’s time to use a different story for our own love lives, and for how we frame love for our clients through interventions. This story is called the science of attachment, and it’s a tale of how we struggle with our vulnerability, a tale of trauma and how emotional isolation is poison for a human being. It’s about how we grow into who we are and habitually engage with the world. It’s a great tale: ancient, timeless, bred in the bone, integrating inner self and social interaction. After all, the self is a process, constantly constructed in key interactions with those closest to you.”

Though EFT has always had applications within individual and family therapy, it wasn’t until 2019, when Sue published Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy with Individuals, Couples, and Families, that she formally unveiled Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT) as the branch of her model focused on individuals. In 2021, she coauthored A Primer for Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy, with her colleague Leanne Campbell, and the two went on to launch the first EFIT outcome study. “In the last few years, she grew just as passionate and enthralled with individual therapy as she’d been with couples therapy 30 years earlier,” Campbell shared. “Even as her health declined, her presence and intellect remained. She never stopped growing and evolving the model.”

In “An Emotionally Focused Path to Healing Trauma” (September/October 2023), Sue highlighted some of the ways her model has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to trauma, grief, and loss. “EFIT and EFT are particularly well suited to trauma work because trauma is all about emotion: emotion regulation and dysregulation. You might say trauma is an emotional disorder,” she argued. “We’re socially bonding beings, so trauma is always about relationships, and relationships are a key to its cure.”

Remembering Sue Johnson

Irreverence and Humility

Sue’s fiery convictions about the fundamental truths of human attachment were always counterbalanced by her own brand of tender, irreverent humility, which was on full display at a 2018 Symposium storytelling event, when she shared a poignant and unexpectedly funny story about her first client in a residential treatment center: 15-year-old Lee. (This story was later published as “My First Client, My Best Teacher” May/June 2018).

Lee, who was mostly mute, feared he’d die if he swallowed his own saliva, a phobia that kept him running to the bathroom during his sessions with Sue to empty his mouth. She noted, “Despite all my best efforts at empathy, insight, and problem-solving, all I could get in response to my questions and suggestions was his wide-eyed stare.” Eventually, he felt safe enough with her to swallow, but Lee had another issue: a bully people called Bruce the Bulldozer. One day, in a breakthrough moment, as Sue recounts it, Lee stood up in group and announced with gusto that he’d peed in Bruce’s favorite boots. Rather than react with judgement, Sue recognized that her work with Lee was finally paying off.

As she put it, “Defiant urination could definitely be considered the treatment of choice in Lee’s case, because he changed after that. He started to talk to me, albeit in long, stilted sentences. He made a friend in the group. We found him a foster family. That skinny boy with the big eyes taught me how to stay with a client and accept where he is. He also taught me that the magic of therapy isn’t in any flashy technique: it’s in attunement, the belonging that leads to becoming. This togetherness changes both client and therapist!”

Sue always spoke admiringly and lovingly of her father. “I hear his voice in my head,” she said in a recent interview with us. “He always saw me, a little English working-class girl—an uppity English working-class girl, as far as my other relatives were concerned—as competent and worthy and precious. If I hadn’t had that experience of absorbing my own worthiness through him, I probably would’ve been an alcoholic hairdresser in a small English town. He always told me things like, ‘You can be who you want to be,’ and ‘You can deal with things; you’re strong enough.’”

Sue Johnson lived up to—and far exceeded—those predictions. And as we mourn her passing, we hold tight to the knowledge that her vibrant spirit and enormous legacy will live on in our hearts—and in the clinical work that so many of us do every day.

Alicia Muñoz

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nurture Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past 16 years, she’s provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.

Livia Kent

Livia Kent, MFA, is the editor in chief of Psychotherapy Networker. She worked for 10 years with Rich Simon as managing editor of Psychotherapy Networker, and taught writing at American University as well as for various programs around the country. As a bibliotherapist, she’s facilitated therapy groups in Washington, DC-area schools and in the DC prison system. In 2020, she was named one of Folio Magazine’s Top Women in Media “Change-Makers.” She’s the recipient of Roux Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award, The Ledge Magazine‘s National Fiction Award, and American University’s Myra Sklarew Award for Original Novel.