Navigating Modern Relationships with Attachment Science

Susan Johnson on What Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Can Tell Us

Ryan Howes

We often imagine the English as reserved stonewallers, even more emotionally constricted than we Americans are. But Susan Johnson, the daughter of two London pubkeepers and the inventor of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), has devoted her career to breaking that old stereotype and developing an approach that zeroes in on showing couples how to express their deepest feelings for each other. To get there, she had to break what was perhaps the biggest taboo of all.

When she decided to study love and connections in relationships, she had to buck the psychologist establishment, which dismissed love as a disreputable, totally unscientific four-letter word that no self-respecting researcher would dream of considering for serious study.

Johnson’s work is based on the fundamental understanding that teaching deeply conflictual couples “communication skills” is like trying to teach the whirlwind how to blow more gently. Even when partners see what they’re doing to each other, they’re too overwhelmed by primordial emotions of fear, anguish, and desperate need to stop engaging in mutually assured destruction. So, in addition to creating a theory of love built on the firm foundation of science, she’s developed EFCT, an approach that helps couples systematically move through a transformative experience of deep bonding.

In the interview below, Johnson offers a critique of couples approaches that overemphasize changing attitudes toward marriage as a social institution in today’s world and fail to acknowledge fully the profound human need for intimacy and commitment.

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RH: In two sentences or less, what is EFCT?

Johnson: EFCT is an approach to couples therapy that’s based on the new science of bonding. It clarifies people’s attachment needs and helps them understand how they trigger each other’s deepest fears, and it helps them move into interactions where they can more safely bond with each other.

RH: What might that look like in session?

JOHNSON: We’re constantly focused on the quality of emotional connection in a relationship—on how the couple’s everyday behavior with each other often leaves them feeling disconnected and cut off. We help them step out of the patterns that get in their way and find new ways to communicate about their longings and their fears. We help people express their attachment emotions and engage in bonding interactions in ways that more regularly pull their partner toward them, rather than push them away.

RH: In a world where old ideas of marriage and commitment are increasingly being questioned, do we need to make up new rules for love and loving?

JOHNSON: It depends on what you mean by rules. The human heart has its own imperatives. Some things are just wired into our mammalian brains. We can’t decide to change them just like that. We may decide that religious marriage ceremonies aren’t for us, but we don’t get to decide that loneliness doesn’t hurt, or that our brains don’t take commitment seriously.

My colleague Jim Coan, a neuroscientist from Virginia University, just found that it’s only when you believe your partner is committed to you that holding his or her hand calms your brain down as you face the threat of imminent electric shock. Perceived commitment and handholding also buffer the pain of the shock. Having the feeling that you can really count on this person to be there for you seems to be the crucial factor.

We know from bonding science that commitment is harder for avoidantly attached folks, who don’t trust enough to reach out for others and depend on them. But for most of us, this science indicates that the longing to be special and come first with an “irreplaceable” other is just part of our neural architecture.

RH: So you believe we’re naturally monogamous?

JOHNSON: Attachment science tells us that, like other mammals who must attune and cooperate to rear vulnerable young together, we’re set up to prefer bonds that are monogamous. This imperative has shaped the structure of our nervous system and emotions. The bonding hormone oxytocin, an essential part of our sexual chemistry, is exquisitely designed to link up copulation and connection. Oxytocin turns off fear and heightens our ability to read the emotions on another’s face. Researchers have found that when you subliminally sexually arouse people, most of us automatically begin to access more empathic and caring responses.

RH: Do you believe that millennial couples, having been brought up differently, are different from older generations and require a different therapeutic approach?

JOHNSON: I think there’s a real hunger out there among young people who say, “We’re not interested in stuff about how love is a mystery. Tell us what it is, how it works, and how to do it, because we want these relationships.” And as society gets lonelier and lonelier, that hunger isn’t going away. People can rabbit all they like in the New York Times about how we’re naturally promiscuous and every single one of us has affairs, but the science tells us something else.

RH: So after all these years of practice and doing research, what have you learned about how to make couples therapy more effective?

JOHNSON: We get great results in study after study using EFCT because at this point we know just what the therapist has to do to get these results. We target the patterns, the negative cycles of disconnection that couples get into, and show couples how to contain these cycles. Then we show them how to become more emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged with each other so they can reach for each other effectively. We know that these factors are the ones that define a secure bond. We don’t have to solve every problem a couple brings in, but we can go to the heart of the matter and really make a difference.

This blog is excerpted from "Brave New Couples: What can science tell us about the changing face of couplehood today?". The full version is available in the May/June 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Couples

Tags: affairs | counseling | EFT | emotionally focused couples therapy | intimacy | psychotherapy | Susan Johnson | therapist | therapy | attachment | networker | ryan howes | EFCT | love | Jim Coan | commitment | emotional connection | attached

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