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Sue Johnson

Do you remember how upset you got the last time you felt your husband was ignoring you or didn’t seem to care about your needs? Did you calmly ask for what you needed? Or, did you scream at him or give him the cold shoulder?

When someone we love isn’t there for us, it can be very distressing. And when it’s the person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, it can feel downright scary. Like it or not, we are all hardwired for connection. We literally cannot survive on our own. This means depending on each other is not a choice, even if our society incorrectly convinces us we’re weak if we need anyone.

I recently attended a fabulous conference about Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a type of marriage therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Sue is one of the leading marriage researchers in the world and says we should accept our need for each other and learn how to get closer in our most important relationships. She uses the science on love and attachment to help people become warmer, more genuine, and present with their partner.

If you think you might be interested in learning more about EFT, I would recommend reading Sue Johnson’s wonderful book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love or her checking out her website: DrSueJohnson.com. If you’d prefer a summary of some of the core ideas, keep reading.

Importance of Close Relationships

EFT draws on the large body of research on human attachment and recognizes that close relationship are essential to our well being. Think about some of these interesting facts research has already discovered about love:

  • We are hardwired to connect. We are bonding mammals, so we literally die without connection to others. Love is a force that keeps us close to each other, thereby supporting our very survival.
  • For our physical and mental health, we need to feel secure, not just know it. We know when we have emotional security because we feel it at a gut level.
  • Secure connections with our loved one are linked to lower rates of heart disease, increased immune system functioning, and decreased depression.
  • When we truly feel secure and safe in our relationship(s), we are also naturally calmer, clearer in our thinking, and much more empathetic, curious, and open.
  • The single largest threat to us emotionally is anything that jeopardizes our sense of belonging. We use each other to stay calm and steady, so when something significant goes wrong in an important relationship, we will go into a state of panic at a very deep level.
  • Being alone is the scariest and most dangerous thing that can happen to a person. Because we’re wired to keep others close to us, our bodies literally experience pain when are isolated, left out, or lose an important relationship. Heartbreak is a real thing.
  • Research shows that criticism and other hurtful words actually cause us physical harm. The same areas in the brain light up on a brain scan in response to physical or emotional pain.

Strategies for Connection
So what does all this have to do with you and your husband? In a society where people have fewer and fewer connections, a marriage becomes a very important part of your well being. How your husband responds when you need him carries a great deal of weight. When you reach out to your partner, sometimes he will respond, and sometimes he won’t. By reaching out, Sue Johnson says, what we’re really asking our partner is:

  • Can I count on you?
  • Are you here for me?
  • Will you respond when I need, when I call?
  • Do I matter to you?
  • Am I valued and accepted by you?
  • Do you need me, rely on me?

If you have a husband that is usually responsive, an occasional lapse may annoy you, but not much more. If, however, you’re truly afraid that the answer to these questions is “no,” you’ll feel insecure and will probably do one of the following:

1. Protest. You react to his disconnection by freaking out, demanding, or pushing. You may also complain, criticize or blame. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to push any person even further away.

2. Withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need him anyway. Inside, you’re not at all at peace or happy about this. In fact, you feel resigned and hopeless. You might find other ways of numbing or escaping these painful feelings, such as staying incredibly busy, spending all your time with the kids, surfing the net, eating or exercising too much, or using alcohol or drugs.

EFT has identified three common relationship patterns that couples get stuck in when they feel disconnected:

1. Protest Polka. I protest your disconnection, and you withdraw. (“I know you don’t care about me any more!”) Your withdrawal makes me more insecure, so I protest louder (“You’re never going to change!) and you withdraw further. This pattern is the most common one leading to divorce.

2. Find the Bad Guy. I protest your distance (“You don’t even kiss me when you get home!”), and you protest mine (“When was the last time you actually asked me how I’m doing?”). We try to pin the blame for the disconnection on each other and end up driving each other further away.

3. Freeze and Flea. We both give up on fighting for the connection and retreat because we think it’s safer. This is nothing but a recipe for tremendous loneliness.

The hard thing to see in these relationship dances is that couples are actually wanting emotional connection, but creating more distance. We all need our partner to see us, tune into how we’re really doing, and love us through hard times. We just may not be so great at asking for connection in ways that work very well.

So, what can you do to increase the odds of keeping your partner close? Here are a few tips out of the EFT approach to try:

Be emotionally present. Emotional presence is the key to connection. Direct face-to-face contact without electronic devices, interruptions, or distractions is essential. You must show up in both body and mind. You don’t have to always make huge amounts of time for each other, but when you are interacting, make sure you’re really genuinely present and doing your best to connect. Otherwise, the connection with you will be no different from connection with a stranger. But since you’re not a stranger, being disconnected from you will probably upset your partner.
Make your relationship a priority. You have to be very intentional and make your relationship a priority if you want to keep your marriage strong. Our society does little to support relationships, so you have to decide yours is important and work on staying connected emotionally.
Move toward each other. When either of you are struggling, try to reach out, rather than being hurtful or pulling away. Talk about what’s really going on with you without casting blame. If you value your partner, he’s much more likely to listen to you.
Be positive. Consistently acknowledge, support, and appreciate your partner, remembering how bad you feel when you’re not receiving these things yourself.