An Interview With Dr. Sue Johnson on The Topic of Relationships

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Dr. Sue Johnson is an author, clinical psychologist, researcher, professor, popular presenter and speaker and a leading innovator in the field of couples’ therapy. Dr. Johnson is the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), which has demonstrated its effectiveness in over 25 years of peer-reviewed clinical research. She is the author of two self-help books for the general public: Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, and Love Sense, The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.

  Dr. Johnson is the founding Director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and Distinguished Research Professor at Alliant University in San Diego, California, as well as Professor Emeritus, Clinical Psychology, at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She has authored several professional textbooks and she trains counselors worldwide.

Why study love?

[Laughs] I did not start out with love! I wanted to be a serious academic. It would have been suicide to say that you were to study love back in those days.  Emotion and love were really considered 'pop psychology' and not scientific at all. You just can't study those. So what I started with was trying to help very unhappy couples. I got fascinated by the drama of distress.  I was blown away by the intensity of the emotion. The fact that you had somebody's whole drama of how they dealt with their emotions...how they dealt with their vulnerabilities...how they asked for support or didn't...how they engaged with the most important people in their lives.

It was all laid out there in techno-color. The other reason that I got obsessed with this was that no one else seemed to know anything about it!  There was nothing out there really helpful.  There was some stuff on communication skills which my couples didn't want anything to do with.  The minute emotions became intense, the skills went out the window.

  So I got curious as there didn't seem to be any answers.  So studying this sort of backed me up into love in trying to help these couples fix their relationship.  We now know that certain conversations help turn these couples around.  We now call these "Hold Me Tight" conversations. We started to realize that this was all about attachment and bonding.  I got obsessed with other research that looked at adult bonding. We get caught up in what we can't understand like love and attraction.  It's revolutionary to say that we understand why love is so powerful and we all seek it. We know how to answer the most asked question on Google which is "What is love?"  We can finally say this is what love is about...here's what makes sense and you can actually shape it. That's wild! People say the most important thing to them is to love and be loved.  That's what makes a fulfilled life and it's worth rigorous scientific investigation.

You got a lot of resistance from the scientific community at first when you came out with some of your studies.  Didn't you have to fight to get your studies in journals?

Yes, my first article on adult attachment bonds was submitted in 1986 to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.

The editor responded that he was tired of constantly sending it out for review.  Half the people loved it and the other half absolutely thought it was nonsense.  He didn't know what to do but because he liked it, he published it. It was like a leap off the cliff. Nobody was talking about this.  A few years later other articles came out that showed how adult bonding, attachment and romantic love show all the same patterns, feelings, and responses as children do with their parents. 

For a long time we valued thought and logic over emotion. Is this changing?

The pendulum has swung somewhat, but therapists are people and scientists are rewarded for staying in their head.  People still struggle whether or not to trust their emotions. Why should it be different in psychology? For many people, emotions lead them into their vulnerability...their sadness, fears, worries, shame, insecurities.

If we don't know how to deal with those and society says they are a weakness, then having them means there is something wrong with us.  They are to be coped with by yourself to be strong.  Until this whole zeitgeist changes, therapy will not really embrace emotion. But, it's coming. The people that get better are the ones who engage in their emotions in therapy.  We have a love affair with trying to change things from the outside, using our minds to control and change our emotions.  We don't know how to deal with our emotions.  Emotions are valuable...we just don't know how to use them for information and we don't know how to share them.  People have a love/hate relationship with their own emotions. We love them in movies but we often hide them from others in our own lives. We worry that we will be judged. The bottom line is if we leave emotions out then creating change in therapy and in peoples' relationships is bloody difficult to do.  You can't really have an impact if you don't work on this emotional level. 

What about people who struggle to know how they feel or have an emotional language?

That's a human dilemma and there are many of us in that place. The world has changed so fast and many of us have grown up in families where we didn't see people talk on that emotional level.  So, we are lost. However, I have seen thousands of people in distressed relationships learn how to go into those basic emotions and share them in a way that pulls their partner close to them and in a way that makes them feel stronger.  I don't think it is that hard to do. We have to accept that we can do it. Emotions are not that mysterious.  There are six basic universal emotions: anger, sadness, shame, fear, surprise, joy.  These are wired into our brains...you don't get to choose them.  You can get to know them and listen to the important messages in them. They can actually be your friend.  They can tell you what you need and if you let them they will warn you of danger and tell you what you need to move forward in your life.

They are not this big dangerous powder keg of stuff that we can't deal with.  All humans have them and they are a resource for you.  You can use emotions in your messages to those you love to help bring them close. Movies have moved along the acceptance of emotions.  That industry knows that you can't make a movie without showing emotions.  People would just get up and leave! Tough guys can look anguished and women can get enraged in positive ways.  If you want a good intimate relationship, you have to learn how to play that emotional music. There is no way around that.

You emphasize "effective dependency" in relationships.  What is that?

Effective dependency actually comes from attachment science but I learned about it from watching my couples.  With this, two people can admit that they are vulnerable to each other and that their partner has a huge impact on them. That's the paradox of love.  Everyone struggles with the fact that the person you love can be a tremendous source of good, but that they can also hurt you dreadfully.  Effective dependency are what couples can do when they finally succeed in getting out of negative patterns of distress such as demand/withdraw and create a sense of security between them. They are responsive to each other on this different more empathic level. They become close and connected. What it looks like is that both people can accept that they need the other person.  They can tune into their own emotions and ask for what they need from their partner in a way that pulls them close. All the research says that reaching for others is a strength and not a weakness. We are so ambivalent about needing others.  Whatever you are facing in life, you are better and stronger when someone is beside you.  If you shut yourself off from others out of protection it starts to become a prison. Love is about discovering who we are and what we need from others. Science is proving that we need love and that it matters. 

Purchase Dr. Johnson's Books on Amazon: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love and Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships