“Hold Me Tight” Can Change Your Relationships Forever
Hi there, and welcome to the Couples Expert Relationship Podcast; this is episode number 11. For those of you who have been listening for a while, if you recall, over Valentine’s Day I spoke about the power of the Hold Me Tight workshops that I assisted in San Diego. What I’d like to do for this podcast is share with you all I’ve learned about the Hold Me Tight workshops and the reason that these couples’ retreats are so impactful, with countless couples having gone through them.
The exciting part about this is that by purchasing Susan Johnson’s Hold Me Tight book and doing the exercises as listed, all of you can experience the same kind of transformation in your relationships. There are hundreds if not thousands of these workshops all over the United States and countries throughout the world. I want to share the concepts of the Hold Me Tight workshops and give you as much information as I can to assist you in having the best relationship possible.
Nothing is More Important than Being in Love and Knowing You are Loved
I think those of you who know me know that I do these podcasts because there is nothing more important to me and I’ve dedicated my time, energy and lifetime to helping couples have the best relationship possible. Before I begin, though, what I want to do is make sure to remind everyone that all the show notes for these podcasts as well as the transcripts are on my website at www.thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com. I also want to thank all of you and I’m really deeply honored that as of this recording, I’ve had more than 1,500 downloads of my podcasts. I’m really, truly honored by this.
I want to ask you guys a little bit of a favor. One goal I set for myself is to get listed in the new and noteworthy section of iTunes. The way that occurs is based on having a number of reviews from my listeners. So, if you are inclined, I’d really appreciate your going to iTunes when you listen to this podcast and writing a review; what I am hoping is that by being listed there, more people will be exposed to this podcast and the information that I want to share with those couples who would like some information on improving their connection with one another.
To talk about something exciting and that is a new venture for me: I am going to start—beginning in the month of April—bringing guests onto my podcast. That’s really an exciting thing for me because having others come in who are willing to invest their time and energy in sharing their expertise with all of you is a goal of mine.
In April, I’m going to have Travis Frye, a certified EFT Therapist and Christian counselor, come on and talk about how Christian counseling is different than some of the other forms of counseling, and he and I are going to have a really good time because he’s a friend of mine. With Easter and Passover soon, he and I are going to talk about how Easter and Passover have lessons to be learned about improving and maintaining healthy relationships for couples.
Lastly, and I am so excited about this one which is in April or possibly in May (I’m not sure where it’s going to fit in), I’m going to have Kim Bowen on. For those of you who do not know, Kim has a really successful practice on couples counseling and she does coaching with her couples, something that I’ve actually thought about but haven’t quite got around to doing. Coaching is a new and upcoming model of counseling in which people actually get a coach to work with them as a couple, or as an individual, to help their relationship, and we’re all going to learn (me included) about how coaching has helped her practice and helped the clients that come to see her and her associates—so I’m really excited to have Kim on in May.
The New Research on Love Gives Us Direction
Back to our podcast for today…. After 25 years of my doing couples therapy and also looking at all the research studies that are out there, one of the things that I know is that the conflicts that couples have are just on the surface. There are surface issues, but below the surface there are lots of feelings and other things happening for individuals and couples that all have to do with them feeling emotionally disconnected. People are really watching their backs, they feel criticized, they feel shut out, and one of the saddest things is that people feel alone.
Underneath all of the surface arguments and surface fighting, people are actually asking themselves a particular question. The questions that people ask about their partners is, “Are they there for me?” “Do my feelings matter?” and “Will you respond to me when I need you?” The answers to these questions that people have are really hard to find and so hard to hear in the middle of a fight. That makes the difference between people feeling emotionally close to their partner and starved.
What that means is when we’re fighting with our spouse, and whether we are fighting about money or whether we’re fighting about sex or whether we’re arguing about parenting our children, what really is going on is what we’re asking ourselves: “Why do I feel so disconnected from this person?” “Do I matter to them?” and “If my needs don’t seem to matter or count, are they really there for me?” For most of us the answer to that question is, “No they are not!” and if that’s the case, then, “What kind of relationship do I have?”
Emotional Responsiveness is the Key
So, with some of the research that has come out recently on love and relationships, what we really know now is emotional responsiveness—and how responsive we see our partners—is what makes or breaks our relationships. The thing to remember is that even people in positive, happy relationships sometimes argue and quarrel. It’s not the quarreling or the fighting that’s the problem, it’s whether or not we’re able to tune back into each other after the argument, after we were done being upset with each other, and if there is a re-connection that occurs. If we are going to be helpful in our relationship counseling we have to keep this in mind.
What we know is that seven out of ten couples who have gone through emotionally focused therapy or the Hold Me Tight workshops absolutely say that they can repair their relationship, and that is really the power of this. The power isn’t that they’re going to have this best relationship and no one’s going to be upset with each other and they’re going to be living some sort of nirvana. But it’s that they matter to each other to a degree that we know that even after we get upset with our partners, we are able to come back together, reconnect, and feel that loving contact that all of us want.
The thing to remember is, when you’re in a relationship with someone, our partners or our spouses or boyfriends and girlfriends are really the people in our life that we turn to, to shelter us; when this person is not available or is not responding to us, we get filled with many emotions. Susan Johnson, who is one of the founders of the Emotionally Focused Therapy Model, called this—and I think very appropriately—“a tsunami of emotions.” There is this flooding of emotions that occurs that can really overwhelm us and these emotions that typically come are either feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, or more importantly, and I think more frequently, fear.
What this fear is about and what we are afraid of is that no one is going to be there for us. We all need someone whom we know we can rely on, and know that he or she is going to respond to us more completely than anyone else in our world and anyone else in our life. When we sense that that primary love relationship or that person who we’re in a relationship with is possibly not there, we feel so threatened we go into what they call a primal panic state, and when you do that, when you’re in this primal panic state, you act in ways that you can’t even imagine.
When we remember back after an argument is over or a conflict is resolved, we sometimes say, “How was I? How in the world did I do those things and say those things to my partner?” There is a lack of understanding. I think until we really understand, and our partner understands, how important we are to them, this panic comes off in so many unhealthy ways that it can create tension and anxiety between people that at times seems unresolvable. But it all is. When there’s a panic state occurring for couples, there are basically three different ways different kinds of couples respond to these situations.
If as a couple you’re in a basically happy, secure relationship, what happens is you accept that there needs to be some sort of reconnection and repair and you begin to talk about what you need from each other to help you feel better and feel close again. If, though, you’re not in a very good relationship and it seems pretty fragile and wobbly, what happens with these couples is there is an insecurity in which you’re not quite sure how to voice those needs and what you do (and we all do this if we’re in these kinds of relationships) is begin to angrily demand and push your partners into responding to us in any way that we know how.
The problem is, quite often, those tend to shut our partners down and push them away and we move away from that to try to be self-protective and to protect yourself emotionally. No matter what words we use, what we are really saying to our partners is, “Please look at me, see me, notice that I am here and notice that I need you,” or, the other part of that becomes, “I won’t let you hurt me no matter what, if you are such an angry person, you don’t matter, I’m going to stay away so I can stay in control.”
That effort, trying to stay emotionally centered and in control, sends our partners the message that we don’t care about them. What happens for a lot of couples, though, is that when they try to do this and the strategies don’t really work, they get stuck, and we all do this, it happens to the best of us, and this is not a shortcoming of yours or your relationship. You get stuck in these interactional patterns or cycles in the relationship that Susan Johnson calls “demon dialogues.” These are the patterns or cycles that can literally take over a relationship. They create more resentment, more caution and above all more distance between the two of you until it reaches the point where you feel like there is no other recourse but either shutting down completely or bailing out of the relationship.
So what we need to be able to do is identify what type of cycles or interaction pattern you and your partner are caught up in. The more you do that, the more you’re able to then begin to work together and find a solution to this. With our couples in relationship counseling we have to help them with their cycles.
There really are three main “demon dialogues,” and one of the things that I am currently doing is a YouTube video series on the three, so I am not going to talk a lot about those right here. What I am going to just do is identify the three different kinds: one is “find the bad guy,” and as you might imagine, that’s like looking to see who’s at fault. You know, it’s a fault-finding, blaming cycle.
Another, as Sue Johnson calls it, is the “protest polka.” That’s what happens for a lot of couples when we get caught up in looking for our partners, needing them to be there for us, but being so afraid that they will not be available, that we shut them out and withdraw emotionally. This has us feeling so empty and alone and afraid that we never will respond, that we do anything to keep them present.
The third is “freeze and flee.” Here, what happens is that we recognize how alone we are. We have pulled back because our perception of our partner is that they will never be there for us—both partners have checked out and there is a mutual withdrawal. When no one is crying or upset, it is generally indicative that the relationship has come to a halt. Neither partner is risking any emotional vulnerability. This typically occurs after the protest polka and is the most troublesome of all the demon dialogues.
Protest Polka—The Most Common Demon Dialogue
The “protest polka” is a demand withdraw interaction and quite often that’s the one that will lead to divorce. What happens is, we get caught up in this need to be critical, and we criticize and shut our partners out to be emotionally protective. So what happens is you can’t just switch off this desire to be close and you’re longing for your partner, so what you end up doing is shutting your partner out because you’re sure that you are not important to them and you feel this primal, panic need to get some sort of response to validate that you matter.
When you do that, you shut your partner out and your partner then will pull away and shut down, and so often I have couples who have come into my office saying, “I’m just cut off from this person because he or she doesn’t understand how important they are to me and I really need to feel close and significant.” But what happens in the end of this push and pull that occurs is you turn into a really cold freeze-and-flee pattern, and there’s very little return from that one.
So one of the conversations that we’re going to talk about with the Hold Me Tight workshop is going to be the first conversation that would be the conversation which is about identifying your particular demon dialogue. I’m going to talk a lot about that as I discuss the workshop, which is the next section that I’d like to sort of talk about, which is what happens at these workshops.
What Hold Me Tight does is focus on creating and strengthening that bond that each of us had with our partners at one point (or we would not have been in the relationship in the first place). But because of some interactions that have created a great deal of difficulties for couples, there is a breakdown in that emotional bond. So what the Hold Me Tight materials and each conversation does is strengthen that bond between the two of you by identifying those moments in your relationship that can foster the relationship being open and that the two of you once again can be in tune and, more importantly here, responsive to one another.
What we truly know now is that conflicts and the arguments and fights that just drive us crazy are really our own protests over an emotional disconnection. What we want is to feel close to our partners. What we do is long for that connection, and the more negative the interactions become, the more panicked we get that we’re not going to have a connection with our partners.
What happens is that because of that, conflicts increase in our efforts to try to rebuild that loving feeling and the feeling of being close and important to our partners. So what we then have to do is help couples have the right kinds of conversations to begin to identify seven key conversations that can then turn a relationship from feeling distressed and empty into feeling fulfilled by your partner and knowing how important you are. It develops into this relationship that both people begin to identify as a lasting, secure relationship.
Once you identify your relationship that way, it can really feel like it’s going to last a lifetime, and there is nothing more important and fulfilling than that. So what we then begin to do is help couples have seven unique conversations, and I’m going to go through each one briefly just to give you a sense of that.
The Seven Conversations
I talked a little bit about the first conversation, which is recognizing the demon dialogue. What this conversation really does is help couples really see their negative interactions, and when you can really visualize it and see it and talk about it, you begin to recognize the pattern. An exciting time for me as a therapist is when couples begin to say, “You know what, I finally see that it’s not him/her that’s the problem, it’s our cycle that’s the problem and what both of us do in this negative pattern, and that’s the enemy.”
Once the two of you can really see the cycle as the enemy (and not each other), you can then begin to work together and begin to share those deep emotions and those deep longings that you’ve been missing for so long. Once that’s happened, what we do is we then go to a second conversation; this conversation can often be one of the more painful ones because it’s really finding the raw spots. What you need to do is begin to look beyond your immediate reaction to each other and begin to get in touch with your softer, deeper emotions, those emotions that long for one another. The raw spots develop when we talk about a person’s attachment needs and when your needs to feel close or to feel connected or safe or secure in a relationship have been neglected or missing and the person feels emotionally deprived and deserted.
I was talking with a woman today regarding her relationship with her father. Her mother and father had a deep-rooted difficulty for many years that ultimately led to her mom having an affair. One of the things that we talked about was that she has this deep-rooted feeling of wanting to have a relationship with a man that is so secure and stable— not the up and down roller coaster ride that she experienced as a child. When conflicts have come up with her boyfriend currently, they triggered those feelings of being insecure and never knowing whether or not you can count on your partner. That really was an epiphany for her, and the two of them began to talk— in conversation number two—about how to make her feel more secure with the two of them. If we can do that, and if she and he can really have that dialogue and talk about those things, then she’s going to feel so loved by him because she begins to recognize that he has made her needs so important to him and he wants to be right there with her.
The third conversation is revisiting a rocky moment. What that conversation is about is we have couples who have had difficult times and who have attempted to deal with some of the arguments that they’ve had in the past. Once they sort of recognize their demon dialogue, they then begin to acknowledge each other and what they do is revisit a moment in their relationship that did not go well.
This is a very scary time for most of the couples that come through the workshops because they recognize that they’re opening up something that never got resolved; what we want to do during this conversation is stop the demon dialogue from happening. This is also the time, or even previously, where it is helpful if the couple has named their demon dialogue (and as a couple you get to do that).
You can name your demon dialogues so that when this is happening there needs to be some warning that you give each other. One couple, for example, calls their demon dialogue “the hurricane.” So what we do is have the couple say, “Uh oh! The hurricane’s coming,” and they stop the demon dialogue and each partner begins to identify what their move in the cycle is and begin to claim their own feelings about it.
You identify how you then trigger your partner and shape your partner’s feelings and you ask your partner about their deeper emotions and share your deeper emotions and these softer emotions and then stand together with that. And if you can do that (and not all couples are ready for this when they come into the workshop), the couple is going to be able to go through each conversation differently depending on the stage you are in in your connection and begin to really help each other identify and work together.
And then we can move on to the fourth conversation, which is such a beautiful one. The fourth conversation is what we call the “Hold Me Tight” conversation. This is the one that really can change a relationship. It’s a conversation that has each partner begin to be more accessible to one another and emotionally responsive and you really begin to feel your partner’s presence in your life, knowing how important you are to them. You begin to generate positive patterns—that we can actually reach for our partners and know that if we reach for them they’re going to respond to us because there is a deeper understanding of our needs and wants and the real awareness that your partner is there for you.
There are really two parts of this conversation—the first part is going to be allowing yourself to really get in touch with those emotions and feel them. This can be a difficult and overwhelming part because some people have never before looked inside deeply and begun to really identify their longings.
Once you’ve identified that and experienced the deep emotion that comes along with that, the harder part is part two, which is to then share those needs with your partner and believe that your partner is going to really be there for you. You begin to ask your partner for what you need. This is one of those parts that quite often couples struggle with and sometimes they’re not really ready for the emotional responsiveness and really talking in this way to one another.
So, at the workshops, what we do is we try to really guide couples to have these emotional responses. What is so exciting—and we’ll talk a lot more about this also next time—is how couples who have gone through all the previous conversations really find themselves for the most part able to do this. Some couples actually report that it’s one of their first experiences that they’ve had with one another where they feel their partner is present with them and tuned in to their deep-rooted emotions. It is as fulfilling as a counselor to really be there watching couples, and it’s not uncommon for the therapist and the clients to become emotional at those times, tuning into our partner’s deeper emotions and needs and longings and transforming them into a clear signal to one another that you are there for them.
We have to recognize the code of attachment that we all have: the need to belong and to feel safe and to feel secure—rather than dismiss it and say it’s poo-poo, it’s unnecessary, be an adult, grow up, take care of your own, you really need to do this on your own. If we can really get soft with our partners and share that we too have those needs, and not dismiss them, then you two can have a love that is unique and wonderful and the two of you will feel secure in each other’s love. That’s the Hold Me Tight conversation.
Okay, after that, after people are able to sort of practice that and some couples are able to experience that, we move on to the next conversation.
Conversation five in the series is about forgiving injuries.
There are many couples who go through our workshops that don’t get to do this effectively because they are not ready, and I want to be clear about that. But I think what’s important is that the two of you begin to talk about forgiving the injuries in the relationship.
What happens for a lot of couples is that, for many different reasons, our partners feel betrayed or abandoned by us. There are so many couples that come to these workshops that have unresolved injuries that we need to really begin to talk about forgiveness—and forgiveness is essential to moving forward and really getting through the next stage. Partners need to have a healing conversation that’s different than what they have done before. It’s not just about saying, “I’m sorry,” and it’s not just about saying, “Oh, I won’t do that again.” It’s really being able to share with our partners how important they are to us and recognizing that there have been injuries that everyone has and that you were not really present for your partner and you want to be from this day forward. There needs to be, and this is also a hard part, a willingness for both people to begin to trust again and recognize how important they are.
Conversation six, which is another one that a lot of couples are not ready for, is a conversation regarding bonding through sex and touch. We need to have a conversation about sex and touch being a powerful bonding experience and that loving your partner is about also expressing your love in physical ways as well as mental ways. When people don’t feel emotionally safe with one another, sex becomes really difficult, and we talk a lot in the workshops about how to have your sexuality be something that is a bonding and bringing-together experience—a sharing about your emotional connection and not just a physical act.
The last conversation that we have is about keeping your love alive—and that’s a conversation that is really a wonderful one for couples that are able to go through all of these. I really don’t want to talk much further about that conversation because what I’d really like to do next time, when Dr. Diana Weiss-Wisdom is with us, is to talk a lot about these conversations and how people move through them at different paces and in different ways, but everybody who goes through this and who has participated in these workshops walk away feeling so much better about each other and more in love with each other that these experiences really become life changing for a lot of people.
So I wish you all a good night, I wish you all love and connection with your partners. Be good to one another, and I’ll see you next time.