Stuart: Hello and welcome back to The Couples Expert Podcast. This is Stuart Fensterheim, the Couples Expert. Thank you again for joining me on our journey of connection. Each and every week, we discuss being open and vulnerable with our partners having a truly special relationship. We now know how to help couples go from a feeling of disconnection to a feeling of connection where you both know just how important you are to each other and you reminded of this every single day in everything you do.
Today is a special day here at The Couples Expert Podcast. I have a guest on my show, Dr. Susan Johnson. Dr. Johnson is the author of the respected Hold Me Tight book, Seven Conversations For a Lifetime of Love, Love Sense, and she is a researcher, psychologist and basically a really giving, down-to-earth person. She teaches couples and therapists this new science of love. What I’m hoping to do today is have a dialogue with Dr. Johnson about all the knowledge that she’s gained that she typically shares with counselors who are trained in couples counseling all over the world. We’re going to put it into layman’s terms so you and I will know what she’s talking about.
I want to find out more and pick her brain about how all of us can have relationships that have the components necessary to have a true partnership which is a truly authentic and secure relationship. On the lighter side as well, we’re also going to pick a winner of my Hold Me Tight contest and we’ll going to find out who that one lucky couple is that’s going to win the free weekend with me coming up on January 30th.
So before we get started, the other thing I want to talk about is just to remind everybody that we will have show notes on this podcast on my website www.thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com so you don’t have to take notes. Just listen and just soak in all these knowledge. And also to remind everyone about my Hold Me Tight workshops. I do a Hold Me Tight weekend retreat every six weeks here at The Couples Expert office in Scottsdale. And the last one that I have this one coming up on January 30th is now sold out. I am so thrilled by the because so many couples are really coming to this retreats to really understand just how to have that science of love really give you the relationships you all want where you and your partner both together, walk away from this weekend knowing that you’re important to each other and how to change the negative interactions that are going on.
Stuart: Welcome to the Couples Expert Podcast, Sue.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Great to be here, Stuart.
Stuart: You know, one of the things that I think a lot of my listeners would like to sort of know is how did you decide to get into this crazy field anyway?
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yeah. It is a crazy field because in the last decade in particular, every journalist and everybody has decided, there are relationship experts, so it is a bit of a crazy field. I got into it because I’d worked with individuals and I’d worked with families and I’d worked a lot with adolescents. I did practically, everything, except couples. And then right at the end of my clinical training I just happened to go to — be put in a clinic for the last piece of my training where their main thing was they do couples therapy and I had not had any real training in couples therapy. There wasn’t any real training in couples therapy in those days.
The head of the clinic said, “But you’ve got lots of experience. So we’d like you to see couples every hour for three days straight even though you’re not — you don’t really have to do that for your program but we got a lot of people seek, so would you mind?” And like an idiot I said, “Oh sure, it can’t be that hard because I’ve done everything else.” And I went in there and the first thing that hit me was it was amazingly hard. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what to change. I didn’t know what to focus on. The couples are fighting about everything in their relationship.
This drama was going on. They changed the topic every two seconds. One person had one — they had theories about what was wrong. Usually, what is wrong is my partner’s personality. And they were basically saying, “Would you please change him or her while I sit here?” So I found it really overwhelming but I also found it totally fascinating and I also found it fascinating but when I went to the library and tried to look around for expertise on this that there is really nothing there. There were things like help people make contracts with each other not to be nasty. Are you kidding?
The people didn’t want to make those contrasts they want to do in the fight. That was things like persuade people that they’re not being logical. People didn’t want to be logical. It’s like they’re not logical, they’re just emotional. There were things like teach people insight into their past. I give them these wonderful insights and they say, yes, that’s really interesting, and then turn around and attack their partner again.
So I basically started taping my couples, taping them, fighting, taping them, starting to make up. Taping me working with them and I became completely obsessed. And that’s very interesting because science starts in systematic observation always, always starts there. And I wasn’t trying to be scientific but I was watching the same couple ten times and I started to see patterns. I started to see patterns of how they danced together, patterns of the emotional music and the dance and it created the dance and I started — the couples started to teach me how to work with them.
And it was so involving that I started writing it down and for my dissertation we did an outcome study which when I look back on it was totally insane. I mean, it was totally insane. It’s like somebody trying to write an award-winning novel when they haven’t even written story but we did it and the results were amazing. But I still didn’t quite understand what was going on and why we got these amazing results. And by the way, 30 years later we’re still getting those amazing results in studies off to study, off to study. And also the research says that our results last, so that’s very encouraging. But I didn’t quite understand what was going on.
And then what started to happen was that the science of adult bonding, the science of attachment which had only been applied to mothers and children and had totally revolutionized the field of parenting and the way we saw children it had already done that that, started to be applied to these adult relationships. And I started reading the first little articles on this and I started realizing, oh my God, what are we doing here? And the reason why it makes such a difference is we’re helping people create these amazing attachment bonds, bonds that we rely on our lives that our safe havens to go, secure basis to go out from in order to risk opening up and exploring the world. And then we’re starting to really — that’s what we’re doing here.
Once that started, everything changed. I started to understand couples drama, why people get so upset. I started to understand how they freak each other out. I started to understand why the things we were doing transformed relationships. Over the years, the last 20 years, the science of adult bonding and the science of intervention of us doing emotionally focused couples has just sort of develop in tandem to the point — and we are the only couples therapy where we have a clear science of relationship, what makes relationships work, why is this so important, what goes wrong and how to put them right. We’re the only couples therapy that can be on target in that way because what we do is not based on opinion or antique or anecdote or therapist personal experience what they think matters. What we do is based on the scientific studies.
So then I became even more enthralled, even more fascinated. In civilization we’ve always accepted that loves and mystery and suddenly here we are cracking the code who can walk away from that. So I just worked with more couples. We did more studies. We worked with couples facing traumas, facing depression, facing all kinds of crisis. It’s been an incredible journey and I still find it totally fascinating.
Stuart: You talk a lot in your books about a dance and even as you were talking just a moment ago you mentioned sort of that dancing and used tango I know.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yes.
Stuart: I’m curious why you chose the tango and why that dancing — what exactly do you mean by that metaphor with Love is a Dance?
Dr. Susan Johnson: Love is a dance because it’s two people moving together hopefully in a good relationship and synchrony tuning into each other’s cues, coordinating moves, moving. When one person loses their balance, the other person helps them balance, just like you’re doing tango. Love is a dance between two people and we forget that. We think that love is something that your partner does do or doesn’t do. Love is something inside your own head. You feel loving and you don’t. We focus on the fact that it’s an incredible interaction between two people and then the music of that dance is the emotional signals that I’m going to and fro.
And often we don’t send very clear signals or we understand our partner’s signals, the impact we’re having on our partner. Part of what happens in our work is we help people change the emotional music and they can dance together in a closer, safer, more powerful way. So for me I dance tango, Argentine tango. Argentine tango is not a set dance like ballroom dancing, like waltz or foxtrot. It’s basically a dance that is all about attunement because it’s improvised these thousands of steps and you cannot predict what steps it’s going to be. You have to connect with your partner, listen to the music and you literally moved in tune with your partner. And when you miss each other’s cues, you come back and you find a way to correct it. It’s an incredible metaphor for relationship.
I think it helps people think about love is a dance because we help couples see the dance they’re coached in when it’s negative. For example, a classic one is one person feels kind of lonely and cut off in the relationship and they push for connection. They don’t know how to ask them. They don’t know how to get it and the other person doesn’t hear, feeling was criticized and so you get one person demanding and almost often becoming critical and say, why are you in the left of me? And the other person just hears rejection and starts to turn away. And you get a classic dance of pursue demand followed by stillness and withdrawal where the other person shots down and shots the other person out and then they demand more. And the more they demand the other person shots down.
And a couple will say, “We don’t know what happen to our relationship. We don’t know why we’re getting this all the time.” And the reason of that is emotional disconnection. From our point of view, relationships don’t die because of conflict per see. Lots of couples have fights and they’re just fine. Relationships die because of the disconnection where people don’t know how to help each other, soothe each other, listen to each other’s needs, they don’t know how to do that.
So we used to dance metaphor. We say to people the reason you’re stuck is not because there’s something wrong with you or your partner or because your differences are too big. You’re just stuck in this dance that’s sort of taken of your relationship and it’s good reasons for you to move the way you do in the dance but we’ll help you see the dance and then you can help each other out of it. It’s the pattern of interaction you get caught in. Your pattern is one that leaves you both alone and that’s terrifying for human beings. So we’ll show you how to dance together in a new way.
Stuart: And what comes up for me when I hear you talk about that is as a guy who is not a great dancer that tends to — when my wife and I go dancing, step on her toes, I don’t have to be the best dancer to have a great dance with her. As long as we’re doing it together and having fun and sharing of ourselves on the dance floor, it can be so fulfilling.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right. And that’s the thing about attachment and bonding. There’s no perfect way to do it. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to perform perfect. It’s just like being somebody’s mother and father, you don’t have to be a perfect mother or perfect father, you just have to be there. You have to show up.
Stuart: You have to be on the dance floor.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right. There is no perfect in love because it changes all the time and we get all caught up with performance and, you know, we get worried, I’m doing it wrong and my partner is not please with me and, oh my God, this is awful and I don’t know how to please them. And then we sort of freeze and shut down and it’s really the freeze and shut down that freaks the partner out not us making mistakes. So what we say to people is the performance anxiety just gets in the way, the main thing is just to be present with somebody.
So, you know, a man in my therapy says, “But I don’t know what to do when she turns and looks at me like that and asks me to come close. I don’t know what to do.” And I say, “That’s okay, just turn and say to her. I see you’re sad. I want to be with you but I don’t know what to do.” And he says, “Well, that doesn’t work. Then she’s going to think I’m an idiot.” I say, “Why don’t you try it because what you’ve done so far which is to shut down and run away really doesn’t work.” And so he does it, he turns and he says, “I see you’re sad. I don’t want you to hurt but I don’t know what to do right now.” This is when I burst into tears and comes and hugs him. He looks at me and says, “Honey, that
Stuart: My soapbox these days in my office is talking about — and I’m sure it’s not a unique term but I sort of catch phrase of my practice is having an authentic relationship. Authenticity is about showing all parts of you and knowing that it’s good enough for your partner and she loves you with all of you not just parts of you.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right.
Stuart: And along with vulnerability and that’s just, you know, what’s more romantic than that.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Right.
Stuart: Another question, you know, I saw somewhere that you like Monty Python also.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yes, I love Monty Python.
Stuart: It’s an incredible sort of combination, Monty Python and the Argentine tango.
Dr. Susan Johnson: I like [Monty Python. I grew up in England and Monty Python appeals my English absurdity. I just love it because it’s so creative.
Stuart: Right. And what brings up for me is the whole concept of the important of laughter in a marriage and in a relationship and how you see laughter and what it was from a healing perspective.
Dr. Susan Johnson: We laugh when we feel safe and when we’re open and listening to somebody. We can see how two things don’t go together or we can see the humor in things. It’s kind of like we don’t stand and laugh when we feel like we’re facing a tiger. So we talk a lot of that how it’s good for couples to do things that are fun and to laugh but I think the thing is we forget something that couples have a certain safety together to laugh, to relax in the laughter to see how things are incongruent, how strange things don’t fit together to get a joke. They have to feel safe.
So what we see is that when people start to get out of these dreadful dances like demand or withdraw and say things like, “Hey, we’re stuck in that dance again. This is one of these times when you just feel like I’m criticizing you.” And the other person says yes. And the person comes — the person who is speaking comes and gives him a hug then it can be funny. Then they say, “We stuck in this stupid dance.” What did we call it? We called it — I’m trying to think a funny name now that my couples have given me. I think one couple called their dance Fish and Chips, it’s because they’re afraid to be crisped in the dance, both of them.
And then they laugh and they say, “Hey, we’re doing Fish and Chips,” and that’s horrible. And so laugh, it can be great because it can connect you and it can change your perspective. So yeah, it’s great but people can’t find humor when they’re fighting for their lives and feeling all alone.
Stuart: But when you’re not feeling alone and this is what I tell folks is even in the middle of a conflict I know that with the security that my wife and I has been able to establish, one of the things that I get angry about but sometimes then I go, wow, this is really cool is I get in the middle of a fight, She has this way of knowing how to crack me up. And I get mad at first and then I said, wow, this is really neat that even in the middle of that…
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right. And that’s something that comes along with having this secure connection knowing that the answer to the key question in love, are you there for me? A-R-E. Are you accessible? Can I reach you? Are you responsive? If I call, will you come? Are you engaged? Will you come close to me? When you have a positive answer to that, are you there for me, question then yeah, things are funny. And even when you are stepping on each other’s toes you can suddenly move into humor and find that attunement again.
And that’s great and it’s a sign that couples are starting to get some perspective and starting to come out of this dance of distance and demanding and starting to be able to connect with humor. And yes, then humor can really help out. Humor can help you see something that’s silly like both being stuck in Fish and Chips. It can help.
Stuart: And I think the underlying message there is, you know, at least for us it becomes she knows that I have a tendency to hold on to things so that if she can in her effort getting me to laugh I’m able to internally say she’s doing this because she knows how awful it feels for me afterwards, so she’s doing some positive intention not just to get back at me.
Dr. Susan Johnson: You see and then you’re saying something interesting because people sometimes say to me, one is — this is a pretty red question really. What is the one thing that you don’t think that couples understand in relationships? Of course, there’s no one thing but otherwise I wouldn’t have written a whole book Hold Me Tight. But I say the one thing is that we haven’t understood love and so people have no idea of the impact they’re having on each other. People have no idea of the positive impact like turning and smiling at somebody and making a joke, reaching out with their hand, saying just something like, “I see you’re hurting. I don’t want you to hurt,” which takes about a second and a half.
People don’t know the amazing positive impact they can have on someone’s nervous system because our nervous systems are tuned to those kinds of messages, safety from other people. They don’t know what’s the incredible impact they have positively and they don’t understand the incredible impact they have on a negative level. Just like for example turning away, just stop and talking and turning your back on someone. People don’t understand that that fast of panic in the other person’s brain because we are bonding animals.
And when you feel vulnerable and you’re trying to reach someone even if you’re doing it in maybe a kind of an aggressive way and the other person just turns their back on you or shots you out, what you get is I don’t matter to this person, I can’t reach them, I’m all alone, the relationship isn’t — we don’t have this connection. And for most human beings, that’s a danger cue. We know that. This isn’t me being flowery, this is what research says. That’s a danger cue for our brain. We know that if we’re all alone in the world, we’re much more vulnerable and we don’t want to lose the people we love. So part of what couples learn in a good couples therapy is how they impact each other for better and for worst and then they can start talking about control level, what’s going on.
Stuart: And then they can start talking about what their needs really are.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right and that’s the key — in the work that we do we help people in the end, have what we call hold-me-tight conversations. And all the research says that when people can have these conversations, they’re healed their relationship. And when we check up on them years later, they’re doing just fine. And the hold-me-tight conversation in the end is learning how to talk about your fears and your needs in a way that pulls your partner close to you rather than pushing your partner away or overwhelming your partner. And these are bonding conversations. And we know enough now that we can teach people how to have them.
Stuart: I want to piggyback on something you were just talking about that feeling of being alone because I don’t think there’s anything more overwhelming. And I reflect back on — I turn 60 this year and basically, so I’ve got a perspective that goes back in. You don’t hear this often now but you still do this whole concept of the silent treatment, couples who get upset with each other and thus make this decision. We’re not talking — I’m not saying a word to you, you’re basically dead to me. So I’m not even going to say I’m mad. I’m not going to say anything.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yeah, and that is about protecting themselves. It’s hopelessness really. It’s like everything that I say makes it worse, I’m getting hurt all the time, so I’m just going to try and black it off. And of course the trouble is it’s just as negative as the kind of worst things you could throw out at your partner in anger because the message there is I can’t shut you out therefore you don’t matter to me. And the other partner goes into complete panic of that.
And there’s a man called Jaak Panksepp who studies emotion and brains. And what he says is that in any animal that bonds and needs those bonds as babies to survive there’s a special pathway in your brain that’s dedicated to go to alarm signals when the people you depend on basically give you a message that they’re not there for you and they don’t care. And Panksepp says you go into alarm. And so when you turn away like that you’re just tricking your partner more. It’s not a good solution. It’s a disastrous solution.
https://youtu.be/65e2qScV_K8 Ted Talk of Jack Panksepp
What we’re really saying here is people need to understand that romantic love is not just a simply mixture of sex and sentiment. Mostly the media focused on the sex pace. That’s just the piece of it. Romantic love is an ancient wired-in survival code to keep people you love close to you. So when that survival code — when the message there is nope, this person could just turn away and shut you out.
Our brains say, “My God, I’m in danger. I’m going to lose this relationship. I’m all by myself,” and it does not help. It helps — the only time that helps is you get secured couples who know how to connect, who sometimes get stuck in negative patterns and who can say things to each other like, “We’re stuck in Fish and Chips. I’m feeling all kind of upset. Can I just go and get a cup of tea and then come back and we’ll talk again.” And the partner says, “Yeah, all right,” then because the partner believes they’ll come back. Now, that’s a useful use of distance but usually taking distance doesn’t help a relationship at all.
Stuart: And that’s where I talk about the whole timeout and that’s really what
you’re describing but it has to be done with this mutual agreement of how we’re going to do this and this set definitive time and you come back and you’re engaged, all of those things are helpful when couples are realizing they’re doing it because they care so much about each other.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yeah, and it’s still a tricky one. What I’m trying to do is get couples to soothe each other by holding a hand just talking about the last time they did fair close. There’s other ways of dealing with that rather than the usual way couples were taught to take timeout I think doesn’t work, it just freaks — they come back after the traditional timeout and fight again.
Stuart: Right. No, I don’t disagree with that. The way that I do it has — it’s a clear guideline, the step by step that we talk about and then what I do I stated then, this is not going to help your relationship. This is just let’s tone it down, cool it down, so you’re not saying things you have to undo. That’s the whole concept. That’s great
You were starting to talk a little bit about intimacy and sexuality a moment ago and with your tango metaphor, the movie that has stuck with me over the years is the movie Last Tango in Paris. And I think it’s a great movie for a lot of things particularly when we start about intimacy and sexuality in a relationship about that there really are different kinds of sexual experiences. And I know you talk a lot about that. Could you talk a little bit about your different sexuality sort of relationships?
Stuart: Yeah. Well, what we know is that the way you express your emotion and the way you used to engaging with somebody just on a personal level really, really defines how you are in bed. I mean we separate in bed from out of bed like you’re a different person, you know, but you’re not. You in the bedroom, whether you trust people and whether you’re open to somebody where you can really let go and really be with somebody and take risks, that all comes out.
So how you deal with your emotions and how open you are to people, how safe you feel with other people really comes out a lot in bed. And what we talk about is that bonding science says there’s really three kinds of sex. There’s what we call synchrony sex where the couple are really tuned in to each other. They are open, spontaneous, they can take risks. They can share their needs and their fears. They can come together. And good sex is a huge act of coordination. As I put it, it’s at least as difficult as putting together a piece of IKEA furniture together. It requires a lot of tuning in and responsiveness. And that’s synchrony sex.
And I don’t think anyone can have that all the time. What we find is though that once you have bonding conversations and all the research says that’s securely connected couples have more synchrony sex than other couples. It’s a bonding activity. You feel close. It just totally involves you. It doesn’t just involve your body. It’s not just about pleasure or procreation. It’s about this incredible bonding experience.
And then we talk about that there’s another kind of sex that we called solace sex where people who are really all go up in, not being show they’re loved, men and women not being they’re loved, always be worried where their love, always monitoring what’s going on in their relationship to see how important they are to their partner, to see if their partner is really there for them. They really focus on sex as proof of love. They focus on what we called solace sex. They like the pleasure but the point is to get this reassurance they’re loved.
So a man comes into my office and says, “If my wife loved me, she’ll make love to me at least twice a day.” And his wife is so fed up with the pressure that she feels no arousal across, she just feels pressured. And if you listen to him, it’s not about orgasm. It’s about, “When I make love to her then I know she loves me, then I know I’m asset to her. And if she doesn’t desire me then I say there where you see.” And he’s all caught up and it’s all about anxiety. It’s about soothing his anxiety. So sex becomes about solace.
Women like this say, “I’m always worried I’m too fat. I’m always worried my husband doesn’t really love me but if he makes love to me then I say it’s all right, it’s all right, he desires me, it’s all right.” And so really it’s not really the orgasm that matters all the pleasure. It’s the fact that afterwards I can say to myself, “Oh, it’s okay, he loves me.” So this is much of a narrower kind of sex because it’s all focused on solace.
And the other kind of sex we talk about is we called sealed-off sex where it’s really people who say, we called them avoidantly attached. They do have relationships but they basically have for very good reasons in their life growing up, they have a really hard time trusting someone and being vulnerable with them. And they focus on performance and pleasure in sexuality. These are the people that say, “I look at Paul and I don’t know I obsessed with my wife because I just want an orgasm. It’s got nothing to do with anything. I mean, I’m not really engaged or present. I’m not betraying her. I’m just getting some sexual relief.”
There are avoidant women too, it’s not just men. And they miss out the relationship piece. They focus on performance and on pleasure. “I want a bigger orgasm. My God, I was hot tonight. I want to feel hot.” The tricky part is there’s a huge lack of connection with the partner there. And the partners often feel it. The partners say things like, “I can be anyone. You just want an orgasm.”
So what we know from research is that the more avoidant folks who compartmentalize sex actually enjoy sex less because if you think about it it’s kind of one dimensional and their partners usually find it aversive after while if they want a relationship. And so we look at it and we say a happy couple can have all these different kinds of sex sometimes but there is a moment when they are able to have synchrony sex where sex is about bonding. It’s about please your partner, pleasing yourself, having fun, having an adventure, feeling closer. It’s about all these. There’s all these motives involved. It’s like a huge symphony happening. Whereas this other kind of sex, solace sex and sealed-off sex, they’re kind of like one beat. They’re kind of like one line, one note is playing, it’s not a symphony.
Stuart: It’s boring.
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yeah, it’s sort of one dimensional. What you want is a symphony, at least some of the time not just a one line song. So what we know is that when we help couples have these bonding conversations, it seems they’re happier sexually, our later study found that. They’re happier sexually. They’re more tuned in to each other. They’re more responsive. How you are emotionally is how you are physically, right? They’re more responsive and they’re more able to have synchrony sex interactions.
It also goes together here. Sex is a bonding behavior and as we understand love more, we’re starting to understand sex more. And it’s a lot more difficult than while you’re alienated from each other, you’re sealed-off from each other but just go get a few sex toys and take a few sexual risks and everything will be fine. Maybe sex will be a bit more interesting the first time use the sex toys. But by time number four, the sex toys aren’t doing it. It’s really the engagement with the other person that makes sex hot or not hot.
Stuart: Right. And I think the thing that it also does nt deal with is when we look at as we get older and as you get a certain age and erections don’t happen easily as they want stead and there’s dryness that you have to deal with that if it’s strictly about performances, strictly about let’s just have this hot sex where — and hot being defined as a physical release, you lose the relationship and you also lose the ability of how do I feel about myself now that my penis isn’t getting erect.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right. And in Hold Me Tight, my favorite story is a couple who deal with that problem together. They talk about the fact that once we do these bonding conversations they’re able to instead of getting all freaked out about this, “He doesn’t desire me. I’m not mad anymore. I’m not going to come on to her because I’m not sure I can keep my penis erect.” Instead of that, they start talking about the fact that occasionally Charlie takes a nap. It’s no big deal. It’s no big deal because he isn’t freaked out by anymore. She isn’t freaked out by anymore. She says, “Well, I know how to wake Charlie up.” It’s no big deal but if you look at it in the beginning when they first come in, it’s a huge deal. So we’re really starting to understand so much more about sex.
Stuart: Yeah, and that’s great. Well, we’re winding down a bit now and I do have one other question for you that I think is a really important one and I know you’ve been doing a lot of writing about it which has to do with military families and vets. And I’d like you to sort of talk a little bit about how EFT applies when those families with post traumatic stress because I think there’s a lot of listeners out there that probably are dealing with that either with their spouses or someone in their family.
Dr Susan Johnson: Yeah. We work a lot with vets, we always have. We created a program for the US military during the Hold Me Tight conversations with post deployment vets. There’s some research on the fact that these bonding moments are an amazing support for people who’ve been going through trauma. The natural healing place for human beings of any traumatic experience is in the arms of the person they love. That’s the natural healing place. And certainly our experience and our research says that almost a very best thing you can do from somebody who’s being through trauma, any kind of trauma, war trauma, accidents, physical illness, sexual abuse as a child, rape, any kind of trauma that it makes sense to involve the partner and help the partner understand what’s happened because it impacts the relationship. Your suffering from post traumatic stress disorder is going to impact your relationship big time.
So we help couples understand what’s going on in an emotional level, deal with it together and we help couples build this safe haven where the person who’s being traumatized knows how to turn a call for their partner and their partner knows how to come in and soothe their nervous system and create this safe place for them to heal. And of course the healing also takes the relationship to a whole new level of closeness. The research says that if you want resilience and the ability to heal from any kind of challenging life, the very best resource we have as human beings is to be able to turn and have this loving connection with another human being, I mean that’s kind of what Christianity have said all these years, it’s what every religious tradition have said.
It’s kind of what philosophers have said and poets have said. But we haven’t actually known how to make it happen, so now we do. So yes, we talk about that from our point of view doing some couple education and couples therapy is absolutely incredibly important for people who are facing trauma. Right now we’re starting to work with the heart institute here in Ottawa because people have had heart transplants, heart attacks. Their whole life has changed.
The heart institute very wisely said to us, “We do all these things. We give them stress test and we teach them about their diet but what they’re telling us is that the relationships have changed and when they get stressed out in their relationship, their heart rate goes up and they’re freaked out and they forget to take their meds. And would you please help the couple come together and face this dragon called, I might have another heart attack or I don’t know what to do anymore because I’m now a heart patient, would you please help them come together and face this dragon together?” And we said, “Yes, we will and we can and we know how to do that.”
Stuart: So what you’re really saying is the cure for cardiac problems is to go directly through the heart of yourself and your wife and together, your two hearts together will cure cardiac problems, right?
Dr. Susan Johnson: I don’t think it’s cure — I don’t…
Stuart: No, not cure, not cure, but help heal, how’s that?
Dr. Susan Johnson: Yes, and it’s sort of ironic, isn’t it because of the image of the heart, the images of the heart but yes, that’s right. And I think all of this is science is saying this isn’t just sense mentality, you have to start taking your emotional needs for connection seriously if you are a human being. You have to see that they impact your mental physical health. They impact how effective you are in the world.
There’s a beautiful study that looks at young career women and found that young career women, strong, independent, young women who are able to confide in their partner and turn to their partner for support and who felt securely connected were more confident. They were able to take risk out in the world. They were more effective at their jobs and they reach their career goals faster. So the biggest resource we have in life is connection with someone who loves us which is a very good reason for helping people develop these positive love relationships.
If I had said that 20 years ago, I would have then had to admit but unfortunately we have no real idea how to do that. And now I can say to you we know how important love is and also we do know how to do it now. So this is hugely positive. This is a huge positive message.
Stuart: My last question for you that I’d like before we end for today and again I want to just say thank you very much for giving of yourself and your time and your incredibly hectic schedule and really giving time to my audience to really get such an important message is through the years in all the work you’ve been doing, what do you think is the one thing you learned about yourself that’s surprised you.
Dr. Susan Johnson: I’m a pretty extrovert — I come across as a pretty strong and pretty strong personality and I am that. But I think the one thing I learned about myself is I’m a human being and therefore I’m vulnerable and real strength is knowing that and knowing how to deal with vulnerability and knowing just how much I need other people not just to be social with or to have fun with or to work with but how much I need. For example, my husband who’s been with me now for 26 years and how I’m a much stronger person since I’ve been with him and learned how to turn to him and learned how to lean on him.
I think we’ve made a mistake. We think that needing people is a sign of weakness. No, you don’t get to choose that one. You need other people, that’s just the way your brain is wide. The point is to teach people how to deal with that need effectively in a way that makes them stronger. So I think I’ve learned that actually and that’s great. My couples have thought me that. Science has taught me that.
Stuart: And we all are in this human race together, so if we can all learn that just imagine what this world could be.
Dr. Susan Johnson: That’s right. And I talk about that in Love Sense. I talk about the fact that the way to change the world is to change our families and the way we raise our children and the way we are in the world and the best way to do that is start to have these incredible loving relationships.
Shaping Close and Emotional Bonds