Save your marriage: Love Doctor


Originally published on

Has Sue Johnson done the impossible? The Ottawa psychologist claims not only to have unlocked the mystery of love, but she says she can fix your marriage. 

Sue Johnson is fascinated by love. Whether as a child watching men and women flirt in her parents’ British pub, or as a doctorate student at the University of British Columbia working with struggling couples, Johnson says she’s always been mesmerized by every aspect of love.

Early in her career, the University of Ottawa professor began basing her research on the theory that couples in a relationship need each other for emotional nourishment, much the same way a child needs his mother. She reasoned that a survival response as innate as the attachment between a mother and child couldn’t possibly just evaporate at age 12. Says Johnson: “People don’t grow out of needing each other.”

This revelation became the foundation of her work. Called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, it’s based on a simple premise: Men and women are emotionally attached to and dependent on their partners. And that’s a good thing.

Today, the clinical psychologist is a leader in the science of relationships. Director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and the author of four books, Johnson has trained thousands of therapists around the world.

More checked in with Johnson to see what it takes to keep the love alive.

Can you explain attachment theory as it relates to romantic love?

For many years, we weren’t prepared to look at romantic love this way. We knew about the attachment between a mother and child, but somehow decided that adults shouldn’t need each other. And that has been a huge block to understanding adult love.

One of the main problems in the field of relationships is that it hasn’t had a theory of love. This is so basic, it sounds silly. It’s as though we’ve said: “We have this field called medicine but we have no theory on how the body works.”

Here’s what we know: We are attaching animals. We are designed to live with bonds of love as they occur between parents and children, and between sexual partners. These bonds are innate. This need for so-called contact comfort is wired into us, and it’s very basic.

Romantic love isn’t merely an infatuation or some version of sexuality that we’ve added a bit of sentiment to — it’s much deeper than that. It’s a deep need to know that you matter to someone else; to know that if you call, someone will come; to know that you exist in someone else’s mind. This is really basic to who we are as human beings.

Furthermore, we know that emotional isolation is punishing for people. It affects their bodies. They’re more likely to have strokes and heart attacks. It floods them with cortisol, with stress hormones. This stuff is powerful.

So what would you say to single people?

There are single people who have had deeply meaningful relationships, who have a strong sense of being loved and connections to other people. We’re talking about emotional isolation here, not physical isolation.

The difference between being alone and being lonely….

Right. And what clients in my office say is, “I’ve never been so lonely as I am in this marriage.” When you live with someone you’re in love with, you have expectations. These needs are sparked all the time, and you have an expectation of connection, comfort, attention. When you don’t get that, you’re in this permanent state of pain.

People don’t realize, but one look from your partner, one raised eyebrow, can literally change how your blood is pumping through your veins and impacts your immune system.

There’s research now to suggest that when you feel rejected by someone you love, that registers in the same part of your brain as physical pain —  the separation distress we’ve seen between mother and child. Separation from that person actually creates fear; it creates panic in our brains. And people deal with that panic in different ways.

Such as?

They get caught in damaging patterns of behaviour (I call them “negative dances”), where the minute one partner feels disconnected or hurt, she attacks her partner by making demands or provoking him to respond. He, in turn, will shut down because all he hears is that he is massively disappointing. They both have needs, but neither knows how to articulate them.

Many couples therapists would say the answer to that is teaching dispute-solving techniques, yet you liken this strategy to offering Kleenex as a cure for viral pneumonia. Why?

Couples have perfectly adequate communication skills most of the time — they just can’t use them with their partner. I had one man tell me, “This is ridiculous, I am a communications expert. I do this for a living, and I’m very good at it. But when it comes to communicating with my partner, I’m a complete dud because I get so upset, so angry, and I feel helpless. I can’t say anything to her.”

So there wouldn’t be much point in teaching him better negotiating skills.

People can’t seem to use them when they really need them. As someone once said, teaching a set of communications skills is like giving a man directions for how to use a parachute when he’s already in free fall. I’m not saying they’re not useful sometimes; it’s just that, in these moments of disconnection, they’re not enough. People get stuck at the level of talking about the obvious — chores, for example. They don’t know how to talk about deeper needs; they actually think they shouldn’t have them. They don’t know how to turn to their partner and tell them what their hurt is about.

People say to me, “Relationship problems are about differences.” And I say no. If you look at happy couples, they have huge differences. The point is, if you can create a safe emotional connection, you can deal with all kinds of differences and still reach for each other, and feel loved. It’s the emotional responsiveness that matters. And if you don’t have that, then every difference is a sign of separateness, a sign that your partner is indifferent to you.

In your book Hold Me Tight, you talk about the following dynamic: A wife appeals to her husband for an emotional connection, he responds intellectually, and she internalizes this as no response. Basically, the man wants to solve things by dispensing advice, but the woman wants something else entirely.

That’s right. And the really sad thing is that the men are trying to be good husbands when they do that. Men have been taught that a good man fixes stuff. So a man might look at his wife and say, “Oh, she’s upset. Right, I’ve got to fix it.” And he goes into cognitive mode. It’s so sad to watch because most of the time she’s asking for him. She’s asking for her husband to be emotionally present. If the man were to say, “I see you’re hurting right now, but I don’t know what to do,” the woman would respond to that, because he’s there emotionally.

Why do you think people are so afraid to get to that place of intense emotional connection?

I think we haven’t understood emotion. Leaving emotion out of love relationships is like leaving peanut butter out of the peanut butter sandwich —  it’s dumb. In the past, we’ve viewed emotion as a problem; we believed we needed to take emotion out of the equation — just get couples to be reasonable, get them to make deals with each other for different behaviours. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t make a deal for compassion, sexual desire, love. It’s not a cognitive deal.

What’s the first step for a couple who comes to you for help?

First, we give them hope. And that in itself is a big step forward from when couples therapists would say, “Well, we’ve got a few interventions and maybe we can try this.”

And then we help them see that the real problem is the negative dance they’re caught in. We change it from a “You are hurting me” or “You are too distant” conversation to “We are caught in this together.” The withdrawer in the relationship — usually the man, but not always — starts to talk about how he’s overwhelmed; all he hears is that he is disappointing, when most of the time he’s just trying to change the subject, or trying to stop the fight. And suddenly, the woman starts to realize, Oh my goodness, you’re not indifferent; in fact, I’m having a big impact on you. This is the moment when people change their lenses. They literally start to look at each other differently.

Here’s a story one woman told toward the end of couples therapy: Before he goes to work each morning, she said, her husband now bends down slowly and kisses her very softly on her forehead, and murmurs that he loves her. Her husband looked surprised and said, “Oh, am I doing that?” Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “You don’t know the difference that makes to me. I hold on to that all day, I feel precious to you in that moment, I feel that I matter.”

What about people who seem to need constant reassurance that they matter? What’s an acceptable level of neediness?

I think this is part of what we’ve been afraid of. We’ve been worried that closeness means that somehow someone will control you. Men in particular were taught that you mustn’t let anyone control you. It’s the same argument that Spock used — if you go and reassure the child, he will get needier and needier. Wrong. If you go to the child and reassure the child, he becomes calmer.

Usually what we see is, if we can help people talk about their needs and be very clear about what they want, that neediness goes down.

You claim a 70 per cent success rate with the couples you’ve counselled.

Yes, we help seven of 10 couples out of distress in a very short period of time. What’s even more important for me is that the research says that couples can hold on to those changes.

The bottom line is, we’re attaching animals and we are best with someone we love standing beside us: We are healthiest, we are strongest, we are most creative, we are most resilient. Relationships aren’t disposable. We are relational beings, and we’re not designed for isolation.

We can deal with almost anything, you know. Human beings can deal with huge traumas, huge stresses; what they can’t do is deal with them alone.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2010 issue of  More.