Is it natural for human beings to live a monogamous existence? When I ask this question, people look at me with surprise and answer derisively. A colleague from Europe tells me, “Oh, no-one is getting married these days. They are just so discouraged. What is the point? Monogamy is unrealistic, impossible.” My friend mutters, “It’s about time we gave up on that one! It’s a myth.” So when I am asked this very question by a television host, I take a very deep breath before I answer, “YES. I think we are naturally monogamous.” You can hear jaws dropping everywhere. Cynicism wins hands down. And yet we still glory in the ideal of monogamy. We spend fortunes on whiter than white weddings and act much of the time like the 90% of teenagers in a recent study, who affirm that they hope to marry and remain with the same partner till death do them part! Are we deliberately delusional and setting ourselves up for heartbreak and failure?
The easiest rock to sling at the big M word is that the media is awash with news about people having affairs. Brief sexual dalliances do indeed occur in nearly all socially monogamous animals like the grey wolf or great northern loons who nevertheless prefer to mate and bond with one partner at a time. In our species, some surveys have wildly exaggerated the occurrence of affairs. Reliable studies suggest that around 25% of men and 11% of women will end up in bed with someone other than their partner at some point in their lives. The mundane fact that most of us do not have affairs is overshadowed by titillating public stories of intrigue and deception.
A more basic argument against monogamy is the theory that affairs are, in fact, inevitable precisely because sex is the most powerful instinct of all. Men in particular, as this theory goes, are sex addicts at heart. Given any opportunity at all, they are wired by evolution to pass on as many of their genes as possible and so achieve a kind of immortality. Oh please! This is a long way from more mundane motivations whispered in the pick up lines that I can remember. Having worked with and researched distressed couples for 30 years, I am more convinced by the view that most affairs are the result either of unbearable loneliness that happens when we don’t know how to make love work, or of preemptive attempts to grab at a loving monogamous bond when the one we are in seems to be dying and taking us with it.
The second apparent nail in the coffin of monogamy is that we do indeed divorce. About a third or more of us (and yes, the rate is going down in North America) don’t make it to the “death do us part” bit, especially if you marry young. But so called serial monogamy is still monogamy, even if, like everything else, it’s not absolute and for all time. I think the divorce rates simply mean that most of us just don’t know how to get it right – we don’t understand how to create a strong loving bond. We try desperately to dance a love-you-forever tango often without ever having even seen the steps! As a couple therapist, I see how intently invested partners are in this struggle on a daily basis. And when we fail, most often we find another partner and keep right on trying!
There are other arguments against monogamy. One is that polygamy dominates in many cultures. Romantic love, however, seems to exist everywhere and given half the chance, rears up and takes over. When people have a choice and do not have to marry out of fear or just to survive, they marry for love. They choose to bond with a special other. But, some naturalists say, only 7% of mammals are socially monogamous. My response is, “Yes and we are one of those 7%”. It is accepted by scientists that 90% of birds are monogamous, even though birds, like seagulls, have about a 25% divorce rate. The arguments are probably different in seagull couples though. They might go, “That stick you found does not go with the feng shui tone of this nest”. Some animals are actually better at monogamy than us! The pygmy marmoset is faithful, dedicated, and shares symptoms of pregnancy with his lady. The Californian mouse is socially and sexually monogamous and this matters; if the babies aren’t cuddled constantly by Mr. Mouse they don’t make it.
Now we come to the reasons for my belief that monogamy, based on deep bonds of romantic love, is natural for humans. First, monogamy shows up in animals who invest time and work in rearing their kids and dealing with survival challenges. Beavers work as a team to rear young, build dams and gather food. They have to coordinate their movements, synchronize efforts, and read each other’s cues. They depend on each other, and this is an important word, depend.
The second and most potent argument for monogamy is that we are wired for it! A huge part of our brain is designed not just for social group interaction but for the intimate synchrony of emotional connection and bonding. The pacing, the give and take, the tuning in, the adapting to the other’s emotional cues between parents and infants and between adult lovers, are all about bonding. The main message of the new science of adult bonding is that the instinct to reach, connect and rely on loved ones is primary, more fundamental even than sex. Monogamous mammals like us have special cuddle hormones like oxytocin or OT – the so called molecule of monogamy. It turns off stress hormones, turns on reward centers, and fills us with calm contentment and well-being. OT is released at orgasm and even when simply thinking of our partner! When primed with this hormone, our brains find it easier to tune into another person and read intentions. When scientists increase OT in little monogamous prairie voles, they cuddle more and mate less. When they block OT, they mate but don’t cuddle. Our brains are wired for a certain kind of connection with those we depend on. As the Dali Lama suggests, human affection is the one indispensable necessity in life.
We are bonding animals who live best in the shelter offered by another’s love. An attachment bond is persistent. Once made, it is specific to another “irreplaceable” person. Once we are bonded, we seek out closeness with our loved one and we are deeply distressed at emotional or physical separation. We seek comfort and a sense of security with this person. We can have more than one bond of course. But for most of us, there is a hierarchy of one or two loved ones, and our sexual partner is usually at the top of the list. We are emotionally invested in these relationships and they penetrate key aspects of our lives. These bonds have incredible survival value. We are healthier, happier, psychologically stronger, and we live longer when we are close and connected. This deep desire to matter to another, to be able to turn to another as a safe haven, gets lost in our culture of mine, me and myself. We forget to mention that being the best you can be inevitably involves being connected to somebody else! We are not meant for so called self-sufficiency and the emotional isolation that comes with it.
Behind the sappy romantic novels and sentimentality associated with love is a bred-in-the-bone longing. It is wired into our mammalian brain. This is why, even though we might get distracted into a one night sexual adventure, we still fight to connect and to hold onto our love relationships. Our most natural and longed for state is a strong, nurturing monogamous pair bond and on this bond we base our families.
The real issue here is that when we fail the monogamy test it is most often because we have no blueprint, no map for loving connection. Science now offers us such a map. Until very recently, we have not known what the bond of love, the basis of successful monogamy, is all about and how to shape it. Lets see how good monogamy can be now that we know how to love.
Dr. Sue Johnson – Alliant International University, San Diego, USA & University of Ottawa, Canada
Fights are the times when our relationships with those we love come into sharp focus and hit us right between the eyes, so to speak. They are not fun! And lots of couples seek help simply to stop escalating the arguments. So when couples argue, what works and what doesn’t work?
Many people ask, “Do happy couples fight? Is it okay to fight?” I tell them that all the research says happy couples fight, and having fights is normal and healthy. In fact, if you never fight it usually means that you are being very careful indeed and that isn’t healthy for any relationship. It’s hard to dance together when you are always watching where you put your feet! Professionals have focused on reducing fights between lovers and typically ignored other key relationship issues, like emotional distance, which is at least as toxic as recurring arguments.
So then the next question is – shouldn’t we then try to have rules for fighting? i.e. learn to “fight fair”? For me, this is like saying when the emotional music is fast and hot and
we are in the middle of a terrible tango with our partner, can’t we carry a little set of rules around in our hand that we can consult so it will tell us where to put our feet? Well, I know I can’t and the evidence is that even happy couples who aren’t relationship experts can’t either. In fact, I am allergic to the idea of learning rules like Fighting Fair. It sets us all up for failure.
As one of my clients told me, “All these lists of skills and advice – it’s like being in free fall over a cliff and trying to read a set of instructions about how to pull your parachute cord on the way down. Can’t do it!” Even fellow therapists tell me that they cannot use their honed communication skills at key difficult moments with their partner. Wrong channel, wrong time.
So when I go on the internet and read the first rule under Fighting Fair, “Stay Calm”, I start to laugh. If you’re fighting, this advice is too late already! The next one is, “Be specific and reasonable”. When the fear center of my brain is glowing red, my cortex, the seat of deliberate reasoning, is most often not on line. And often times we fight just to figure out what the heck is upsetting us. I see couples fighting about chores, as in “You said you would fix the plug on Saturday and you didn’t do it till Sunday”, when in fact, the fight is really about key emotional issues, such as “Can I depend on you and do my feelings matter to you?”
The third rule in Fighting Fair is that if all else fails, take a “time out”. Really?! So when I am upset, it’s going to help if you turn away and turn me off ? I think in many of us this is just going to trigger higher levels of alarm and resentment. Aren’t we all just a little threatened by our loved one being able to turn and walk away, as if we didn’t matter at all? In my practice, the only people who can use “time outs” are those who have very mild fights and tons of love between them – that is, those who don’t really need it.
When I think of the hundreds of couples I have seen over the years, it seems to me that all we can reasonably do when the tsunami of upset hits, is to avoid a few moves that can turn a fight into a war. When, in our desire to be heard or to “win”, we reach for labels and threats, we scare the hell out of our partner. This partner then ups the ante or runs and hides, and then we are all by ourselves! So, when Sarah in my office smacks her partner with the labels “loser” or “evil bastard”, I know we are in for a long hard struggle. Usually we say these things because we think we are having NO impact. Trouble is that this kind of label wounds your partner. In fact, our brain registers this kind of hostile criticism in the same area as physical pain. Your partner is also so busy dealing with this pain that his or her ability to listen to you becomes non-existent.
Threats also backfire. I tell couples, “It’s like you want to rearrange your home, your relationship, so you toss a grenade into the living room. It does change things! But…” As one of my clients told me, “When she uses the D word, divorce I mean, it’s like I have a pen knife and she has a nuclear weapon. I just freeze up. I can’t talk at all.”
So what does work? Well, what we know about “star” couples is that after the fight is over, they go and repair the rift between them. This makes all the difference. The old idea that bad feelings will just fade over time is just that – an old idea! Your brain actually holds onto danger signals and negative emotions just to try to protect you and help you avoid them in the future. So, the best advice of all about fighting is:
- Reach for your courage and your partner, and make up!
- Soothe those hurt feelings.
- Help each other to feel safe again.
It helps to talk about your own emotions here instead of your partner’s behavior. You can both assume, if it was a serious fight, that you scared the hell out of each other. Our research shows that you can heal hurts and create a love that lasts by showing your partner that you care about their feelings and opening the door to what I call a Hold Me Tight conversation.
The stock market is falling; mysterious codes called Nasdaq and Dow Jones are now at some record low. What does this mean for families, for couple relationships?
Mae West once said “Love conquers everything except poverty and toothache”. We know that financial stress drags marriages down. Money and how to manage it is a sure source of conflict in many couple relationships- and this was clear even before the present market melt down. A 2006 study in Money magazine found that 15% of couples fought about money several times a month. Even in strong marriages, stressors such as job losses, salary cuts or working longer hours can trigger angry outbursts of frustration or numbed out silences that quickly take a marriage into the danger zone.
Do we even have time for building a resilient marriage anymore? As financial and career pressures increase, giving time and attention to your marriage also gets harder and harder. Just as we all need a little more loving consolation and support from our partner, it seems to be harder to find.
But some relationships seem to be able to weather storms like this just fine! What is the secret to being able to stand together and ride the waves life throws at us all, whether it’s a sick kid or a medical diagnosis or a lay-off? The new science of love gives us a very clear message that resilience, both personal and in a relationship, is all about the strength of our bond – the quality of our emotional connection with the people we love.
Let’s look at a couple of dramatic examples. First, a study of Israeli prisoners of war who had been isolated and tortured found that the men who could call on their sense of being loved by their partner, could actively use this felt sense of being loved in their prison cell to give themselves hope and the courage to fight on. Maybe this is a little like what I do when I am in a plane taking off in rough weather. I sit back and listen to my husband’s soothing voice telling me that he would not let me do anything dangerous and I am coming home to him. I believe him. Evidence is that just thinking of our loved ones triggers a cuddle hormone called oxytocin in our brains and this hormone gives us a sense of calm contentment and turns off the stress hormones that are keeping our brain on high alert. But the securely attached Israeli prisoners not only engaged in imaginary conversations with their wives in their prison cells, they were able to recover faster and more completely once they were released!
This kind of research is just part of the growing evidence we are not built to face stress and anxiety alone. Our most basic instinct, which is to reach for someone we love when things get rough, is our most powerful survival skill. The touch of someone we love literally calms the jittery neurons in our brain. In another study, women lying in an MRI machine, who were told they were about to be receive an electric shock, were able to use the touch of their husbands hand to calm the stress centers in their brains and lessen the pain of the shock. After all these years we are literally finding proof for the power of love !!!!!
In our work with those who constantly find themselves in harms way, policemen, firemen and military couples, we have learned that the most effective antidote to stress, ongoing fear and catastrophe is a safe haven bond with a partner. What do these couples learn to do that we can apply to our relationships when monetary crises hit?
1. Partners can learn to offer, the most precious gift of all – themselves and their caring when their partner needs comfort. Often we try to “fix” our partners anxiety or pain with advice or ideas about what he or she should do. This usually backfires. What our partner needs from us, especially when he or she is filled with uncertainty, is emotional closeness and support. So saying, “This is so hard. I know you are scared, but I am here and we can do this together,” isn’t just kindness, it has the ability to turn off the alarm centers in your partner’s brain. Your very emotional presence is reassuring.
2. Holding up a loving mirror to our partner is key. We so often blame ourselves when bad things happen: “If only I had worked harder or taken that other job, or invested in different things.” Our partner’s compassion is an antidote to this kind of self- criticism. If he or she can tell us that we did the best we could and what had happened it not our fault, we can sometimes accept that ourselves!
3. We can learn to pinpoint the emotional triggers that can move us into agitation and irritability or into numbing out and distancing. These moves always impact your partner and make it harder for him or her to support you. They create distance in your relationship. Jim is able to tell his wife, “I just got caught in the Gloom thing again and so I got irritable with you acting happy just now. I don’t want us to get into our, I complain while you get exasperated and move away routine. I don’t want this stress to come in between us. Maybe I just need to talk to you.”
4. The last comment Jim makes here is the real key to dealing with stress in our relationships; to be able to turn to your partner and ask for what you need. This is an act of strength and courage. You ask for the emotional support and reassurance you need. Each time you can do this and your partner can respond you are building a safe haven relationship that no stressor can destroy. We know that when partners can do this they are stronger and more confident as individuals and they create stronger more loving bonds.
When we are in trouble and face an unpredictable future, this is when we need our love relationships the most. Our 25 years of research with couples tells us that when we can stand together we can face any crisis that shows up – if we just hold each other tight.
And by the way, secure lasting marriages are good for the economy. Married folks are healthier, and those who are married are able to pool resources and so have more wealth and economic assets. On the other side of the coin, a recent research report estimates the cost of a divorce for American society as a whole at about $25,000 from factors such as the need for subsidized housing or lower tax revenue. A small improvement in the health of our marriages would, the experts agree, not only help us cope better with the economic crisis but result in enormous savings for tax-payers. But, for most of us, the most pressing point is that attending to and turning to your relationship is the investment you can make – the best way to save yourself and your sanity in any economic downturn. If we have each other, we have a life-raft in the storm.
We love pills. We rely on them. So often with a simple swallow they take care of our physical distress – and calm our hearts and minds into the bargain. So now we are starting to understand the chemistry of love, I guess its natural to wish for a pill the will turn on love or keep love coming – a commitment or anti- infidelity pill.
Imagine! One gulp and the friendly girl next to you turns into your soul-mate. If your hubby has a exotic new secretary, you slip a commitment pill into his morning tea. It gives the question, “Have you taken your pill, honey?” a whole new flavor. The idea of a love potent is hardly new, but what used to be the territory of warlocks and witches is coming soon to a pharmacy near you. At least if the big pharmaceutical companies can make it happen.
In fact, they did make it happen with Viagra for women. If Viagra gives a man an erection and lust automatically follows then why not make a female version – a desire pill for women. Except it didn’t work! Turns out a woman can have the physical correlates of arousal but the experience of desire doesn’t necessarily tag along. The pill didn’t work because it just focused on one part of a complex experience, and because we don’t yet understand women’s desire and how it differs from that of a man. Maybe the link between physical arousal and psychological turn on is tighter for a man because he can literally observe his body signs of arousal, sex researchers are not sure.
But now we have found the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, which is found only in mammals and seems to create a cascade of pleasure, comfort and calm. Researchers discovered the power of oxytocin when they compared the mating habits of two different kinds of voles. In one species, prairie voles, males and females are monogamous, rear their young together and form lifelong bonds; in the other, males and females take the one-night-stand approach. The faithful rodents, it turns out, produce oxytocin, their promiscuous meadow vole cousins do not. However, when scientists give monogamous voles a chemical that counteracts oxytocin, these little guys have sex but don’t bond with their partners. And when researchers give the same voles extra oxytocin, they bond tightly whether they mate or not!
In humans, oxytocin is released when we are close to an attachment figure, especially during moments of heightened emotion, such as orgasm and breast-feeding. Kerstein Uvnas-Moberg, a neuroendocrinologist, discovered that merely thinking about loved ones can trigger a hit of oxytocin. Studies tell us that giving humans oxytocin increases the tendency to trust and interact with others. So, of course this neurochemical love potion honed by millions of years of evolution is just waiting to be turned into a pill, right? No, actually, its been turned into a nasal spray, but there still seem to be some problems with it. Too many people were walking into doors with the spray stuck up their nose – no sorry – just a joke. Too many people were falling in love with their pharmacist? But once they get it figured out, well, love is just a spray away!!! Maybe.
But what about a commitment pill? A Swedish study by Hasse Walum has found that when a gene, gene 1a to be precise, that is associated with the existence of vasopressin (cousin to oxytocin but found more in men) receptors is inserted into the usually philandering meadow voles brains they become more cuddly and prefer their familiar lady to a “new” partner. In humans, men who were found to have only a variant form of this gene ( not 1a) reported having more relationship difficulties and were less likely to be married. So, it’s obvious, make a pill containing the regular gene and, viola, you have turned James Bond into Mr Rogers, a committed homebody.
All this is fascinating and fun. And dangerous. In a new issue of Nature, a neuroscientist, Dr Young, summarizes some of this research and reports an ongoing study on whether folks could take a shot of oxytocin to help them in their couple therapist’s office. Other commentators have begun to suggest that this new focus on genetics and neuroscience offers us a grand theory of love.
First off, I learned in science 101 that genes simply set you up; they have to be turned on by specific environmental cues. They are never the main or the only actor. Second, love is multifaceted and way too complex to be reduced to a chemical reaction. Third, last time I checked, I was not a prairie vole. Fourth, Walum did in fact acknowledge that the effect of this gene variant on human behavior was rather small. I also have this image of a man having taken his Gene 1a commitment pill, telling his wife he is feeling committed as she pushes him away and smacks him with, “That’s just the pills talking”.
But more importantly, this new chemistry is just one small part of the real new theory of love which is very grand indeed, includes hundreds of breakthrough studies and does what Walum acknowledges chemistry cannot do – it reliably predicts human behavior in love relationships. I am speaking of attachment theory. This theory looks at adult love as being very similar to the love between a mother and child and it has already revolutionized couple therapy. Studies tell us that couple therapy grounded in this theory moves 7 out of 10 distressed couples into recovery, and the evidence is that this recovery lasts. As a couple therapist, I don’t need a bottle of pills to give my clients. I now know how to help my clients learn to interact and connect in a way that seems to create that same calm sense of safe connection and trust that is linked to oxytocin, in a sense, to turn on each others oxytocin. We don’t need a pill to simulate one small part of love – we know how to create the whole kit and kaboodle – the real thing!
Can romantic love last or does it have, by its very nature, a best before date? One writer has suggested that love is only “designed” to last for about four years, or until the offspring of a romance can survive without two guardian parents. Other research has suggested that love inevitably fades after about 15 months. But mostly we seem to have collectively decided that natural life of a love relationship is even shorter than this. After all, if love is a fever, then it has to die down. If you ‘fall” in love, then I guess at some point you stand up and dust yourself off. Even our language suggests that romantic love is brief.
This perspective on love becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one of my clients recently told me, “I almost didn’t agree to come for couple therapy. After all, all my girl friends say that there is no solution to my unhappiness and I just have to accept the way love is. After you have been married for a few years there just isn’t much of that romance and being in love left. You just have to give that up and accept that this is all there is.” My client then added, “But I came because I was dying inside. I was angry all the time – after a while screaming into the silence is just too hard.” She was telling me about the high price of a distressed relationship and a resigned approach to love.
Another part of this skeptical approach to long term love is the ubiquitous assumption that sexual desire and passion withers once the marriage contract is signed. And it is true that changes, like those involved in becoming parents for example, can dampen eroticism for a while. But is the first flush of infatuation, and the temporary intoxication that comes with a new and highly emotional experience really the best we can expect from a love relationship?
An obvious response to this question is – Maybe. If we don’t understand love, if it really is a mystery, then there is probably nothing for it but to suffer its coming and goings and find a way to shrug our shoulders and not expect too much. But my response is that this cynical attitude to love is simply out of date. For the first time in human history, we understand what love is and how to shape it. This changes all the odds in the search for “real love’ – the love that lasts.
We have always known in our hearts that love can last for the lucky few. And science has begun to confirm this. Recently researcher Arthur Arons at Stony Brook University used brain scans to show that a small number of couples still respond with as much physiological arousal – lets call it passion – after 20 years together as most folks experience only in the heat of first infatuation. Chemistry can last!!
We also know from recent surveys that desire and passion are much more enduring than we have supposed. Rigorous recent surveys tell us that the people who have the most frequent and most satisfying sex are those in long term loving relationships. Logically, this is not surprising; in most things practice makes perfect. Sex is like tango; when you dance with someone over a long time, you can co-ordinate your moves and create more synchrony.
So what do we need to make this lasting love and passion an attainable goal for more and more of us? Once upon a time, you could not expect to live past fifty five. My grandfather died at 40, of pneumonia, a disease that is now easily cured – because of the advancement of science. In the same way, I believe that the new science of love that has evolved in the last decade is making the concept of love as a passing fever obsolete.
We have already learned so much about the bonds of love as a result of this revolutionary new development of seeing love – an emotion – through the microscope of science and systematic reasoned exploration. Hundreds of studies tell us, for example, that love is an exquisitely logical survival code and that the ability to reach out, clearly state your emotional needs and respond to your lover’s emotional need for comfort, reassurance and connection is the key ingredient in love. We make mistakes because we don’t understand our needs. We don’t have a map of the territory. We so often send distorted messages, offer advice or problem solving when our partner needs our emotional presence, or try to hide our emotions when science tells us that our loved one has picked them up from our facial expression almost before our own brain has decided to try and hide them.
But once we know the territory – once we understand the bonds of love, then we can actively shape these bonds in a way that is new for human lovers. We can have love that lasts a lifetime.
So on the plane back to North America, I chat to the woman next to me and we get to the fact that I am a psychologist and write about relationships. My ultra-sophisticated new friend purses her very red lips and with considerable conviction she tells me, “But men will not read your book! And men only come to see someone like you when a woman has already decided to leave.” She is adamant. Only women are interested in learning about relationships.
It is true that we socialize women to pay more attention to the nuances of their close relationships. There is even evidence that women have better memories for emotional events. It is true that women buy most of the relationship books.
Men often get to be the villain in the story of love relationships. As one client said to me, “There isn’t much room to move here. I am the villain or the hero. Seems like I have to be on top of my game all the time. If I am not perfect, well….” Research tells us that men do indeed tend to have more affairs and can even become obsessed with control to the point of being abusive. But our clinical practice and research over the last 30 years has also shown us that there are a multitude of men who will struggle and risk and reach for their relationships, if we give them the chance and show them how to do it.
When you do something called “emotionally focused” therapy (EFT), many folks assume that this is an especially hard sell for male partners. So why is this not so? In fact, in our research we found that this emotionally focused approach helps both partners untangle the drama of their emotional lives and send clear emotional signals to the other. In EFT, men who are called “inexpressive” by their wives do well and end up in a happier relationship. In fact, EFT works well with very macho men, like the New York Firefighters or Army Vets. This method works just fine with men who have to practice how to ‘suck it up” to do the jobs that regularly put them in harm’s way and require that they put their emotions aside.
I remember when I started working with trauma victims and their relationships, I was blown away by men’s empathy and protective caring once they really understood the dragons that their loved ones were facing. And, I am getting incredible feedback from men about Hold Me Tight. Men are writing to me and telling me that they don’t feel judged when they read the book and that it touches them. Tim told me, “This is the first time I feel like someone explained all this love stuff to me so that I really got it. I really did think my fights with Nancy were all about the chores and the list on the fridge. NOW, I get that those fights are about how distant we are and how lonely she feels. And now I can tell her that there are times when I get lonely too.”
What have I learned about men in my years as a couple therapist? That some have problems with commitment? That some need to be brought into line around relationship tactics like intimidation? Sure. And, that just like women, when they feel safe and are helped to understand how they create their relationship dance- they can learn.
When I am tuning into my male clients, it helps me to remember that most men have been systematically trained to ignore their softer feelings (but they still have em – no choice – they are wired in!), in fact to feel ashamed of them. They are trained to stay in their head and be problem solvers. And they often do this faithfully and consistently – even when their wives are starving for emotional contact and support! No-one ever told them that for their wife, they are the solution; that the best thing they have to give is themselves and their emotional support. All the research on support giving between lovers tells us that emotional support is what is needed and valued above all in close relationships. Your partner probably doesn’t need your advice or your directions half as much as your loving validation and your presence. Bob tells me, “All I did was stay close and hold her. It was hard. Part of me wanted to just leave or just tell her how to manage stuff better. But I told her I thought she could handle it and that I was there for her. I couldn’t believe it. She just melted!” I encourage Bob to think of how precious his Presence is to his wife. Only he can give that – lots of people can offer her advice!
We are also learning to recognize the pressures that men are under. We can call it by fancy names like, “gender role stress”. My clients talk about the need to ‘perform” in order to be really “male”. In fact, when in our model of therapy, or in the Hold Me Tight conversations, men do touch on their emotions, they nearly always talk about their deepest fears in terms of failure, feeling inadequate and shame at being ‘not good enough”. They then express hopelessness and describe a kind of ‘hunker down and hope this passes’ response. Unfortunately, their wives see indifference and a man that is shutting them out. It is almost like we have trained men to be extra sensitive to rejection and women to be extra sensitive to abandonment. But both speak of feeling lonely and deprived in a distressed relationship.
Even when the relationship improves and men see how much their wife needs emotional connection with them, they often talk about how they just “don’t know what to do”. It seems to me that they come by this confusion honestly. In North America, little boys are touched much less than little girls and “dependence” is much more accepted in girls. Men must ‘separate’ from mum or become a wimp, but often their fathers are distant and preoccupied. They have no model for emotional openness and caring. Our experience is that once men get a real understanding of love, they can step up and support their partners. In fact, it makes them happy and proud to be able to do this and to know how important they are to their loved ones.
I must admit, with all this talk of men and women that, in spite of our differences, what is obvious to me it that men and women are categorically NOT from different planets. We are much more alike than we are different. We both get panicked when we cannot get loved ones to connect with us; we both get stuck in negative ways of dealing with that panic; we both have a basic need for emotional contact and connection. We both are at our best when we are secure in a loving emotional bond.
This is the last blog until November 6th or so since I am off to Morocco riding camels and such – not not not thinking and talking about relationships.
I will leave behind helping couples find their way through the drama of “Why don’t you talk to me? We never talk. You don’t know how,” followed by “Who can talk to you?You are too angry and needy.” I will even leave behind the elation that comes a few weeks later from watching a couple like this get to, “Sometimes when I feel this great gulf between us, I get kind of scared. But it’s so risky to talk about it, to ask for you to reach across the gulf and pull me close.” “I don’t want you to be scared. And I need the closeness too. Want me to come and hold you?”This is enthralling. But I think this kind of drama will still be waiting for me when I come back. Don’t you?
Sometimes on this blog, I am going to tell you stories. Stories of couples getting stuck in loneliness and frustration, as we all do, and stories of couples shifting gears and taking the steps to create lasting connection in Hold me tight conversations. My 30 years of working with love relationships has convinced me that, if we only know the path we are on, more and more of us can take those steps. In fact, in our research says that given the right help, 7 out of 10 couples do just that!
Sometimes, I will share new ideas or research findings. The world of relationship science is exploding. At last social science researchers are actively studying and learning about love and how to make it work. This isn’t science for the university lecture hall. This is science that you can use in the kitchen and the bedroom.
Sometimes I will comment on something in the news and tell you how I react as a scientist, as a psychologist and couple therapist, as a trainer of therapists, and just as me, Sue, a wife and a mum.
But whatever I am chatting about you will probably pick up that I think we have finally cracked the code of love. I think this is BIG NEWS- this is a NEW ERA here. This is at least as important as going to the moon and back.
To come back down to earth, this week let’s just take one study and chat about what it means for YOUR relationship. James Gross, a scientist who studies emotion, found that when we try to suppress emotion this is what happens:
- It’s very hard to do. Basically it doesn’t work. We have to work very hard to shut an emotion down once it is up and running and in the process we often get MORE agitated and tense. This is especially true in close relationships when the trigger for the emotion, the other person, is still there giving us signals that get us all fired up.
- Emotion doesn’t stay inside our skin. When we try to shut feelings off, the people we are relating to get more and more tense as well.
When we are denying our feelings, our partners probably get tense because our faces register our feelings way faster than the thinking part of the brain can shut them down. So our partner knows there is something going on when we say “Oh, nothing is wrong. I am fine.” This partner also knows that we are shutting them out. When partner’s can’t read out cues, they can’t predict our behavior. We say one thing but they see another. It makes sense that they get tense. Probably this uncertainty puts everyone off balance and adds to the likelihood that the conversation, or even the whole evening, goes sour.
Emotions are fast. It takes about 100 milliseconds for out brain to react emotionally and about 600 milliseconds for our thinking brain, our cortex, to register this reaction. By the time you decide that it’s better not to get mad or to be sad, your face has been expressing it for 500 milliseconds. Too late! The emotional signal has been sent. It’s like pressing “send” on your email. Not only that but when you deny the message, this makes you puzzling for your partner and makes it harder for your partner to feel relaxed and safe with you. You are suddenly someone who can shut them out like they don’t matter!
What does all this tell us as lovers and partners? It tells us that the shut down and suppress strategy should be used with care. That it doesn’t do what we usually hope it will do, namely calm us down, lower the tenor of a conversation or bypass a fight. Most of the time, we shut down out of habit. We do it because we don’t know what else to do. What I see, as a couple therapist, is that it really isn’t so dangerous to just say that you are mad, sad, scared, surprised, somehow ashamed or full of joy. This list is about it for the real core universal emotions. When we name our emotions we often feel more grounded, more in control. And we give our partner the chance to respond – to empathize.
And in the end giving our partner a chance to show us they care, that they can be with us and for us is one of the magic ingredients of a loving relationship.
See you in two weeks or so,
Dr. Sue Johnson
Welcome to my first Hold Me Tight blog. Where to begin?
The world of science and love relationships is hopping. And it is about time. Until a few years ago there was very little serious attention paid by scientists to love and love relationships. Surveys tell us that having a loving relationship is ranked right at the top of life goals by most of us. Love is also the most used word in the English language! But this emotion that we long for, struggle for, weep over, was long thought to be simple sentimentality or just sexual desire dressed up. Not the stuff of serious science. This has now changed.
I am going to be writing in this blog about relationships, the real issues in relationships, what does wrong, how we can have better relationships and the new science that is changing how we shape the most important connections in our lives. And I will be telling stories and sharing insights from my clinical practice of couple therapy using a powerful tested approach called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT). As a relationship expert I will also comment on what is in the media, in fact, I am going to have fun commenting on anything that grabs me. The focus will be on how we connect, or fail to connect with those we love. One week I might chat about a new study that tells us how love impacts the strength of our heart - literally! Another week I might comment on an opinion or concern voiced in the media, such as the idea that we have now found a gene for having affairs (so in a few years we will be able to inoculate you against this virus at the altar ??????). I have pretty strong opinions after thirty years as a researcher, therapist, writer and teacher in this field so I will make it clear when I am giving an opinion and when I am relaying actual niffy nuggets of science to you all.
For example, I read in my local paper that a pharmaceutical company has come up with a nasal spray so that we can all stand around and spray the “cuddle hormone” called oxytocin up our nose. I found this a little alarming. There is real evidence that this hormone, released when we make love, breast feed our babies, or even just come close to a loved one turns off stress hormones and turns on feelings of calm, contented bliss. It really does seem to be the chemistry behind the business – or should I say the unending drama of love. There is even evidence that people are likely to be more trusting with others after a dose of oxytocin. My opinion is that the spray won’t work as a quick bottled cuddle. A latte with caramel and whipped cream from your favorite coffee store will probably be more effective. The brain isn’t that easy to trick and when it comes to love, our responses are wired in by millions of years of survival rules and regulations. As every poet will tell you, love is all about life and death.
After 30 years of obsessive struggle and amazing fun studying relationships, I must also confess that I am pretty sure of what I know. Thousands of wonderful couples who have transformed their relationships have taught me well. At last, we really do know what love is all about. And just in time! We can’t afford to let love and loving stay an intriguing mystery. Science also tells us that loneliness isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a killer. And, for so many of us, our world seems to be getting lonelier all the time. When I see couples, the most poignant moment of all is when someone looks at me and murmurs, “This is not really about the fights you know – it’s about this terrible unbearable aloneness. It is killing me.” This hurts me just to listen to it. But I also know that chances are, I will help this person heal the connection with their partner. That is how far we have come!
I hope you will all join me regularly for this blog on love and loving.
Dr. Sue Johnson