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!
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