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