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Dr Sue Johnson: Love is a wise recipe for survival


We all need to love and be loved, but still struggle to manage our feelings and emotions when we are in a relationship. What make us humans be so complicated when we enter into the “Love World”? How can we develop the bond relationship and what are the recipes for a healthy one? While reading Dr Johnson’s books I found many answers, and this interview will tempt you to learn more about this important topic, and will probably invite you to step into “Hold Me Tight” conversations.

By Mirela Sula


You are a very well known psychologist around the world and have developed Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy – what has this work with couples taught you?

My thirty years of research and practice has taught me a lot. We get the best results of any couple intervention – 16 or so rigorous studies show that we can, in a short space of time,  help 75% of couples move out of distress completely and about 86% make great improvements in their relationship. We also know just how we do this. Really you need to read Hold Me Tight and Love Sense to answer this question – but in brief my research has taught me that:

  • We can understand romantic love – and what we understand we can actually shape – make – change.
  • We are bonding animals and safe emotional connection is the essence of love in close relationships. The BIG question in love is always: Are you there for me? A.R.E. – are you accessible, responsive and engaged with me?
  • We have no idea of the amazing impact we have on our partners – for good and for ill. We do not understand how the human brain responds to rejection or abandonment by those we depend on as a literal danger cue. Emotional disconnection hurts – this kind of emotional pain impacts the brain in the same way as physical pain.
  • Conflict is not the real problem. It is the emotional disconnection and the panic it entails that leads to attack or withdraw responses.
  • Best of all, we know how to shape A.R.E. conversations that move people into bonding conversations – we can build and repair loving bonds and make them last.
  • This is all good news!

We have no idea of the amazing impact we have on our partners…

Dr Sue 1In your books you mention that “Love is a wise recipe for survival”. Is “love” what you recommend to cope and deal with challenges in life?

All the research says that turning to a loved trusted other is the main route to resilience for human beings – loving contact calms us and restores our emotional balance, and reduces our sense of danger. We are not alone in our pain, it allows us to make sense of and reflect on our problems in a way that helps us find new meanings and ways to deal with them.

There is a study of EFT with dying patients and their partners – helping them connect more deeply to help those who were dying face death well, and those who were left behind grieve well. Research states that more securely connected partners deal with loss and grief better.

There is a Chinese proverb – if you want to do fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. We have gone overboard on this idea that it’s strong to only rely on yourself – our brains are not wired for this.

If you want to do fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

 What is the impact of the attachment bond in a relationship and how can this be developed in the journey that the couples have together?

An emotional bond offers a safe place – a haven of comfort and support for us to go to when life is overwhelming, uncertain, or when we feel vulnerable, and a secure base that we can use to leap out from into the world with confidence. Partners develop these bonds by being willing to risk, by being open and vulnerable, and reaching for each other to ask for what they need.

So many of us have a hard time doing this, in knowing what we need by putting it into words and sharing this. Also, partners have to be willing to attend to the others emotions, to tune into and respond to these emotions. Emotional responsiveness builds bonds.

We teach couples this in what we call Hold Me Tight conversations. These conversations predict recovery from distress in EFT and there are nine studies on this.

An emotional bond offers a safe place…

We live in an era with divorce at its highest rate – in your view what are the main reasons that couples fall apart?

In fact divorce is declining somewhat. It’s amazing that so many of us stay committed when:

  • We ask more from our marriages than any population ever in the history of humankind. We want from our lovers the support that we used to find in our villages and social communities. Modern society doesn’t offer that – it is a lonely place.
  • We are free to marry for love (only in the last fifty years really) but have (until the last few years) never studied romantic love – so why would we be surprised that we are now struggling to learn how to do it. Many of us have never seen what great romantic love even looks like, as there are no models in our family.
  • Our society is rife with sensationalist misinformation that leads people into the woods. It is weak to depend on others – you have to love yourself first then find someone and make the best “deal” you can in a relationship. Take time-outs in fights to calm down (most of the time this backfires – the other sees it as abandonment). Sexual drives are the most powerful in a man so we can’t expect monogamy to work. It is in fact a state of deprivation.
  • There are a lot of “experts” now. Celebrities in every magazine spouts stuff on romance and 99% of it ignores all the new science on this topic.

What are the main concerns that couples bring into therapy with you?

About 99% of couples complain of loneliness (we are like room mates, she isn’t there for me) or conflict (mostly one person is pushing for more connection and the other person, feeling attacked and pushed, stonewalls. This dance feeds itself and can go on for ever. Injuries such as affairs are raised with couples not knowing how to heal them. We can help them to heal these.

A distressed couple needs to learn:

  1. a) About attachment needs and the impact they have on each other about how love works
  2. b) They need to see how loops of distance and demon dialogues shaped by criticism, and shutting down/shutting the other out, hurt them both and how they can help each other out of them
  3. c) They need to step into Hold Me Tight conversations by gradually taking risks, through opening up and attuning to each other, and then they can dance in synchrony. When they know how to reconnect and repair rifts, then the inevitable missed steps and bad moves in their dance are not alarming, they are just part of the dance.

 You are the author of many books – what are your future plans as a writer?

My future plan is to write a new book for therapists, teaching how attachment science opens up our understanding of how human beings can grow and change, and to make more DVDs and online resources, to show the general public that love really isn’t a mystery anymore.


Dr Sue okWho is Dr Sue Johnson?

Dr Sue Johnson is an author, clinical psychologist, researcher, professor, popular presenter and speaker, and a leading innovator in the field of couple therapy. Sue is the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), which has demonstrated its effectiveness in over 25 years of peer-reviewed clinical research.

As author of the best-selling book: Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Sue Johnson has created for the general public, a self-help version of her groundbreaking research about relationships – how to enhance them, how to repair them and how to keep them. Her most recent book, Love Sense, The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, outlines the new logical understanding of why and how we love – based on new scientific evidence and cutting-edge research.

Find more about Dr Johnson at:


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