Sue and Steve* recognise that they have become distant in their relationship since having children and they don’t have a safe emotional bond. They are bickering over the smallest things, often over matters that feel trivial but at the time it feels like there is a huge wall between them and the other person cannot hear them or it feels even worse: the other person does not want to hear what they have to say or perhaps even care. This is a sad existence for both of them and they are both desperate to change the course of their relationship, but how to brings closeness to their relationship when it feels so emotionally unsafe?
This is the 2nd part of a two-part post series based on the Dr Sue Johnson’s book: Hold Me Tight. She is very well-known in the couples counselling circles for developing emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT). The first part looked at analysing your relationship and understanding your unhelpful relationship patterns, sore spots and painful moments that have contributed to you and your partner feeling emotionally unsafe in your relationship.
Couples often come to couples’ therapy wanting to address their communication. Dr Johnson says that couples who have a solid and safe emotional bond are not any better at their communication skills. In an emotionally safe and connected couple when a partner says something that might potentially trigger a threat response in their spouse, this does not happen as the couple has a solid base and ruptures in the relationship can be repaired. On the other hand, a couple that does not feel emotionally safe alarm bells are ringing and a comment can spiral into a full-blown argument as it may trigger a sense of rejection.
This 2nd part now focuses on helping you and your partner to re-engage and form a safer bond, and how to maintain it when challenges arise.
Steps 4-7: From forming an emotional bond, finding forgiveness and physical connection to keeping your love alive
Conversation 4: Hold me tight – Engaging and connecting
In the early stages of our relationships and falling in love we are very aware of every movement and word of our partner. Stan Tatkin explains in this video how our brain is developed to automate to prevent overload and unfortunately, this happens to our relationships too making relationships very hard. We assume we know what our partner means when in fact we don’t know and this can create distance between us. Therefore, when re-engaging it is important to create moments when you become extremely aware of your partner, their movements, emotional states, and thoughts. Dr Johnson calls them “Hollywood moments”. Remember those moments in films when loves stare at each other’s eyes….Feels corny or even uncomfortable? Bonding and reconnecting can only take place if we prioritise our relationship and pay attending to our partner.
This step is about deepening the connection you have started as a result of following steps 1-3. This step may make you feel very uncomfortable but unless you are willing to expose your most vulnerable parts to your partner, it is unlikely that your partner can give you what you want in a relationship. Be brave for the sake of your happiness and the survival of your relationship!
Your task is to explore the two questions and express to your partner:
• What am I most afraid of?
• What do I need most from You?
Having a Hold Me Tight – conversation creates a deep connection with a partner who responds to your attachment needs. This connection takes place on a cellular level too: in our brain mirror neurons, that respond to our partner’s neurons and allow us to understand how the other is feeling, are firing. Similarly, our body is filled with oxytocin which is a cuddling hormone. We feel heard and held by the other.
If it feels too difficult, start by expressing how difficult it is for you to express yourself and your needs. After the conversation make a note of the key statements both of you made.
Conversation 5: Forgiving injuries
Seemingly small incidents can cause a deep wound in us when we are hurt by the ones that are supposed to love and protect us. If we experience our partner as emotionally unsupportive in a moment when we feel we need the most, this incident can leave a deep mark in us even if there had been many other positive incidents. Dr Johnson said that these incidents essentially make us doubt whether our partner would positively to our question “Are you there for me when I need you the most and can you see my pain?”.
Dr Johnson states that the biggest injuries are when we feel abandoned by our partner. She continues to say that partners often try to handle disruptions in the relationship by ignoring or burying them, from the emotional safety point of view, there is nothing worse. The deepest wounds won’t heal by ignoring them.
6 Steps to forgiveness:
1. The injured partner needs to be able to talk about the impact of what has happened and how it has affected the sense of emotional safety.
2. The injuring partner needs to hear and be present with what their partner is saying. The injured partner needs to see that their partner understands the hurt caused.
3. The couple starts changing their script: injured partner sharing with the injuring partner the sadness, grief, loneliness experienced as a result of the incident and the injuring partner hearing this and expressing how they don’t want this to repeat.
4. Injuring partner taking ownership of their actions.
5. A hold me tight – conversation to create emotional closeness.
6. The couple create their own shared story about what happened, how it impacted their relationship and create shared rules about the situation.
Conversation 6: Bonding through sex and touch
A deep emotional connection is a basis for great sex whilst great sex creates a deeper emotional connection. Couples have different types of sex and the intimacy levels vary.
Sealed-off sex: It takes place in couples where the end goal, relieving sexual tension and having an orgasm, is more important than having a loving bond. The couple has never been able to establish an emotionally safe bond and a partner may feel used during and after sex.
Solace sex: The role of sex is to reassure that we are valued and desired. There is a lot of anxiety in the relationship and although there is more emotional connection than in sealed-off sex, there is a lack of true emotional safety. Partners may feel that they have to perform and experience a lot of pressure rather than having a physical intimacy that feels natural and relaxed.
Synchrony sex: It happens where emotional safety and physical connection come together. This types sex is equally enjoyed by both. Partners feel safe to explore each other, there is no embarrassment; sex fully satisfies and connects the partners.
If you wish to improve your sex life, you have to start from creating a closer emotional bond.
Conversation 7: Keeping your love alive
“Love is like a language. If you speak it, it flows more and more easily. If you don’t, then you start to lose it.” – Dr Sue Johnson
These seven conversations are about the language of love. Steps to maintaining your emotional bond are:
• Reviewing and reflecting on your points of disconnection and how you got there, and how you got back into your safety zone.
• Acknowledging and celebrating the daily moments of deep connection and the moments that helped to deepen your connection. For example, noticing when your partner does something that helps you to feel safer. How do you reconnect after a separation? (E.g. Having a cuddle where you stop to really feel the presence of each other).
• Having love rituals that create a sense of safety for times of chaos and potential separation. For example, how do you look after your connection when your partner has to travel away for work or for other reasons you are not able to see each other?
• Supporting and helping each other to see the potential safety risks in your reoccurring conflicts and saying engaged with each other during the moments when you don’t agree.
• Resilient Relationship Story: Helping each other to see how you have overcome hurdles and built a loving bond. How you have learnt to repair ruptures in the relationship and reconnect.
• Future Love Story: Creating a story of how you want your relationship to look like in the future and how you can help each other to get there.
“Love is a continual process of seeking and losing emotional connection and reaching out to find it again. The bond of love is a living thing. If we don’t attend to it, it naturally beings to wither.” – Dr Sue Johnson
I hope you have enjoyed this relationship post series, which started looking at why relationships are so difficult, then talked about how to assess the state of your relationship to know your Demon dance and completing with this post focusing on building a loving relationship and maintaining it.
At times a partner is readier to address the relationship than the other but the dynamic can start to change even if just a partner starts making changes. Relationship counselling whether that is individually or as a couple could save your relationship. If you are looking for a therapist, please take a look at my services page.
* The above case does not refer to any actual past or present clients, but it is a collection of relationship stories I have heard over the years.
Dr Sue Johnson, Hold me tight.