Brave New Couples

What can science tell us about the changing face of couplehood today?

Magazine Issue
May/June 2015
Sue Johnson

We often imagine the English as reserved stonewallers, even more emotionally constricted than we Americans are. But Susan Johnson, the daughter of two London pubkeepers and the inventor of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), has devoted her career to breaking that old stereotype and developing an approach that zeroes in on showing couples how to express their deepest feelings for each other. To get there, she had to break what was perhaps the biggest taboo of all.

When she decided to study love and connections in relationships, she had to buck the psychologist establishment, which dismissed love as a disreputable, totally unscientific four-letter word that no self-respecting researcher would dream of considering for serious study. When, as a graduate student, she told the head of her psychology department that she wanted to study emotion and the nature of human intimacy, he looked at her blankly and said, “We don’t do that. We do measurements, personality, and statistics.”

Today, thanks in good part to her groundbreaking work melding clinical innovation with rigorous research on the funniest valentine of subjects—love—she’s widely acknowledged as having developed one of the field’s most influential clinical road maps of that trackless jungle of primitive emotion where all couples lose their way sometimes and where some couples are lost all the time.

Johnson’s work is based on the fundamental understanding that teaching deeply conflictual couples “communication skills” is like trying to teach the whirlwind how to blow more gently. Even when partners see what they’re doing to each other, they’re too overwhelmed by primordial emotions of fear, anguish, and desperate need to stop engaging in mutually assured destruction. So, in addition to creating a theory of love built on the firm foundation of science, she’s developed EFCT, an approach that helps couples systematically move through a transformative experience of deep bonding.

In the interview below, Johnson offers a critique of couples approaches that overemphasize changing attitudes toward marriage as a social institution in today’s world and fail to acknowledge fully the profound human need for intimacy and commitment.


RH: In two sentences or less, what is EFCT?

Johnson: EFCT is an approach to couples therapy that’s based on the new science of bonding. It clarifies people’s attachment needs and helps them understand how they trigger each other’s deepest fears, and it helps them move into interactions where they can more safely bond with each other.

RH: What might that look like in session?

JOHNSON: We’re constantly focused on the quality of emotional connection in a relationship—on how the couple’s everyday behavior with each other often leaves them feeling disconnected and cut off. We help them step out of the patterns that get in their way and find new ways to communicate about their longings and their fears. We help people express their attachment emotions and engage in bonding interactions in ways that more regularly pull their partner toward them, rather than push them away.

RH: In a world where old ideas of marriage and commitment are increasingly being questioned, do we need to make up new rules for love and loving?

JOHNSON: It depends on what you mean by rules. The human heart has its own imperatives. Some things are just wired into our mammalian brains. We can’t decide to change them just like that. We may decide that religious marriage ceremonies aren’t for us, but we don’t get to decide that loneliness doesn’t hurt, or that our brains don’t take commitment seriously.

My colleague Jim Coan, a neuroscientist from Virginia University, just found that it’s only when you believe your partner is committed to you that holding his or her hand calms your brain down as you face the threat of imminent electric shock. Perceived commitment and handholding also buffer the pain of the shock. Having the feeling that you can really count on this person to be there for you seems to be the crucial factor.

We know from bonding science that commitment is harder for avoidantly attached folks, who don’t trust enough to reach out for others and depend on them. But for most of us, this science indicates that the longing to be special and come first with an “irreplaceable” other is just part of our neural architecture.

Those of us who see polyamorous couples in therapy find that, in spite of their adventurous spirit, it’s extremely hard for people to make this arrangement work, even after they spend hours trying to set up safety nets of rules and regulations about sharing attention and time and trying to create some sense of security. But love isn’t just a heady mix of sex and sentiment. It’s a wired-in survival code, based on keeping those you depend on close so they’ll come when you call. That makes it tricky to share the one you need most.

RH: So you believe we’re naturally monogamous?

JOHNSON: Attachment science tells us that, like other mammals who must attune and cooperate to rear vulnerable young together, we’re set up to prefer bonds that are monogamous. This imperative has shaped the structure of our nervous system and emotions. The bonding hormone oxytocin, an essential part of our sexual chemistry, is exquisitely designed to link up copulation and connection. Oxytocin turns off fear and heightens our ability to read the emotions on another’s face. Researchers have found that when you subliminally sexually arouse people, most of us automatically begin to access more empathic and caring responses.

RH: Do you believe that millennial couples, having been brought up differently, are different from older generations and require a different therapeutic approach?

JOHNSON: I think there’s a real hunger out there among young people who say, “We’re not interested in stuff about how love is a mystery. Tell us what it is, how it works, and how to do it, because we want these relationships.” And as society gets lonelier and lonelier, that hunger isn’t going away. People can rabbit all they like in the New York Times about how we’re naturally promiscuous and every single one of us has affairs, but the science tells us something else. At the same time, it’s unfortunately true that society is quite pessimistic about relationships.

RH: Why do you think that is?

JOHNSON: Part of the reason is that even as we have this huge longing for real information about the nature of love and relationship, you also see this enormous amount of sizzle misinformation that’s just sensationalism. I see young couples in my office all the time who say, “We love each other, but we’re going down the tubes. I don’t even know why, but this book says we should have affairs to improve our relationship.” Or they might say, “We’ve just read this book that says that if we have bondage in sex it will make him desire me more.”

This is all a terrible shame because in the last 30 years, we’ve finally made sense of love through science. It’s like we’ve found the way home, yet many of us are driving straight over a cliff, believing, “I’ve got to have more violent sex to save my marriage,” or maybe “I’ve got to be more separate and independent so that my partner will desire me.” You hear these things in therapy, and it breaks your heart. It’s like we finally understand what rots teeth, and what keeps teeth healthy, and at the same time, we’ve created a huge industry that’s making money by having people cover their teeth with sugar.

RH: If we’re wired for bonding and monogamy, where does infidelity come from?

JOHNSON: The reliable stats on affairs are that only about 25 percent of men and 11 percent of women report that they’ve ever, across their lifetime, been unfaithful. So affairs are hardly inevitable. The usual trigger for an affair is loneliness and disconnection, rather than lust. In fact, the need to connect and bond with another seems to be the primary driving force in our species. Since bonding is a survival program and a huge source of happiness for us, this makes sense.

It’s also hard to be open and connected while holding onto secrets. When deliberate deception and betrayal are discovered, it shatters all the assumptions that underlie human bonds. In the brain, this kind of hurt is processed in the exact same way as physical pain. For a bonding animal, rejection and abandonment are danger cues, just like physical pain. Of course, affairs occasionally turn into a wake-up call that renews the relationship. Both EFCT and CBT models have studies that show that affairs can be healed, but only with work and systematic intervention.

RH: I’ve found that in many couples, there’s a conflict between the familiarity of long-term relationships and passion. Is it true that familiarity deadens desire?

JOHNSON: This is an old and trite idea. The best survey evidence now says that long-term, happy couples have the most frequent, satisfying, and thrilling sex. The best definition of passion is that it’s emotional longing linked to attuned connection and erotic play. And emotional security offers the best platform for this to occur. Secure connection seems to help people openly explore their sexuality and communicate their sexual needs.

In our latest study, when couples became more secure—more open and responsive to each other—their sex life also improved. Recent research suggests that for women, in particular, safety is tied to arousal and the move into conscious desire. Brain scans find that when women are subliminally aroused, the control centers in their prefrontal cortex turn on. They become more vigilant. This makes sense, given that they’re indeed vulnerable during sex.

All the evidence points to the fact that emotional safety and attunement enhances erotic experience. It’s emotional disconnection that undermines vibrant sexuality. Emotion is the music of the dance between lovers, in bed and out. Without music, the dance is flat.

RH: There’s a popular idea that there’s a basic conflict between autonomy—the growth of the individual—and secure attachment. How would you respond to that

JOHNSON: The science of adult bonding tells us that a secure bond offers us a safe haven to go to for comfort and emotional balance, plus a secure base from which we can go out and take risks and explore our world. Paradoxically, the more securely connected we are, the more autonomous and separate we can be, whether we’re 6 or 60. Effective dependency makes us strong and resilient. Securely attached adults have a more positive, differentiated, and coherent sense of self. Young people who accept their need for support and can turn to their partner for it are more confident, deal well with risk and stress, and reach their career goals faster.

The general image of a highly emotional, “needy” person is really a picture of acute, insecure, anxious attachment. This person is preoccupied with the threat of losing connection and always seeking reassurance, but in a way that’s hard to respond to. It’s loving connection that shapes growth and maturity. You don’t need science to tell you that. Just look around you! It’s not a sign of strength to deny who we are: we’re bonding creatures, whose greatest resource is our connection with others.

RH: So after all these years of practice and doing research, what have you learned about how to make couples therapy more effective?

JOHNSON: We get great results in study after study using EFCT because at this point we know just what the therapist has to do to get these results. We target the patterns, the negative cycles of disconnection that couples get into, and show couples how to contain these cycles. Then we show them how to become more emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged with each other so they can reach for each other effectively. We know that these factors are the ones that define a secure bond. We don’t have to solve every problem a couple brings in, but we can go to the heart of the matter and really make a difference.


Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.