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Complexity of Marriage Therapy, Part Three: Dr. Sue Johnson and Emotion Focused Therapy: Modifying A

Complexity of Marriage Therapy, Part Three: Dr. Sue Johnson and Emotion Focused Therapy: Modifying Adult Attachment Patterns

Originally posted July 14, 2014.

Today we’ll examine some of the concepts of Dr. Sue Johnson’s work in relationship therapy. I draw heavily on her work as well Dr. Gottman’s work when conducting relationship sessions.

Dr. Johnson’s work is based on psychodynamic concepts. She refers to the Adult Attachment System and says her slant is emotion–focused, thus called Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)!

In her work, she says the key to building a healthy relationship is self-awareness. That is, understanding your OWN emotional reactions, learning to respond, rather than react to your partner. This enlightened self-understanding will help you develop skillful parenting as well as help you in other relationships).

Self- awareness is a matter of looking at your past, learning what your past emotional hurts and wounds are, recognizing them and seeing how you are presently enacting these past wounds in the way you relate to others around you.

When both people in a relationship work at recognizing their emotional patterns and the roles that have developed in your relationship, then you can work together through frustrating emotional and communication conundrums. Dr. Johnson prefers not to call rigid emotional patterns “communication” problems, but to keep focused on the emotional style behind the pattern, as in psychodynamic work.

Such patterns are: pursuing the other for connection, validation and love (criticism in Gottman lingo), withdrawing (stonewalling in Gottman lingo) and argument patterns such as fight, attack-defend or attack-withdraw fighting styles (Gottman’s Four Horsemen of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling all rolled up in here!).

Like Gottman, Dr. Johnson suggests learning to “hit the brakes” on the patterns and styles. She suggests paying attention to your body for cues of tension to help you track your and manage emotional responses (Gottman calls this learning to physiologically self-soothe).

This skillful readjustment in a relationship by both partners slowly modifies the adult attachment bond, through what she calls the reassurance dance. Couples learn to trust each other and depend on each other in a way that actually, over time, rebuilds the wiring of their adult attachment bond.

Dr. Johnson talks a lot about how there’s a lot of clear, evidence-based research that nurturing a healthy adult attachment bond provides the basis for needed emotional warmth in adult relationships.

Our inner template for what a relationship should feel and look like is built from our earliest experiences as babies and toddlers. There is always the chance to modify and change the template as we grow and as we have new experiences. If this wasn’t then adoptive children would never feel secure. Research and clinical experience shows us that adoptive children can and do feel secure with their new parents: there’s a broad range of adaptive response available to human beings. To read about the myths that have grown up around what a healthy baby-parent attachment bond looks like read Myths about Mama-Infant Bonding here.

Dr. Johnson’s basic premise is that we can learn to realize that nurturing, instead of rejecting, the adult attachment bond is empowering and leads to strength and deep, life-long rewarding adult intimacy. She contends that in our independence-is-all world, dependency has become a “bad” word.

Based on current research, Dr. Johnson maintains that normal adult attachment or healthy dependency on a deep relationship is evolution’s way of keeping us mammals safe. So when our bonds are threatened in an intimate relationship, when we feel ignored or dismissed, this feeling hits us in our evolutionary core.

We feel unsafe and frightened and anxious, because connection is the age-old key to mammalian physical and emotional survival. Dr. Johnson bases a lot of her therapy on educating people on how mirror neurons work in our emotional life. We are the best we can be when we are connected: numerous studies show that social isolation leads to neuroticism, poor mental and physical health.

Dr. Johnson maintains that monogamy is our natural state. She says that our natural bonding patterns help create good, satisfying sex.

People with anxious and avoidant adult attachment styles tend to have trouble with intimate relationships. Do you tend to be anxiously or avoidantly attached?

Anxious Attachment Style – strong physiological responses to uncertainty or psychological stress, intense negative emotions about yourself, seeking reassurance from your partner

Avoidant Attachment Style – often misread their partner’s signals, (even loving signals), tend to shut and avoid their emotions, and also sends out mixed messages to their partner

If you’re often taking a ride with avoidant and/or anxious attachment styles, probably many of your relationships feel confusing, not just your primary one. The fears that come with anxious or avoidant attachment styles diminishes feelings of safety.

So what can be done to help you change the way you feel in the world? Doing some inner self-reflection and deep inner processing would be part of the therapy. Many people are not willing to look at how their emotional landscape can be healed, in order to help heal the quality of their relationships.

It’s not a simple task. There are no easy “Five Steps to a Better Relationship.” You and your partner’s attachment emotional neurobiology can be reworked, but over time and with patience. And you can’t do it alone; your partner needs to want to participate, too.

Please feel free to contact me with any further questions you may have.


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