Summary: Hold Me Tight By Dr. Sue Johnson
Summary: Hold Me Tight By Dr. Sue Johnson

Summary: Hold Me Tight By Dr. Sue Johnson

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The basis of Emotionally Focused Therapy, EFT, is seven conversations that are aimed at encouraging a special kind of emotional responsiveness that is the key to lasting love for couples. This emotional responsiveness has three main components:

Accessibility: Can I reach you?

This means staying open to your partner even when you have doubts and feel insecure. It often means being willing to struggle to make sense of your emotions so these emotions are not so overwhelming. You can then step back from disconnection and can tune in to your lover’s attachment cues.

Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?

This means tuning in to your partner and showing that his or her emotions, especially attachment needs and fears, have an impact on you. It means accepting and placing a priority on the emotional signals your partner conveys and sending clear signals of comfort and caring when your partner needs them. Sensitive responsiveness always touches us emotionally and calms us on a physical level.

Engagement: Do I know you will value me and stay close?

The dictionary defines engaged as being absorbed, attracted, pulled, captivated, pledged, involved. Emotional engagement here means the very special kind of attention that we give only to a loved one. We gaze at them longer, touch them more. Partners often talk of this as being emotionally present.


The Seven Conversations of EFT

Conversation 1: Recognizing the Demon Dialogues

For all of us, the person we love most in the world, the one who can send us soaring joyfully into space, is also the person who can send us crashing back to earth. All it takes is a slight turning away of the head or a flip, careless remark. There is no closeness without this sensitivity. If our connection with our mate is safe and strong, we can deal with these moments of sensitivity. Indeed, we can use them to bring our partner even closer. But when we don’t feel safe and connected, these moments are like a spark in a tinder forest. They set fire to the whole relationship.

When _________, I do not feel safely connected to you. Fill in the cue that starts up the music of disconnection, e.g., when you say you are too tired for sex and we have not made love for a few weeks, when we fight about my parenting, when we don’t seem to speak for days. No big, general, abstract statements or disguised blaming is allowed here, so you can’t say things like when you are just being difficult as usual. That is cheating. Be concrete and specific.

I tend to _________. I move this way in our dance to try to cope with difficult feelings and find a way to change our dance. Choose an action word, a verb, e.g., complain, nag, zone out, ignore you, run, move away.

I do it in the hope that ________. State the hope that pulls you into the dance, e.g., we will avoid more conflict or I will persuade you to respond to me more.

As this pattern keeps going, I feel ________. Identify a feeling. The usual ones that people can identify at this point are frustration, anger, numbness, emptiness, or confusion.

What I then say to myself about our relationship is ________. Summarize the most catastrophic conclusion you can imagine, e.g., You do not care about us, I am not important to you, I can never please you.

My understanding of the circular dance that makes it harder and harder for us to safely connect is that when I move in the way I described above, you seem to then ________. Choose an action word, a verb, e.g., shut down, push me to respond.

The more I ________, the more you ________. We are then both trapped in pain and isolation. Insert verbs that describe your own and your partner’s moves in the dance.

Maybe we can warn each other when this dance begins. We can call it ________. Seeing this dance is our first step out of the circle of disconnection.

Once you can identify these negative cycles and recognize that they trap both of you, you are ready to learn how to step out of them. The next conversation explores more deeply the strong emotions, particularly the attachment fears, that keep these negative dances going.


Conversation 2: Finding the Raw Spots

We all are vulnerable in love; it goes with the territory. We are more emotionally naked with those we love and so sometimes, inevitably, we hurt each other with careless words or actions. While these occasions sting, the pain is often superficial and fleeting. But almost all of us have at least one additional exquisite sensitivity — a raw spot in our emotional skin — that is tender to the touch, easily rubbed, and deeply painful. When this raw spot gets abraded, it can bleed all over our relationship. We lose our emotional balance and plunge into Demon Dialogues.

People can have several raw spots, although usually one is paramount in terms of putting the spin in a couple’s negative cycle.

But raw spots are not always a reminder of past wounds; they can crop up in a current relationship, even a generally happy one, if we feel especially emotionally deprived or deserted. Raw spots can occur during big transitions or crises — such as having a child, becoming ill, or suffering the loss of a job — when the need for support from our partner is particularly intense, but it doesn’t come. They can also develop when a partner seems chronically indifferent, producing an overwhelming sense of hurt that then infuses even small issues. The failure of our loved one to respond scrapes our emotional skin raw.

See if you can each think of a time when you shared a sense of vulnerability or a hurt feeling with your lover, and your lover responded in a way that helped you feel close. What was it that your lover did that really made a difference?

There are only so many colors to the hurt that comes up in raw spots. See if you can use the words and phrases below to describe to your partner the softer feelings that came up in your recent interaction

In this incident, if I listen to my most vulnerable feelings, I felt: lonely, dismissed and unimportant, frustrated and helpless, on guard and uncomfortable, scared, hurt, hopeless, helpless, intimidated, threatened, panicked, rejected, like I don’t matter, ignored, inadequate, shut out and alone, confused and lost, embarrassed, ashamed, blank, afraid, shocked, sad, forlorn, disappointed, isolated, let down, numb, humiliated, overwhelmed, small or insignificant, unwanted, vulnerable, worried.

Can you share this feeling with your partner? If this is too hard to do right now, can you instead share the worst catastrophic result of this kind of sharing that you can imagine? Can you tell your partner:

When I think of sharing my softest feelings with you here, it is hard to do. My worst fantasy is that what will happen is __________.

Can you ask your partner how he or she feels when you share this way? How does he or she help you feel safe enough to share? What impact do you both feel this kind of sharing has on the relationship?

Can you create together a new version of that difficult interaction you began this exercise with? Can you each, in turn, describe the basic way you moved in that dance (e.g., I shut down and avoid), and name the surface feelings that were obvious for both of you (e.g., I felt uncomfortable and on edge, like I wanted to get away. I just felt ticked off)?

I moved in the dance by _________, and I felt _________.

Now we can go a little deeper. Try to add the specific attachment cue that sparked the powerful emotions you circled in the list above. Perhaps it was something you thought you heard in your partner’s voice. Then add the feelings that you picked from the list above to this description.

When I heard/saw _________, I just felt _________.

Try to stay with simple, concrete language. Big, ambiguous words or labels can scramble this kind of conversation. If you get stuck, just share that with each other and try to go back to the last place that was clear and start again.

Now we can put all these elements together.

When we get stuck in our cycle and I __________ (use an action word, e.g., push), I feel __________ (surface emotion). The emotional trigger for my sense of disconnection is when I see/sense/hear __________ (the attachment cue). On a deeper level, I am feeling __________.

What did each of you just learn about the other person’s raw spots? You rub these raw spots simply because you love each other.

In any interaction, even if both of you are paying attention, you cannot be tuned in all the time. Signals get missed, and there will be moments when attachment vulnerability takes center stage. The secret is to recognize and deal with raw spots in ways that don’t get you into negative patterns. In the next chapter you will learn more about how to work with these attachment feelings to de-escalate the destructive patterns we fall into.


Conversation 3: Revisiting a Rocky Moment

To reconnect, lovers have to be able to de-escalate the conflict and actively create a basic emotional safety. They need to be able to work in concert to curtail their negative dialogues and defuse their fundamental insecurities. They may not be as close as they crave to be, but they can now step on each other’s toes and then turn and do damage control. They can have their differences and not careen helplessly into Demon Dialogues. They can rub each other’s raw spots and not slide into anxious demands or numbing withdrawal. They can deal better with the disorienting ambiguity that their loved one, who is the solution to fear, can also suddenly become a source of fear. In short, they can hold on to their emotional balance a lot more often and a lot more easily. This creates a platform for repairing rifts in their relationship and creating a truly loving connection.

  1. With your partner, pick a brief, unsettling (but not really difficult) incident from your relationship, one that happened in the past two or three weeks, and write down a simple description of what happened as seen by a fly on the wall. Hopefully you can both agree on this description. Now write out in a plain sequence the moves you made in that incident. How did your moves link up with and pull out the moves your partner made? Compare notes and come up with a joint version you can agree on. Keep it simple and descriptive.
  2. Add in the feelings you both had and how each of you helped to create this emotional response in your partner. Share your responses and agree on a joint version. Now ask about the deeper, softer feelings that might have been happening there for your partner. Be curious. Being curious gives you valuable information. If your partner has a hard time accessing his or her softer feelings, see if you can guess using your sense of your partner’s raw spots as a guide. Confirm or revise with your partner what his or her deeper feelings were.
  3. Using the information above, see if you can together describe or write out what you might have said to each other at the end of this incident, if you had been able to stand together and complete it in a way that left you both feeling safe. What would that have been like for you? How would you have felt about each other, your relationship?
  4. Try the previous three practice questions with a difficult, unresolved incident. If you get stuck, just acknowledge that a certain part of the exercise is hard for you. If your partner finds the exercise hard, ask if there is any way you can help him or her right at this moment. Sometimes a little comfort is all people need to be able to stay with this task.
  5. If you knew that you could take moments of conflict or disconnection and defuse or review them in this way, what impact would this have on your relationship in general? Share this with your partner.


Conversation 4: Hold Me Tight — Engaging and Connecting

Almost all of us are naturally and spontaneously tuned in to our partners when we are falling in love. We are hyperaware of each other and exquisitely sensitive to our partner’s every action and word, every expression of feelings. But with time, many of us become less attentive, more complacent, and even jaded, with our partners. Our emotional antennas get jammed, or maybe our partner’s signals get weaker.

To build and sustain a secure bond, we need to be able to tune in to our loved one as strongly as we did before. How do we do this? By deliberately creating moments of engagement and connection. In this conversation, you’ll take the first step toward doing that, and subsequent conversations will show you how to actively further a sense of closeness so you’ll be able to create your own “Hollywood moment” at will.

On your own, focus on a past secure relationship with a lover, a parent, or a close friend. Imagine that person is in front of you now. What would you tell him or her is your deepest attachment need? How do you think he or she would have answered?

Now consider a past relationship where you did not feel securely connected. What was it that you really needed from this person? Try to express this in two simple sentences. How would he or she have replied?

Now move on to your relationship with your current partner. Think about what you most need in order to feel secure and loved. Write it down. Then begin this conversation for real with your partner.

Here is a list of some of the phrases partners use in this conversation. If it helps you, you can simply check the one that most fits for you and show it to your partner.

I need to feel, to sense that:

  • I am special to you and that you really value our relationship. I need that reassurance that I am number one with you and that nothing is more important to you than us.
  • I am wanted by you, as a partner and a lover, that making me happy is important to you.
  • I am loved and accepted, with my failings and imperfections. I can’t be perfect for you.
  • I am needed. You want me close.
  • I am safe because you care about my feelings, hurts, and needs.
  • I can count on you to be there for me, to not leave me alone when I need you the most.
  • I will be heard and respected. Please don’t dismiss me or leap into thinking the worst of me. Give me a chance to learn how to be with you.
  • I can count on you to hear me and to put everything else aside.
  • I can ask you to hold me and to understand that just asking is very hard for me.

If this is too hard to do, take a smaller step and talk about how difficult it is to explicitly formulate and state your needs. Tell your partner if there is some way he or she can help you with this. This dialogue contains the key emotional drama of our lives, so sometimes we need to edge up to it slowly.

If you are the partner who is listening and you find yourself unsure as to how to respond or too anxious to respond, just share this. Being present is the secret here, rather than responding in any set way. Confirming that you have heard your partner’s message, that you appreciate that he or she is sharing with you, and that you want to be responsive is a positive first step. Then you can explore how you might begin to meet your lover’s needs.

After the two of you have had your own Hold Me Tight conversation, write down the key statements each of you made. In a heterosexual couple, the female partner will probably find this task easier. Women have been shown in many studies to retain stronger and more vivid memories of emotional events than do men. This appears to be a reflection of physiological differences in the brain, not a sign of the level of involvement in the relationship. If necessary, the women can assist the men a little here.

The key statements will help the two of you further clarify your internal and external dramas and guide you in future Hold Me Tight conversations.


Conversation 5: Forgiving Injuries

Partners often try to handle relationship injuries by ignoring or burying them. That is a big mistake. Everyday hurts are easily dismissed and raw spots can fade away (if we stop rubbing them in Demon Dialogues), but unresolved traumas do not heal. The helplessness and fear they engender are almost indelible; they set off our survival instincts. It’s wiser, in survival terms, to be wary and discover there is no real danger than to be trusting and find out the danger is real. This wariness will limit an injured partner’s ability to risk deeper emotional engagement. And the traumas fester.

Sometimes partners do succeed in compartmentalizing traumas, but this results in a cool and distant relationship. And the barricade works only for a while. Injured feelings break out at some point when attachment needs come to the fore. Larry, a high-powered executive, had neglected his wife, Susan, for years.

The only way out of these attachment injuries is to confront them and heal them together. Preferably immediately.

A recent research project has further sharpened our understanding of relationship traumas. We’ve learned that they are not always obvious, that what’s important is not the events themselves, but the vulnerabilities they arouse. For some partners at certain times, a flirtation may prove more wounding than an affair. We’ve also found that couples can suffer multiple traumas, and that the greater the number, the harder it is to renew trust. The overriding lesson is you have to take your partner’s hurt seriously and hang in and ask questions until the meaning of an incident becomes clear, even if to you the event seems trivial or the hurt exaggerated.


What are the steps in the Forgiving Injuries conversation?

  1. The hurt partner needs to speak his or her pain as openly and simply as possible. This is not always easy to do. It means resisting making a case against your partner, and staying focused on describing the pain, the specific situation in which it occurred, and how it affects your sense of safety with your partner
  2. The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and his/her part in it. Until injured partners see that this pain has been truly recognized, they will not be able to let it go. They will call again and again to their partner, preoccupied with protesting and demanding. This makes perfect sense if we understand attachment. If you do not see how you have hurt me, how can I depend on you or feel safe with you?
  3. Partners start reversing the “Never Again” dictum. I think of it as couples revising their script.
  4. Injuring partners now take ownership of how they inflicted this injury on their lover and express regret and remorse. This cannot take the form of an impersonal or defensive apology. Saying “Look, I’m sorry, okay?” in a cool tone doesn’t signify regret, only dismissal of the partner’s pain. If we want to be believed here, we have to listen to and engage with our lover’s pain as expressed in step 3. We have to show that our lover’s pain has an impact on us
  5. A Hold Me Tight conversation can now take place, centering around the attachment injury. Injured partners identify what they need right now to bring closure to the trauma.
  6. The couple now create a new story that captures the injuring event, how it happened, eroded trust and connection, and shaped Demon Dialogues. Most important, the story describes how they together confronted the trauma and began to heal it. This is like weaving all the threads together into a new tapestry. Now, as a team, they can discuss how to help each other learn from and continue to heal this injury and prevent further injuries. Continuing to heal might involve setting out rituals that reassure the hurt partner.


Conversation 6: Bonding Through Sex and Touch

Passion comes easily in the early days of a relationship. Almost every word, glance, and touch vibrates with lust. It’s nature’s way of drawing us together. But after the first captivating rush of desire, what’s the place of sex in a relationship? Besides pulling us in, can sex also help to keep us together, to build a lasting relationship? Emphatically, yes. In fact, good sex is a potent bonding experience. The passion of infatuation is just the hors d’oeuvre. Loving sex in a long-term relationship is the entrée.

But we don’t typically think of sex in this way. We’ve been conditioned by our culture and a myriad of relationship gurus to regard passion as more of a passing sensation, less as a durable force. We are told that the sexual fires that burned so brightly at the start of love inevitably burn down, just as our relationships, once filled with excitement, inexorably turn into prosaic friendships.

Moreover, we’ve been taught to see sex as an end in itself. Slaking desire, preferably with a big orgasm, is the goal. We emphasize the mechanics of sex, the positions, techniques, and toys that can heighten our physical bliss. Sex is all about immediate physical satisfaction, we believe.

In fact, secure bonding and fully satisfying sexuality go hand in hand; they cue off and enhance each other. Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection. When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, sex becomes intimate play, a safe adventure. Secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensation in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share their deepest joys, longings, and vulnerabilities. Then, lovemaking is truly making love.

Play the Perfect Game. It starts with,

If I were perfect in bed, I could, I would _________, and then you would feel more _________.

See if you can share at least four of your responses. Then tell each other one way in which the other is sexually perfect for you in bed and out of bed.

Can you each think of a time in your relationship when sex was really satisfying? Share the story of this event with your lover in as much detail as possible. Tell each other what you have learned from listening to these stories.

Think of all the ways sex can show up in your relationship. Can it be simply fun, a way of getting close, a straight physical release, a comforting way to deal with stress or upset, a route into romance and escape from the world, an erotic adventure, a place of tender connection, a burst of passion? Do you feel safe experiencing all of these with your lover? What might be a risk that you would like to take in bed? Can you tell each other the risk and explain how the other might respond if things went badly or if things went well?


Conversation 7: Keeping Your Love Alive

Your partner’s help in making the vision a reality.

Conversation 7 is built on the understanding that 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 begins to wither. In a world that is moving ever faster and requiring us to juggle more and more tasks, it is a challenge to be present in the moment and to tend to our own and our partner’s need for connection. This final conversation asks you to be deliberate and mindful about your love.

echoes of raw spots or anxieties that are just starting up? Can you pinpoint the last time you were aware of this? Your body will give you the message “Now, that doesn’t feel good,” and you will get a sudden flood of emotion. Can you name the emotion? How can your lover help you with that? What would calm and reassure you and halt a developing negative cycle? Can you share this with your lover?

  • Can you identify small positive moments in your relationship? These can be very small. As long as they stir your heart and bring a smile to your lips, they count. Does your partner know about these moments? Tell him or her.
  • Can you single out the key moments in your relationship, when it shifted to another level or you or your partner took the risk of becoming more open and responsive? How did this happen? What was it that you or your partner did that allowed this to happen? Sometimes we remember a first kiss, a coming together after a big fight, or a moment when our lover moved in close and gave us just what we needed.
  • Do you now have rituals marking belonging, separation, or reunion? Do you consciously say hello and goodbye? See if you can list these rituals with your partner. Can you create a new daily bonding ritual that will help you move into being more open, responsive, and engaged with each other?
  • Think of a problem-solving discussion that always ends up in frustration for you and your partner. See if you can write down your attachment needs and fears that are operating just under the surface during this discussion. How could you express these to your partner? What could he or she do to help you with them? If you got this help, how do you think this would affect your discussion?
  • With your partner, craft the beginnings of a Resilient Relationship story. Include how you once got stuck in a Demon Dialogue and how you exited the dialogue, created an A.R.E. conversation, and renewed your sense of connection. What did you both learn from the experience? If you have a hard time building the story, discuss this with your partner and use the elements mentioned earlier in this conversation — for example, find three adjectives to describe your bond — to help you. Discussing the examples in this conversation can also help.
  • Together, create a Future Love Story, a description of the relationship you intend to have in five or ten years. Decide on one thing you as an individual can do right now to bring this dream a little nearer, and share it with your partner. How can your partner help you achieve your own personal dreams?
  • What one small thing might you do every day to make your lover feel that you want to “be there” with him or her? Ask your partner what impact this would have on your relationship.

You have just taken a journey through the new science of love. This science tells us that love is even more important than the sappiest love songs insist. But love is not a mystical, mysterious force that sweeps us off our feet, as those love songs suggest. It is our survival code and contains an exquisite logic that we are now able to understand. This means that a resilient, deeply satisfying love relationship is not a dream, but an attainable goal for us all. And that changes everything.

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