This past week I had the privilege of attending a 4 day training in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) with Susan Johnson who wrote the wonderful book Hold Me Tight (which I highly recommend for couples!). EFT is based on attachment theory, which is essentially the theory (backed now by many, many research studies) that human beings of all ages bond with specific, trusted others to deal with life and ensure our survival. As infants, we attach to caregivers who act as a safe haven to protect us and help us when we feel overwhelmed, and a secure base to explore from as we learn about the world. As adults, we still need this safe haven and secure base in different ways, and we may attach to a support network of friends, mentors, etc but if we are in a romantic relationship, our partner becomes a primary attachment figure in our lives. Attachment theory normalizes our need to feel safe, secure, comforted, and held by our partner and that actually, the more connected and safe we feel with our partner, the more autonomous we can be!
One of the most poignant things that Sue Johnson said during the training was, “We are just not wired to face the vulnerability of being alive on our own”. Because of this, human beings respond in predictable ways to feeling disconnected from our partner – something called “separation distress” in attachment theory. First, we protest (infants cry, adults usually fight or become critical “why didn’t you call me? you are such a jerk!”); second, we cling and seek (infants may literally cling to the legs of their parents, while adults may do things to get their partner’s attention); third we become depressed and despairing (infants may be inconsolable, adults continue to wish for connection with their partner but say things like “it doesn’t matter, he/she will never change”), and lastly we detach and grieve the relationship (this is often when couples break-up).
EFT helps couples understand their distress/conflict as part of these biologically “wired in” responses to disconnection, and helps transform the ways they express their needs and respond to one other to create “felt security” – the sense that our partner will be there for us, has our back, and believes we are important and valuable. Once partners feel secure with one another, not only does each person have a better sense of self but is also better able to manage feelings and problem solve issues.
Again, the more secure and connected we feel within our relationship, the more independent we can be!
I love that EFT challenges the myth of self-sufficiency and normalizes our need for closeness and security and the distress and angst that arises from not feeling that security. Most couples I work with express fear that their relationship is “dysfunctional” and worry that they are the only ones that fight or disintegrate into “acting immaturely” during conflict. The EFT model says, “of course you freak out when it seems your partner is not there for you! That’s what human beings do!”
During the training, Dr. Johnson showed us a video that is actually a public service announcement for wearing your seat belt while driving in a car. The video uses human attachment to make this point and is incredibly powerful – it essentially gives the message that life has its challenges/dangers, and our best seat belts are our relationships with the people we love.