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Same message, new terms
on April 21, 2013
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is currently in fashion among couples therapists, and Sue Johnson is one of its chief architects. In Hold Me Tight, which is offered as a guide (including exercises at the end of each chapter) for couples to work through EFT on their own, Dr Johnson presents "seven conversations for a lifetime of love."
When all of the clever labels designed to help promote the brand are stripped away--"the demon dialogs," "freeze and flee," "hold me tight"--the advice comes down to this: communication with your partner in which you can be vulnerable, risk showing your frailties, and make yourself emotionally available should open the door to reciprocity by your partner and communication of deep emotional intensity, an opportunity for sharing, bonding, and building trust.
Communication in which partners are closed and defensive, on the other hand, closes the possibility for genuine emotional connection and can set off destructive spirals of recrimination and defensiveness, leading in turn to feelings of alienation and separation and, in the most severe case, dissolution of the relationship.
Any of us who has ever done "work" on ourselves or on our relationships has heard this before, and we understand the fundamental wisdom of trying to get in touch with ourselves, with our feelings, and of having the courage to give our partner access to those inner-most, most intimate places, to be willing to stand before our partner emotionally naked, trusting that they will not take advantage of our vulnerability, that they will not reject us, that they will, in a healthy relationship, embrace us.
For those who have not yet gotten to this place in the program, Sue Johnson's explanation is as lucid and usable and sensible as any, though the writing is sometimes clumsy--a social-scientific researcher trying to bring her work to a popular audience perhaps. The stories, while they may all be accurate representations of therapy sessions Dr Johnson has had with clients, seem pat and contrived, each one resolves neatly as if in a television drama: "Oh, Ricky …." Here's the basic formula: In therapy, one partner complains about the behavior of the other; the indicted partner reacts badly causing the complaining partner to suddenly open up and reveal the hidden significance of their hurt. On seeing the complaining partner so vulnerable and exposed, the indicted partner has an epiphany, allows his/her heart to open completely to the complaining partner, there is a warm embrace, literal and/or metaphorical, and the relationship is on the road to recovery.
In a concluding chapter, Johnson is honest that the moment just described is not a permanent or even a guaranteed cure: relationships require continuing work on the part of both parties. Even so, at least in Hold Me Tight, Johnson fails to acknowledge the possibility of cases in which this moment never occurs, cases in which at least one partner is so deeply guarded emotionally that his or her reaction to the other partner's vulnerability cannot be the healing embrace, but even greater defensiveness and withdrawal. Such an admission wouldn't be good for book sales. Hold Me Tight depends on optimism.
One very valuable feature of Hold Me Tight, a lesson that many of us, even those of us who have done some "work," may not have heard often enough: Sue Johnson is in league with a growing number of therapists and counselors coming from a number of different perspectives, determined to undermine forty years or so of thought that has told us that self-sufficiency is a hallmark of mental health; that our goal should be to get ourselves to a state where we do not need a relationship; that then, and only then, are we truly ready for a relationship. Anything short of a relationship built on mutual self-sufficiency is mere co-dependency. Johnson and others argue that we are hard-wired for connection, and they rely on some findings of contemporary neuro-science to bolster their argument. One only wonders how we would have ignored Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which features "belongingness and love" so prominently, for so long. Some of us will find it a relief, in our imperfect condition, to at last, be given license to seek a relationship without the foregone judgment that because we want it, we are unhealthy, and because we are unhealthy, any relationship we enter must therefore be unhealthy.
Parts I and II of Hold Me Tight give the reader the "seven conversations for a lifetime of love" that are the core of Johnson's book. Part III seems tacked on. It includes special cases, such as the chapter on trauma, and a concluding chapter, but the fundamental formula remains the same: one partner risks vulnerability; the other partner recognizes the real emotional content of behaviors and offers a healing embrace. The consistency of the theme raises the question Are these special cases really special after all?