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Shaping Love: A Seminal Study

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Written by Dr. Sue Johnson

Any researcher knows that, if you aspire to be an ‘objective’ scientist, you are not allowed to be passionately impressed by your own research. I am now going to break that rule.

It seems appropriate at the beginning of a New Year that my lab has just put out a new and rip roaring, cutting edge study (you can see it in early view in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy). This study is 25 years in the making and shows that we can now do something seemingly impossible – something that will speak to everyone who ever said to themselves, “Well what is all this love and romance stuff anyway and how does it work?” Which is pretty much everyone!

So here is the lead up. As I said in my recent book, Love Sense, in the last two decades social scientists have pretty much cracked the code of romantic love. Turns out that love is not some kind of weird morass of sex and sentiment that comes and goes mysteriously. It is an ancient, wired-in survival code designed to keep those you can depend on close – it’s THE human survival strategy par excellence. The bonds between parent and child and adult partners are our safe haven in a potentially dangerous and random universe. There are now hundreds of studies that show just this; and also tell us what the key elements in these bonds are, that is, what defines them, makes or breaks them.

But the even more incredible break-thorough is that this science is now focused enough to give us a practical map for love and loving. This map shows us how to actually shape and create love to the point where trained guides, doing the interventions that we have tested over the last 25 years, can now take a relationship that is going down in flames and show couples how to turn it around into – no, not just a comfy friendship – but a vibrant, close, loving bond.

In our study in our Ottawa lab – in the chilly capital of Canada no less – we took 32 couples, and in only 20 or so hours, we were able to show them how to move out of despair and disconnection into the kinds of bonds we all dream about and long for. And these bonds were still alive and intact when we checked on them again two years later.

For years now, we have had studies showing that our way of working with couples shifted relationships into less conflict and more satisfaction, but this is not the same as showing that it is possible to deliberately sculpt attachment – the special, deep emotional bond that our brain codes as crucial to survival. This kind of bond predicts a strong sense of self, good mental health and resilience under stress. Social psychologists suggest that, if indeed it is possible to find the key to human bonding, such bonds would take years and years to form and to move from insecurity to security. No-one has ever shown that it was possible to deliberately isolate the key elements in love, such as emotional responsiveness, and, in a short time, to systematically guide two disconnected people to shape these elements so as to change the security of their attachment bond. So we are proud. This study showed that we can do it!

What did this look like? Terry and Tim came into our lab talking about divorce. “He never talks” says Terry, “And we have zero connection. I don’t know why I stay. I am lonely and mad all the time.” “Yep that is about right”, replies Tim, “All you do is complain and demand stuff from me and tell me how damned disappointing I am. So I just shut down and turn you off.” Just 8 weeks later, Tim and Terry see each other differently. Their dance and the emotional music directing that dance has changed. They can now see how they trigger fight and flight responses in each other, and how each of them gets stuck in defensiveness and distance. But this is just the beginning. After another few weeks or so, they start doing something incredible – they begin to build a loving, responsive bond. “In just 20 weeks, we didn’t just change our problems. And we didn’t just fall back in love,” she says, “We went to a whole new level. We never knew love could be like this.” Our study showed that, whether your secret insecurity is that you are anxious and always worried about being abandoned or dismissed, or that you are usually numbed out and defensively denying your need for closeness, this process, that we call Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT for short), works and moves you into new levels of emotional connection. We call it EFT because the big seismic shift here is that people open up emotionally and become more attuned and emotionally responsive to each other’s vulnerabilities and needs. And we all know that this is what love is all about in the end. It’s all about emotional presence.

Our more clinical version of what happened is that people like Terry and Tim moved into being A.R.E. – more emotionally open and Accessible, tuned in and Responsive and deeply Engaged with each other. They began to be able to have what we call a Hold Me Tight conversation. Both of them managed to accept and explore their softer feelings – their fears and longings, put them together in a clear way and risk confiding in their partner in a way that pulled their partner close. This is what a bonding conversation looks like. People place their vulnerability, their heart, in each other’s hands. In nine previous research studies, we have found that these conversations transform unhappy relationships in a positive lasting way.

More generally, after therapy, partners reported being able to confide in the other, believed that they were precious to their partner, and that they could confidently rely on each other and turn to each other for comfort and reassurance. They also displayed new behaviors in difficult conversations, such as responding to the other’s emotional expressions with tuned-in empathy. In another previously published part of the study, female partner’s brains also showed a much diminished threat response to imminent electric shock when holding their partner’s hands. Loving connection has the power to mitigate how we perceive danger! It is the ultimate safety cue.

What does all this mean? It means that for the first time, psychologists have been able to go straight to the heart of the matter, pinpoint the defining moments in love and guide distressed partners through these moments into the territory the singer, Leonard Cohen describes as “a thousand kisses deep”. We have come a long long way from the still popular belief that love is a random mystery that comes and goes outside our control and that once it wanes, we are helpless to ignite the flame of love again or deliberately shape it.

We are finally succeeding in defining the shape of love, just as we have learned to define the nature of atoms, electrodes and DNA. In our most precious relationships, we no longer have to just Fall In and then, often disastrously, Fall Out of love. We are learning that we really can make Sense of, Shape and Sculpt loving connection – our attachment bonds.

And that is fantastic news for every one of us!

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