Child psychology experts say one of the most important things we can do for our children is to nourish our marriage and to keep it intact. Even adult children suffer from the late life divorce of their parents.

For people who want to improve their marriage or simply understand it, Dr. Sue Johnson’s new book “Love Sense” offers a fascinating look at what makes a love relationship work and what we can do to repair it when it falls off the rails.

She bases her theories on psychology, biology, and 30 years of clinical practice.

Dr. Johnson uses John Bowlby’s attachment theory to explain that adults bond to one another in the same way babies bond to their mothers. Bowlby claimed that the love bond is a safety and survival mechanism and one of its main roles is to make life less terrifying.

Dr. Johnson says adults, like babies, bond for life. That’s monogamy, my friends!

The Biology of Bonding

She supports her theory by explaining how oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, floods the body during breastfeeding and orgasm and are released in smaller doses even when we are physically near to loved ones.  Oxytocin induces trust, and minimizes fear and anxiety, which in turn generates closeness and sex, orgasm stimulates oxytocin and the circle continues. Furthermore oxytocin stimulates the release of dopamine which makes us feel elated and euphoric. Thus we are biologically programmed to mate for life.

Ways Adults Bond

Dr. Johnson says that like children, adults bond in three basic ways:

  • Secure: the individual trusts that the partner will be available, listen, and offer comfort and closeness;
  • Anxious: the individual consistently seeks closeness and is worried he or she will be abandoned; and
  • Avoidant: the individual shuts down attachment longings and evades closeness.

The goal is to have a secure bond as that will bring us the most happiness. Dr. Johnson quotes research that positive relationships also make us more resilient, support personal growth and improve physical health.

According to Dr. Johnson, the love bond breaks when there is an overwhelming fear of being emotionally abandoned, and this occurs when one partner is not readily available to the other and emotional starvation sets in. Dr. Johnson describes four basic steps that occur when the love bond is breaking:

  • Anger and protest;
  • Clinging and seeking;
  • Depression and despair; and
  • Detachment

While hope exists to repair relationships in the first three stages of a broken love bond, Dr. Johnson says she has “never seen anyone come back from detachment”.

Dr. Johnson has developed Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) based on attachment and has trained counselors to deliver the therapy. During EFT, couples are taught to recognize that the basis for their stress is their fear of, or existence of emotional abandonment, their specific negative patterns of communication and then to work to stop it.

Gaps in the Theory and Practice 

Dr. Johnson fails to address external stresses on marriages that may ultimately cause their downfall. Unemployment, caring for a child with a disability, and financial concerns are only a few examples of stressors that need to be addressed as they impact heavily on relationships.

Dr. Johnson also fails to recognize possible emotional causes of troubled relationships other than the bond partners have forged with their parents.  For instance, one partner may bring any number of emotional and psychological issues to a marriage and these would need to be dealt with in individual therapy before marital issues could be resolved.

In addition, she does not address the need for ethically based behaviour. When relationships hit tough times, couples need a set of principles to guide their actions to help them get through the situation, instead of rushing to divorce or affairs, although sometimes divorce is precisely what is needed. Dr. Johnson does note that church attending people tend to work harder at staying in relationships.  Those of us who are not religious, also need principles on which to base our actions, including compassionate interaction with our partners. As moralistic as this sounds, actions need to be based not only on feelings but on principles as well because sometimes our feelings fail us as a guide to ethical behaviour.

Dr. Johnson says that studies show that over 70 per cent of clients benefit from EFT, and the benefits are still in place several years after the therapy. It would be interesting to know what part of the therapy is most beneficial. My bet is that couples benefit most from the help they receive in recognizing and addressing negative communication patterns, regardless of their cause.

While Dr. Johnson offers us a fascinating theory about the source of love problems and how to repair damaged relationships, the danger for her therapists is using it as the sole means of counselling distressed couples. Damaged relationships can be examined through many lenses and therapists need more than one tool in their arsenal.

I would love to hear your comments on this book.  Don’t hesitate to comment in the Reply Box below.

For more reading on this topic:

‘Dad was crying on one shoulder and mum on the other’ (Kate Hilpern, The Guardian)

Adult Children of Divorce” (Kasey Edwards, Huffington Post)

“Love in the Time of Neuroscience” (Helen Fisher, The New York Times)

Book Reviews, Off On A Tangent
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