Dr. Sue Johnson: Cracking the Code of Love – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “People think that conflict is the issue in distressed relationships. Conflict is the virus, the inflammation is emotional disconnection.”
  • Humans are meant to be monogamous 
    • People who report having the best sex and are most satisfied with their sex lives are those in long-term, stable, and exclusive relationships
  • “The question in distressed relationships is always the same all over the world at every age: ‘Where are you? Do you care about me? Do I matter to you? Will you respond to me? Will you be there when I’m vulnerable? Am I safe with you?'”
    • “When the answer is ‘I’m here,’ you can deal with almost anything”
      • You don’t have to solve all your partner’s problems – just be emotionally present with them
  • “Why do we, when a woman has a baby, leave her alone a in a little box called an apartment and take her away from all her social contacts? Often she doesn’t live in the same city as her mother and sisters… and her husband’s at work all day.”
    • “In most tribal societies, when a woman has a baby, it’s a signal for the community to come around and support her… We’ve totally lost that.”
  • In healthy relationships, sex is a bonding activity
  • The main thing that gets in the way of sex is emotional distance
    • When emotional connection gets lost, the desire to be erotic dissipates (you’re not wired to deal with threat and be turned on at the same time)
  • People have affairs because they’re feeling emotionally disconnected and alone, not because of sexual frustration
  • Rings seem to come off at milestones of independence for kids
  • Relationships are living organisms
    • If you neglect the relationship in favor of focusing on a child, when the child leaves, it’s very likely the relationship will have died
  • The very best thing you can do for your kids is to have a good relationship with your partner 

Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Dr. Sue Johnson (@Dr_SueJohnson) a clinical psychologist and the developer of EFT (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy)

Secure Attachment in Childhood Serves as a Map For a Healthy Relationship (how to choose a mate)

  • “People who’ve experienced safe connection with a parent have a big advantage… They’re more likely to have friends in high school, they’re more likely to be better friends themselves, and more likely to be empathic with anyone they’re dating.”
    • Secure attachment in childhood serves as a visceral map for a healthy relationship in the future
      • For example – When growing up, was there someone you could turn to in your family for comfort? Did someone come and hold you?
    • “If you’re loved in childhood and know what it feels like, you’re able to tell when that’s a possibility and when it isn’t. But many of us… have no idea.”
  • Sue like to tell her children:
    • “You can be attracted to lots of people in a superficial way… But what you really need to do is listen to yourself. Listen to when you feel safe and when dancing with someone is easy and makes you feel good. When you can be vulnerable for a moment and that person turns in and cares about your vulnerability, THAT’S the person to go with.”
      • Turning in = responding to what you said, showing eye contact, facing you, etc.

Emotional Responsiveness

  • “Emotional responsiveness is the basis of a secure bond”
    • It’s the willingness that someone has to tune into you emotionally and to allow themselves to feel what you’re feeling
  • In healthy relationships, one partner is able to understand the other partner’s negative emotions (and then reach out to help)
    • But with distressed couples, this is blocked – each partner is caught up their own hurt/fears
  • “People think that conflict is the issue in distressed relationships. Conflict is the virus, the inflammation is emotional disconnection.”
    • A happy relationship isn’t the same as avoiding conflict 
  • In a situation like this, each partner is emotionally alone
    • And when this happens, a panic like no other results, a panic that we can’t get the other person to respond to us
  • Healthy relationships are dependent on responding to each other’s emotions 
    • “Emotional isolation is traumatizing for human beings… we desperately need other people to respond”
    • It’s been famously said – “We’re binding mammals. We need connection like we need oxygen. We’re way too vulnerable without it.”
  • “In an intimate relationship, if I cut you off emotionally and shut down… I shut you out. An If I shut you out… I trigger danger cues and fear in your brain.”

Monogamy

  • Sue has said in her books that we’re actually mean to be monogamous
    • “These things are not social conventions, they’re not made up… It’s structured by our mammalian brain… The bottom line is, just like there’s a structure to our body… there’s a structure to your emotional life. There’s a structure to your nervous system. There’s a structure to your intimate relationships.”
    • Sue says the science just isn’t there – people DO NOT thrive more with many sexual relationships
  • Check out the research of Edward Laumann out of the University of Chicago – He’s the author of Sex in America
    • He’s found that people who report having the best sex and are most satisfied with their sex lives are those in long-term, stable, and exclusive relationships

Deepen the Connection with Emotional Presence

  • “Love is simple, but it’s not easy”
  • A relationship is strengthened when trust is built
    • How do you build trust? – You take risks with each other/you show yourself
      • And when one partner takes a risk, the other responds by staying emotionally present
        • “Husbands always think they’re going to problem solve all their wife’s problems. They don’t understand their wife is looking for just them. They’re the answer to her problem. She just wants his emotional presence.”
        • You don’t have to solve all your partner’s problems – just be emotionally present with them
  • “The question in distressed relationships is always the same all over the world at every age: ‘Where are you? Do you care about me? Do I matter to you? Will you respond to me? Will you be there when I’m vulnerable? Am I safe with you?'”
    • “When the answer is ‘I’m here,’ you can deal with almost anything”
  • This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships – it’s the same with a child/parent
    • If a child’s begging for your attention and you’re scrolling Instagram, you’re not emotionally present 
      • You can’t respond to your child’s fear by throwing an iPad or bottle in their face
      • How should you respond? – All you have to do is be present with their emotions and let them know you’re there for them

How do kids affect the bond between parents?

  • All sorts of fatigue tends to develop, and the sexual relationship goes straight to hell
    • Why? – Sexual desire drops when you’re sleep deprived
  • Often, the women will become more in tune with her vulnerability and begin searching for emotional support
    • But the husband becomes more focused on his career/work as he now has a child to take care of – “The husband gets into tasks right when the women needs his emotional connection”
      • When the couple doesn’t know how to support each other emotionally, everything starts to spiral downward
  • “Why do we, when a woman has a baby, leave her alone a in a little box called an apartment and take her away from all her social contacts? Often she doesn’t live in the same city as her mother and sisters… and her husband’s at work all day.”
    • The woman’s searching for emotional support… and she’s alone (“That’s ridiculous”)
    • “In most tribal societies, when a woman has a baby, it’s a signal for the community to come around and support her… We’ve totally lost that.”
    • And when the husband comes home from work, he’s exhausted… while the wife’s extremely hungry for emotional connection
  • In many ways, the stress of becoming parents is revealing the cracks in the relationship
    • But not all hope is lost – “If you have enough trust to turn to talking about your emotions and helping each other with them, you can deal with the transitions”

The Role of Sex in a Healthy Marriage

  • “If you listen to people in happy, healthy relationships, they’ll talk more about sex as a bonding activity”
    • “It’s not an accident that during an orgasm we’re flooded with oxytocin which is a bonding hormone”
    • EVERYONE wants to be desired – sex is the solution
  • A common misconception about sex – Novelty is needed to maintain sexual desire (either through new sex toys, new partners, or new positions) and that familiarity is the enemy of eroticism
    • As mentioned above, Edwards Launmann has found that people who have the best sex feel safe/connected with one another and tend to be in an exclusive relationship 
      • Safety is key – you need to be able to let go, confide in your partner, share your fantasies, play as lovers, and feel SAFE (that’s where a secure bond comes from)
    • “You need novelty when you’re numbed out and shut down and therefore need more novel sensations to get turned on”
  • When it comes down to it, passion within a relationship is the longing for connection combined with the ability to play erotically, to be unpredictable, and to have safe sexual adventures
    • “When I talk to securely attached couples, they’re not in love all the time, but over a lifetime they’re able to fall in love again and again and again…”

A Touch-Deprived Culture

  • “We are the least touching culture on the planet”
  • Sue says public displays of affection correlate to a healthier romantic relationship
    • The same goes for a parent/child relationship
  • “People are starving for touch in our society and they turn it toward sexuality”
    • “When a couple doesn’t touch much outside of sex, and the sex goes wrong, they’re in deep trouble”

Why does sex tend to stop in relationships?

  • The main thing that gets in the way of sex is emotional distance
    • “The best recipe for a great sex life throughout your life is safe emotional connection”
      • When emotional connection gets lost, the desire to be erotic just dissipates (you’re not wired to deal with threat and be turned on at the same time)

Why do affairs happen?

  • The myth – that we’re massively sexual beings and one person can’t possibly be enough for us
  • Attachment theory states that the most important motivation in human beings is the need for connection (not sex)
    • “People do not have affairs because of sexuality or sexual frustration, they have affairs because they’re emotionally disconnected and alone”
  • Can relationships heal from affairs?
    • YES – but it’s largely determined by how much you’re willing to work at it and how important the relationship is to you

Apologies That Work | What constitutes a valid apology?

  • In order for an apology to work, pain has to be communicated in a way “moves” the other partner and allows them to connect with it
    • The apologizing partner has to be able to help the victim understand why the their pain didn’t matter at the time
    • The victim must then communicate how the apologizing partner can help with the hurt – this requires an emotional response (such as care and remorse for the pain caused)
  • “It’s not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the booby prize. It’s about forgiveness that leads to reconciliation. It’s about forgiveness that turns into the willingness to risk and trust again.”

Don’t Keep Secrets

  • Deception and secrets are very toxic in love relationships
    • “People are afraid to speak secrets, but they don’t see the toxicity that comes from keeping them”
  • It’s all about ARE: Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement
    • These are what predict the safety of any bond
    • Accessibility is destroyed by secrets
      • It’s like your holding a key your a chest that shows who you really are – the chest remaining closed serves as a barrier to true emotional connection
  • Secrets include: watching porn, having an affair, etc.
  • “You can’t hide and dance with your partner. Relationships are a dance and emotions are the music. You’re playing a certain kind of music when you’re hiding and it just messes with the dance.”

How to Repair a Relationship (and what to look for when finding a couples therapist)

  • #1 – You have to actually be motivated enough to understand what’s going on
    • If you find it so aversive that you don’t want to look at what’s going on, the relationship will continue to unravel
  • #2 – Approach your partner and establish the fact that an emotional disconnection is actually present/the relationship is on the rocks
    • You have to be willing to take the risk and talk about things
      • “Avoidance is a lousy strategy with emotional problems”
  • #3 – Go get relationship education
    • Check out the Hold Me Tight online course
    • Sue runs Hold Me Tight Weekends all over the world
    • Visit a couples therapist
      • BUT – make sure to ask your therapist what sort of therapy model they use as well as the research/outcomes behind it
      • 70% of mental health professionals say they see couples now, but MOST of those haven’t been trained appropriately – choose your couples therapist carefully
      • “A good therapist knows how to make you feel safe and heard” – If they don’t, find a new therapist
  • And know…
    • When a relationship is too good to leave, but not good enough to stay – “Turn around and walk into it and go talk to your partner. You CAN do something about it. You CAN shape it, and you CAN heal it… Find out what’s blocking it and what’s making things go wrong.”

The Warning Signs of a Failing Relationship (once you detach, you don’t go back)

  • When you can’t find longing for your partner
  • When you stop being upset/agitated that your partner isn’t available to you
  • When you’ve turned to other things in life for support/caring
  • When you’re starting to lose the need to emotionally connect with your partner
  • When thinking about your partner no longer leads to a nervous system response
  • When you’ve stopped looking to your partner for emotional comfort

Becoming Empty Nesters | Why Rings Come Off at Milestones of Independence

  • Divorce rates have gone up for couples whose children have just moved out
    • It’s common that parents invest heavily into their child, making them a “shared project” of their relationship. When the child moves out, it’s much easier to see that the child was one of the only things keeping the relationship going.
  • Shane has a theory – “Rings seem to come off at milestones of independence for kids”
    • The bond is lost as everything in the relationship becomes about the children. When the kids leave, it’s easy to see the connection between partners hasn’t been maintained.
    • Relationships are living organisms
      • If you neglect the relationship in favor of focusing on a child, when the child leaves, it’s very likely the relationship will have died

Parenting

  • The very best thing you can do for your kids is to have a good relationship with your partner 
    • “This gives children a vision for what a good relationship looks like and this guides them for the rest of their lives”
  • You can talk to your kids all day long about what a healthy relationship looks like, but it’s much more effective to actually show them

Brief Thoughts on Retirement

  • Lifespans are changing – we’re no longer “old” at 65
  • Sue has an interesting viewpoint:
    • If you don’t like what you’re doing to make money and are looking to “retire”, go find something you enjoy that allows you to contribute to the world
    • If your work is your life’s mission, why would you stop?

Wrapping Up

  • There IS a science to love and relationships
  • You CAN shape your relationships
  • Relationship education should be the norm within schools
    • “We don’t educate people about relationships. We teach them trigonometry in school but heaven forbid we teach them about the most important thing of all.. relationships.”

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