Ask the Expert: Creating Connections

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

By Laura Santomauro, LMFT
Illustrations by Stacey Walker Oldham

The mystery of love has plagued us for eons, a system of trial and error seeking to find the perfect concoctions for lasting love. Until recently, we have leaned on several ideas that have sadly fallen short: Lasting love is all about communication; couples must strengthen their skills. Lasting love is about keeping your sexual relationship free of boredom; couples should learn new, saucy styles. And the list goes on. These strategies do have their place; however, the shortcoming is illuminated when things get messy, as they do in relationships. When we are feeling hurt, angry, and confused, these strategies don’t address the feelings and, therefore, cannot withstand the test of time—and kids, and stresses.

Finally, new research has unlocked the mystery of lasting love! It demonstrates the dynamics of attachment style and how it affects our connections to our partner. A secure attachment to our partner provides us with a sense of safety, the ability to be vulnerable, and the security in knowing that the answer to the question, “Are you there for me?” is a resounding, “Yes!” The tricky part is that sometimes our bond with our partner is not secure. In this instance, we may believe that it’s better to be alone because being alone is less painful and provides greater independence. And while there is truth to that argument, too, it doesn’t illustrate the full picture.

Lasting love is all about communication; couples must strengthen their skills.

With a secure bond, we actually become more independent by the developed sense of trust and security the relationship provides. Having this secure attachment allows us to depend on our partner and fosters autonomy.
“Survival of the fittest” no longer holds true. We are more productive, creative, engaged, and emotionally and physically healthy with a secure attachment. Thus, science brings us into this new age: the Age of Interdependence.

Years ago, British psychologist John Bowlby noted the idea of attachment when he studied mothers and children. The most anxious and avoidant children were those who did not have a secure bond with their mothers. The most independent, curious, and engaged children were those who had a secure attachment to their caregiver. They were more relaxed when exploring their environment, fostering the sense that the world was a safe place, they were valued, and that when in need, their mother was there to provide comfort, care, and contact. This same concept applies to our intimate relationships. Bowlby noted our need for security does not fade with age. In fact, connection fosters security from birth to grave.

Dr. Sue Johnson, a leading researcher and couples therapist, highlights the impact of this idea in her groundbreaking book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. “When we feel generally secure, that is, we are comfortable with closeness and confident about depending on a loved one, we are better at seeking support and better at giving it,” she writes. “When we feel safely linked to our partners, we more easily roll with the hurts they inevitably inflict, and we are less likely to be aggressive and hostile when we get mad at them. Secure connection to a loved one is empowering. Securely bonded adults are more curious and more open to new information.”

“When we feel safely linked to our partners, we more easily roll with the hurts they inevitably inflict.”
– Dr. Sue Johnson

To back up this theory, a recent 2013 study conducted by Johnson and Dr. James Cohan revealed that our experience of pain is uniquely tied to our relationship. In one experiment, subjects had their pain measured while receiving an electrical shock. The response to pain was high, as imagined, when the participant was alone. When the participant was allowed to hold the hand of a stranger, there was a slight decrease in the recording of the pain experienced. And the pain was close to eliminated when the participants held the hand of their securely attached partner. Conversely, and to further support this theory, researchers tested a group of couples with an insecure attachment. These couples experienced more pain while holding the hand of their partner than when they were alone.

It is perhaps most easily demonstrated when you observe a mother and child with a secure bond. The child falls, scrapes their elbow, and runs to the parent crying. Once the parent responds with comfort, care, and contact, the child quickly returns to playing. The safety of the relationship and the security of the bond decrease the physical experience of pain. On the flip side, children with an insecure bond will experience more pain, react by avoidance or anxiety, and not seek comfort from the parent. This parallels our romantic relationships.

Interestingly enough, emotional pain is processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain. Therefore, it stands to reason that secure attachment allows us to calibrate each other’s experiences. When life throws us a curveball, we can turn to our partner to lessen our distress through our bond. However, much like a child, an insecure partnership will cause us to turn away, become overwhelmed, and not reach out for comfort. This creates distance, more distress, and stages a terrible pattern where we continually turn away in the moments when we need each other most, leading to a spiral of disconnection.

Luckily, we now know how to exit this spiral, how to build secure bonds, and create lasting love. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples provides a road map for partners seeking to strengthen, rebuild, or perhaps create for the first time this secure attachment in their coupleship.
EFT is the only form of couples therapy that provides empirical data supporting its efficacy. While couples embark on this journey to security, they begin to understand the spiral, or negative pattern, that has taken over their relationship, leaving them stuck in conflict, pain, and isolation. Through the creation of new interactional patterns, they begin to find a greater sense of security, allowing for emotional vulnerability, support, comfort, and care. In essence, once this security becomes the norm, they can then answer “Yes” to the question that, at times, raises fear in us all: “Are you there for me?”

For more information on EFT, check out:

  1. JH Family Solutions; certified EFT therapist Laura Santomauro LMFT;
  2. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love; Little, Brown and Company, 2008
  3. Sue Johnson, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships; Little, Brown and Company, 2013
  4. Hold Me Tight Weekend Retreats;