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How To Keep Your Relationship Together (Even When It's Falling Apart)

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March 31, 2016

Everybody wants the secret to creating true connection with a lover—that magic moment that sparks trust and tenderness and, well, love. But love has always been defined as mysterious, random. It just happens, right? Well, maybe not.

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You can actually shape that magical thing called a secure bond!

The Research Process

In the last few years, psychologists like me began to study moments of close connection and moments of distancing in an effort to solve the mystery. In my lab, we’ve been helping distressed, angry partners find and use these magical moments to transform their relationships for quite a while. We’ve done the research to find out the key ingredients of these moments and identified the major ways they can be used to our advantage.

It didn’t happen overnight, though. We started working with couples on something we called EFT—emotionally focused couple therapy—just at the time when the new science of romantic bonding took off. All the knowledge that had already transformed our parenting styles—our ways of interpreting our kids’ need for emotional connection—began to be applied to adult love relationships.

This perspective informs the powerful emotional intimacy partners can unlock through EFT and affirms the validity of our studies’ positive results. We call these moments of open, tender sharing “softenings,” because we saw partners not only begin to express their more vulnerable feelings but also be more loving (softer) in their responses to their partners. We also call them Hold Me Tight conversations—you can guess why.

So now, after all these years of work, we just put out a breakthrough study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy showing that when an EFT therapist guides you into these “soft” moments, you don’t just feel more satisfied with your relationship for a while or fight a little less. You can actually shape that magical thing called a secure bond. Imagine that!

Maybe what we call "true love" isn’t for the fairy tales and romance novels or just for the silver screen anymore. We have, at last, a practical map for making love happen.

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What We Uncovered

In this study we took 32 couples, who reported that they were distressed, distant, and insecure in their relationship or felt they couldn’t count on each other, didn’t trust each other, or often felt rejected and alone. In only 20 or so hours, we were able to show them how to move into the kind of secure bonds we all dream about and long for—the special, deep connection that our brain codes as crucial to survival.

When we checked on these couples two years later, the bonds we’d helped them start to forge were still intact. And this isn’t just good news for our relationships—this kind of bond predicts happiness, a strong sense of self, and resilience under stress.

Until now, psychologists believed that, although infatuation can ignite almost instantly, these kinds of bonds take at least two years to form and that even then, they often couldn’t form unless you had a secure bond with a parent in childhood.

No one has ever shown that it was possible to deliberately shape key elements in love relationships—like emotional responsiveness—or to teach lovers how to change the security of their attachment. This study showed that we can do it.

It looks like this. Terry and Sam came into our lab talking about divorce. “He never talks,” says Terry. “We have zero connection. I don’t know why I stay. I am lonely and mad all the time.”

“Yep, that’s about right,” replies Sam, “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 eight weeks later, Sam and Terry see each other differently. They can now see how they trigger fight and flight 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 moments of loving, responsive connection. You know, the kind at the end of every rom-com (but better). “In just 20 weeks, we went to a whole new level. We never knew love could be like this.”

The fear of being deserted or dismissed, the tendency to numb out and check out, or the automatic tendency to deny your need for closeness, can all be addressed through the EFT process. It can guide you into a whole new level of emotional connection.

The seismic shift comes as a result of learning to open up emotionally and accept your (and your partner’s) need for connection. Recognizing that leads to a sense of acceptance of and increased responsiveness to each other’s vulnerabilities. And we all know that, in the end, love is all about emotional presence. It’s about being able to say with confidence, “My lover is there for me. I know he or she sees me as precious and special.”

In these bonding conversations, partners risk and reach for each other in a way that helps the other respond. Sam tells Terry, “It’s hard to admit, but I shut down because I am so afraid when I hear I am disappointing you. That I am disappointing—not what you need. And I don’t know how to put this right. So I freeze up. It’s not that I don’t care—I’m freaked out.”

Terry reaches over and holds his hand, offering him comfort. This moment builds both partners’ confidence that they can find ways out of distance and disagreement, that they can find their way home to safe connection.

What It Means for Our Relationships

This study shows that we can now go straight to the heart of the matter, pinpoint the defining moments in love, and learn how to walk confidently into the territory Leonard Cohen described as “a thousand kisses deep.”

We’ve come a long way from the (still) popular belief that we are helpless to ignite the flame of love or deliberately shape it. We no longer have to just fall in and then, often disastrously, fall out of love. We really can make sense of, shape, and sculpt our attachment bonds.

And that's fantastic news for every single one of us.

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Sue Johnson, M.A., EdD
Sue Johnson, M.A., EdD
Clinical Psychologist

Sue Johnson, M.A., EdD, is a clinical psychologist, author of the bestselling book Hold Me Tight, and the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT), a popular form of couples therapy with effectiveness demonstrated in over 30 years of peer-reviewed clinical research. She is also the founder of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and has trained thousands of therapists around the world.

Johnson is a Distinguished Research Professor at Alliant University in San Diego, California, as well as a Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa. She has received a variety of awards acknowledging her development of EFT and her significant contribution to the field of couple and family therapy and adult attachment, including being named Psychologist of the Year by the American Psychological Association in 2016. She has a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of British Columbia.