This is the time of year when we make promises to ourselves. Promises about how we'll make this new year different than the last one. We vow to go to the gym more or eat less cherry pie.
If it's health and happiness we're after, we would be better off deciding to improve the quality of our most intimate relationship. I can hear you say, "Well, I'm already pretty splendid in my love relationship, so this has to be a personality change pill for my partner." Or, "No-one really knows how to do that."
But there is one thing you can do, something that has the power to move you and your partner into a whole new kind of dance. Therapists and researchers have now identified the one key ingredient – the make-it-or-break-it element that, more than any other, defines our love relationships. In our institute, we watch as couples who are giving up on their relationship learn about this element and learn to use it to turn hurt and chaos into caring connection. It is, of course, the ability to be emotional open and responsive.
When we can move into the emotional channel and tune into our partner's emotional cues and show how these cues move us, this IS the connection that builds love relationships.
We know this deep in our bones; that this is the magic that makes love what it is. A child runs to us, eyes wide with fear. We move closer, bend down, let ourselves feel in our own body what we see on his face, and we say softly, "It's OK. I am here. Are you scared? No need to be scared." The child holds onto us for a moment; then, he smiles.
Simple? Sentimental? Perhaps. But the science of bonding says this is a moment of safe connection that build bonds that last a lifetime. This is the kind of moment that answers the key question in love relationships: "Are you there for me?"
To use an example: Peter tends to withdraw when he senses that Annie is hurt and disappointed in him. This leaves Annie so alone that she is permanently disappointed! What blocks Peter's ability to respond reassuringly? His fear – the one we all have that makes us so vulnerable in love, the fear of rejection and abandonment. So he moves like lightening into self-protection and turns away.
Imagine what happens when Annie and Peter can slow down and talk about how afraid they both are, and how they trigger each other into a kind of primal panic. Imagine the magic that happens when Peter turns back and says, "This is the moment when you feel that I am indifferent, uncaring, isn't it? I don't want to turn away and leave you feeling alone. I want to help you with that feeling so you know how important you are to me." He moves closer, bends down, softens his voice and invites Annie into a safe haven of connection.
These are the moments that spark love, renew love and keep love strong. When couples do this, they shape a connection that transforms their relationship and keeps it strong for years to come.
There are no substitutes for this emotional responsiveness. Partners try to offer intellectual advice, " Why don't you do your meditation when you get upset, then you won't get so hurt?" or practical help, " I know you're mad at me. Would you like me to do the shopping?" But it is the emotional support and connection that works and keeps love alive.
It does take courage to tune into and try to respond to our lover's emotional messages when these messages spark our own anxieties. It helps to remember that we are exquisitely sensitive to our lover's emotional signals, both positive and negative, simply because we are bonding animals whose deepest need is to belong with another. I suggest that Peter remember, when he feels powerless to please Annie and is dismayed by her anger, that she is angry precisely because his comfort and support matters so much to her; to remember that his turning and responding has the power to pull her into loving connection.
In the session, Peter jokes with me; "You mean, all I have to do is keep the emotional channel open and respond on this level, even if all I can say is "I don't know what to say but I don't want you to hurt and I am going to stay here and try to respond," and we will turn into the lovers in the storybooks?"
I look at Annie. She gives Peter a huge million dollar smile. "You got it sweetheart," she says, "just be there for me; that IS the story – the whole story."
We can all make sense of love and what we understand we can shape. Let's make the coming year our most connected yet.
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.