Relationship Advice

5 minute read

Hold Me Tight is a practical guide to Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT). It’s written by Sue Johnson who has lots of accolades in the domain of couple’s therapy. The book combines psychology studies with anonymized conversations with her clients in her couple’s counseling practice.

Motivation

I picked up the book shortly after I got married. I was surprised to learn that 50% of marriages end in divorce within 8 years. What goes wrong in so many of these cases?

A recent survey1 which asked divorced couples the same question showed the following.

Reason Percentage
Lack of commitment 73%
Argue too much 56%
Infidelity 55%
Married too young 46%
Unrealistic expectations 45%
Lack of equality in the relationship 44%
Lack of preparation for marriage 41%
Domestic Violence or Abuse 25%

(Many partners list more than one, so these numbers don’t add up to 100%)

There’s a lot more nuance in the numbers as well. Age, religion, location, previous marriages, education, sexual history, and your habits can all significantly impact the chances of divorce. Other interesting factors I learned:

  • An annual income of over $50,000 can decrease the risk of divorce by as much as 30% versus those with an income of under $25k.2
  • Wives are 2x more likely to file for divorce than husbands.
  • Those with “below average” IQs are 50 percent more likely to be divorced than those with “above average” IQs
  • The risk of divorce is 50% higher when one spouse comes from a divorced home and 200% higher when both partners do.

While the “average” number is 50%, controlling for the variables in my situation would predict a much smaller number. Even so, the whole question is fallacious. A more interesting one: What makes the most loving marriages so successful?

I knew that perserving and enriching my marriage would be one of the most important things in my life. I was especially motivated by what the Harvard class of 1963 had to say when reflecting on marriage and family.

Why Emotional Focused Therapy?

EFT is recognized by the American Psychological Association as an empirically proven form of therapy. Over 15 years, numerous studies have concluded that over 75% of couples that go through EFT recover from distress and are happy in their relationships.

The basis of EFT is on attachment theory. Human beings need emotional care. This point is further emphasized with studies and surveys done on various populations. Here are a few that stood out to me:

  • People have fewer close friends than before, and there’s a growing number of peope who don’t have any.
  • When people are asked what they want out of life, a loving relationship outranks financial success. This is a stark contrast to 30-40 years ago.
  • In one experiment they separated monkeys from their mothers at birth. The infant could choose between a “mother” made out of wire or one made out of squashy rags that looked more “monkey” like. The monkeys chose to spend most of their time with the soft-cloth mother without food.

Monkey Experiment

In Cleveland, researchers at Case Western Reserve University asked men with a history of angina and high blood pressure, “Does your wife show her love?” Those who answered “No” suffered almost twice as many angina episodes during the next five years as did those who replied “Yes.”

Psychologist Jim Coan of the University of Virginia told women patients having an MRI brain scan that when a little red light on the machine came on, they might receive a small electrical shock on their feet — or they might not. This information lit up the stress centers in patients’ brains. But when partners held their hands, the patients registered less stress.

When they were shocked, they experienced less pain. This effect was noticeably stronger in the happiest relationships, the ones where partners scored high on measures of satisfaction and that the researchers called the Supercouples. Contact with a loving partner literally acts as a buffer against shock, stress, and pain.

Therapy In A Nutshell

Often people will account their unhappy relationship to concrete actions (see above), but in reality it has more to do with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions.

Johnson identifies what she calls “Demon Dialogues.” They are patterns of interaction that come equipped with a ticking time bomb. If you don’t get out of them soon, you’re doomed. The more intense or frequent, the higher your chance of marriage failure.

  1. Protest Polka3: One partner attempts to get an emotional response, the other tries to deny it.
  2. Find The Bad Guy: Partner’s antagonize the other (the blame game).
  3. Freeze and Flea: Avoiding engagement, numbing down emotions to “shut down”

There are several steps you can do to avoid and resolve the above. What you don’t want to do is be helpless for navigating your way out of them.

Steps For Resolution

  • Simply identifying the pattern in a conversation can go a long way: “This conversation is starting to look like __.” Work out a “mitigation plan” with your partner to catch the warning signs earlier.
  • Remind yourself that stressed conversations are never about the facts (who did what) - they’re about the the strength and security of your emotional bond with your partner. The research suggests people crave emotional confirmation and caring from their partners, as opposed to advice.
  • Create an emotional safety net: allow your partner to share their insecurities and the emotions their feeling. Overcome blame with curiosity (why are they feeling this way?)

Confirming that you have heard your partner’s message, that you appreciate that he or she is sharing with you, and that you want to be responsive is a positive first step.

The overriding lesson is you have to take your partner’s hurt seriously and hang in and ask questions until the meaning of an incident becomes clear, even if to you the event seems trivial or the hurt exaggerated.

Sometimes we don’t know what is so painful to us in a particular event until we can really explore it with our partner.

We know that part of healing from trauma is being able to grasp a cataclysmic event and shape it into a coherent story, one that makes sense out of chaos and creates a vision of renewed control. When one partner puts a negative spin on incidents, the other moves in to comfort and show the larger picture.

While there were other takeaways, for me, the main takeaways are summarized above. The other points of the book were fairly obvious. Things that could be summed up with: “have good sex,” (the trick is communication and curiosity!), “make time for each other,” and “communicate productively.”

While the steps above are sparse on details, they serve as good reminders for me. I’d suggest picking up the book and complementing it with Mark Manson’s Relationship Advice.

One final takeaway from the book was creating a five year “love story” for your relationship. The kind of story that you’d want to share with your grandkids one day.


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