Book Club: Hold Me Tight, Fourth Conversation

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Want to go back to the beginning of the series? Just click here.

The fourth conversation in Hold Me Tight is labelled Engaging and Connecting. It’s different than the last three conversations in a couple of ways. The first three conversations were focused on teaching you how to halt or contain negative interaction patterns with your partner, as well as identify certain aspects around the negativity. This conversation is all about learning how to generate positive patterns with your partner. As Dr. Sue Johnson puts it: “In effect, you’ll be learning how to speak the language of attachment.”

This conversation is actually split into two parts. The first is “What am I most afraid of?” and the second is “What do I need most from you?”

The “What am I most afraid of?” conversation is an introspective conversation, where each partner thinks about negative conversations they’ve had in the past, and examines what fears may have been guiding their reaction. For instance, did they withdraw from a conversation because they were afraid talking about it further would lead to the end of the relationship?

The “What do I need most from you?” conversation uses the previous conversation to determine what the other partner can do to help the first partner through their fears. For instance, perhaps they need the other person to listen and not offer advice during an emotional time, or maybe they need the other person to be okay with taking breaks during arguments without worrying it’ll make things worse.

Both conversations can be difficult – after all, it’s hard to face our fears, and even harder to reveal them to others, even if they are your partner. Make sure to check out Hold Me Tight for some more details on how to make the conversations a bit easier.

Dr. Sue Johnson closes the chapter in an interesting way – discussing a bit about The Neuroscience of Harmony – I won’t try to paraphrase it all here, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at – it’s fascinating!

Next week, we’ll be digging into the fifth conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses: Hold Me Tight – Forgiving Injuries.

Book Club: Hold Me Tight, Third Conversation

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Want to go back to the beginning of the series? Just click here.

The topic of the third conversation tackled in Hold Me Tight is Revisiting a Rocky Moment. This is a great follow-up to last week, where we learned about how to identify particular raw spots that may exist between us and our partners. Revisiting a Rocky Moment is all about learning how to de-escalate bad conversational patterns and arguments in the moment.

You may notice the chapter specifies “revisiting.” This is because when we’re first developing our de-escalation skills, it’s best to work on them outside of a rocky moment. Dr. Sue Johnson even admits that sometimes, when her emotions are getting the better of her, she can have trouble with the de-escalation process.

The chapter goes in depth on all of the pieces necessary for de-escalation, but there’s a major theme: the best way to de-escalate is to take ownership of your emotions and how your words or actions may be making your partner feel. Once you and your partner are able to take ownership of your own actions and emotions, you’ll be able to discuss them more open and honestly with your partner. Once you get to the point where you can begin to have this discussion, you’ll likely find yourself in a much less heated argument, and can work on getting to the root causes of the argument.

The first few times you practice this, Dr. Sue Johnson recommends picking a “brief, unsettling (but not really difficult) incident from your relationship” that occurred recently. Then, work with your partner to break down what exactly happened during the incident. Dr. Sue Johnson encourages couples to be curious – ask follow up questions about why your partner said something or felt a certain way.

Once you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of this exercise with a minor incident, try it again with a larger incident in your relationship that has been unresolved. Be aware that this exercise may be difficult – especially if one partner is a bit embarrassed by how they behaved in the moment. Encourage one another to be honest, and do your best to withhold any judgement.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of this exercise, you can start to use the same tools to de-escalate in the moment. It’s obviously very incident-specific, but it may look something like: “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that you’re turning into your mother – but when you hover over me when I’m trying to do chores, I start to feel like I’m not pulling my weight and get defensive – even though I’m trying hard to help! Can you tell me why you feel like you need to look over my shoulder when I help around the house?”

If both partners can continue in a calm, rational manner, the discussion will be a lot more productive – maybe one partner will reveal that the other partner is constantly forgetting important steps of the chores but they don’t know how to communicate that in a healthy way. Or, perhaps it will turn out that the chores are getting done just fine, but the other partner feels a little self-conscious accepting help around the house and doesn’t know how to let go. You never know until you sit down and talk it out!

Next week, we’ll be digging into the fourth conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses: Hold Me Tight – Engaging and Connecting.

Book Club: Hold Me Tight, Second Conversation

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Want to go back to the beginning of the series? Just click here.

The second conversation Dr. Sue Johnson tackles is Raw Spots. Pretty much everyone has them – pockets of emotional vulnerability and hyper-sensitivity that can cause us to react less-than-rationally. Often, when a partner unknowingly hits the other’s raw spots during a conversation or argument, it starts to go off the rails and devolve into the demon dialogues we discussed last week.

Much of the chapter is taken up with discussing examples of what a raw spot can look like. You see, they’re not always so obvious, and neither are their triggers. For instance, someone using the same turn of phrase as a childhood bully could trigger a raw spot. Or, perhaps it’s a certain look or body language that is reminiscent of arguments that you and your partner have had in the past.

When raw spots are so subtle, it can be hard to identify them. A key mechanism for identifying them can be thinking about the moments when an argument seems to “go off the rails.” Dr. Sue Johnson says that this will look like a “radical shift in emotional tone” – there’s even a chance that you’re not in an argument at the time. Raw spots can be triggered by a joke or seemingly innocuous comment.

Once you identify what’s exactly triggering these emotions, the next step is to try to identify why the facial expression, turn of phrase, or whatever it is causes such negative reactions – and then share the why with your partner. This can be very difficult, as raw spots generally stem from some level of trauma or intense negative experience, and you and your partner may already be experiencing some trust problems. However, opening up and discussing the triggers is necessary – if your partner doesn’t understand why something is upsetting you, they won’t be able to avoid it effectively.

All of this may feel a bit like common-sense, but it’s definitely worth doing an audit of the last few arguments with your partner. Did one of you suddenly escalate the argument or completely shut down for seemingly no reason? That’s a raw spot, right there. Even if it’s not causing you any obvious problems, it’s worth identifying the issue. If you want more examples of what raw spots look like, definitely grab a copy of Hold Me Tight!

Next week, we’ll be digging into the third conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses: Revisiting a Rocky Moment.

Book Club: Hold Me Tight, First Conversation

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Want to go back to the beginning of the series? Just click here.

Today, we’re going to dive into the first conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses in Hold Me Tight. She called this section Recognizing the Demon Dialogues. Demon Dialogues is her term for a few common patterns of unhealthy relationships. She identifies three: Find the Bad Guy, the Protest Polka and Freeze and Flee.

Before going into the details of each dialogue, Dr. Johnson takes the time to discuss why it’s important to have an understanding of what these dialogues look like – it’s because once you can step back and see the pattern you and your partner are falling into, it’s much easier to break out of it and reorient your behavior to be more productive. “Focusing on the game, rather than the ball,” as she puts it.

Do any of these dialogues sound like something you’ve experienced in your relationship?

Find the Bad Guy

Find the Bad Guy could also be thought of as “playing the blame game” – basically, once a conflict arises, both partners start trying to figure out whose fault it is instead of working towards solutions. Once partners start behaving this way regularly, they begin to immediately expect to be blamed for something going wrong, sometimes causing them to launch a sort of pre-emptive strike. Of course, as this argument is going on, the problem remains unsolved, and trust continues to break down between the partners.

The Protest Polka

This section opens with a sobering fact – studies indicate that many of the couples who fall into this pattern early in marriage do not make it to their fifth anniversary. The thing that makes this issue more insidious is that it can be much harder to spot than Find the Bad Guy.

The Protest Polka is generally comprised of one partner reaching out towards the other partner, attempting to get some sort of reaction, generally looking for some sort of reassurance, and the other partner “stepping back” or “shutting down.” This can cause the first partner to reach out in more aggressive or persistent fashions, which, of course, only causes the second partner to shut down more, often because they’re worried responding will result in a fight or that they’ll respond incorrectly.

This can be a difficult pattern to spot when you’re trapped inside it, because no matter which role you play, you’re likely to think that your behavior is the fault of the other person. You will both need to take a step back and realize that you’re on the same team before this behavior can be corrected.

Freeze and Flee

This is generally the last step once couples start making the Demon Dialogues a regular occurrence in their relationships. In the previous dialogue, we saw how one partner was aggressively pursuing reactions from the other. Freeze and Flee is what happens when that person finally gives up.

Often, couples who have gotten to this stage are able to cooperate around pragmatic issues and be polite to one another – but the love aspect of their relationship is close to over. If the previous dialogue is a cyclic dance, this is no dance at all.

What Now?

Each demon dialogue has some exercises for couples to do as a team to help them figure out if they may be trapped in one of these unhealthy patterns. If the couple is indeed trapped in one of these patterns, the book offers some tips on how to break free. We highly recommend picking up a copy of the book if any of the above sounds uncomfortably familiar.

 

Next week, we’ll be digging into the second conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses: Finding the Raw Spots.

Book Club: Hold Me Tight, Introduction and Part One

Over the next few weeks, we will be reading the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. This book is divided into three major parts: A New Light on Love, Seven Transforming Conversations and The Power of Hold Me Tight. Today, we’ll discuss the book’s introduction and all of A New Light on Love. From there, we’ll tackle one conversation a week.

Introduction

Dr. Sue Johnson opens this book discussing her own journey around understanding love. After all, if you were asked to define “love” – could you? As she studied couples facing conflicts, she began to realize something: the conflict itself (or the topic of the conflict) wasn’t what was causing the relationship to fail. Instead, it was the consequences of the conflict – the loss of trust and emotional safety – that caused couples to get trapped in negative patterns. This discovery lead her to develop Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, a unique approach to helping couples work through conflict that didn’t focus on traditional methods of teaching conflict resolution and instead focused on understanding the underlying consequences of existing and previous conflicts.

Part One: A New Light on Love

The first major section of Hold Me Tight begins with a fascinating history lesson. The first modern work around understanding the importance of love and emotional connections was focused on understanding the bonds between parents and children. We won’t go into it too much here, but I would recommend picking up a copy of Hold Me Tight, or searching the internet for information on John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Henry Harlow and their work with attachment theory.

The book moves on to discuss adult attachment studies – more psychologists are mentioned, like Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan, who conducted a study that would inspired hundreds of others to examine adult attachment. They learned some pretty important things from these studies – basically, that feeling emotionally connected to our partners is empowering and also leads to healthy relationship habits like open communication.

Johnson also takes the time to discuss some physiological consequences that have been discovered from experiencing a lack of love or companionship. For instance, a variety of scientists have done studies concluding that loneliness raises blood pressure, and that that consequence can be experienced by people in relationships where they are distance from their partner. Scary!

After giving us some background as to why this is important and may be impacting us more than we think, Johnson digs a little deeper into some damaging patterns couples may be experiencing in their relationships. She calls them The Demon Dialogues and identifies 3 main ones: Find the Bad Guy, the Protest Polka, and Free and Flee. She also shares the sobering fact that couples who find themselves trapped in The Protest Polka have more than an 80% chance of divorcing within 4-5 years.

The section concludes with a concrete example of a couple named Peter and Linda, and some relationship troubles they’re experiencing. Johnson runs through a scenario and discusses different ways the couples can react, as well as what the short and long term consequences might be in each case.

Overall, this section is jam packed with information that’s important to any couple – whether they’re currently experiencing conflict within their relationship or not.

Next week, we’ll be digging into the first conversation Dr. Sue Johnson discusses: Recognizing the Demon Dialogues. Make sure you pick up a copy  of Hold Me Tight so you can follow along!