Aug 09

Sue Johnson: “Hold Me Tight”/”Love Sense”

A founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), clinical psychologist Sue Johnson is considered an expert on what keeps romantic relationships going. Below are notable quotes from this author‘s Hold Me Tight and Love Sense.

I. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008) by Sue Johnson

Love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so we can cope with the ups and downs of existence. This drive to emotionally attach — to find someone to whom we can turn and say “Hold me tight” — is wired into our genes and our bodies. It is as basic to life, health, and happiness as the drives for food, shelter, or sex. We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy — to survive.

When love doesn’t work, we hurt. Indeed, “hurt feelings” is a precisely accurate phrase, according to psychologist Naomi Eisenberger of the University of California. Her brain imaging studies show that rejection and exclusion trigger the same circuits in the same part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, as physical pain.

Sociologist James House of the University of Michigan declares that emotional isolation is a more dangerous health risk than smoking or high blood pressure, and we now warn everyone about these two!

If I appeal to you for emotional connection and you respond intellectually to a problem, rather than directly to me, on an attachment level I will experience that as “no response.” This is one of the reasons that the research on social support uniformly states that people want “indirect” support, that is, emotional confirmation and caring from their partners, rather than advice.

In insecure relationships, we disguise our vulnerabilities so our partner never really sees us.

II. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships (2013) by Sue Johnson

Happiness experts, such as psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, tell us that our relationships are the strongest single predictor of human joy and well-being. Ever since social scientists started systematically studying happiness, it has been resoundingly clear that deep and stable relationships make for happy and stable individuals. Positive relationships also make us more resilient, advance our personal growth, and improve our physical health.

Distressed partners no longer see each other as their emotional safe haven. Our lover is supposed to be the one person we can count on who will always respond. Instead, unhappy partners feel emotionally deprived, rejected, even abandoned. In that light, couples’ conflicts assume their true meaning: they are frightened protests against eroding connection and a demand for emotional reengagement.

The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.

“There is no such thing as constructive criticism,” says John Gottman. “All criticism is painful.” He is correct. We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. 

It’s important to emphasize that misattunement is not a sign of lack of love or commitment. It is inevitable and normal; in fact, it is startlingly common. Ed Tronick of Harvard Medical School, who has spent years absorbed in monitoring the interactions between mother and child, finds that even happily bonded mothers and infants miss each other’s signals fully 70 percent of the time. Adults miss their partner’s cues most of the time, too! We all send unclear signals and misread cues. We become distracted, we suddenly shift our level of emotional intensity and leave our partner behind, or we simply overload each other with too many signals and messages. Only in the movies does one poignant gaze predictably follow another and one small touch always elicit an exquisitely timed gesture in return. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that love is about always being in tune.

Dec 12

Constructive Criticism: Nix Those “Sandwiches”

Is constructive criticism really constructive? Not really. You can’t make a child better by pointing out what you think is wrong with him or her. Criticism either crushes spirit or elicits defensiveness. Constructive criticism is an interesting combination of words. “Construct” means “to build.” “Criticism” means “to tear down” It creates defiance and anger as well. H. Norman Wright

There is no such thing as constructive criticism,” says John Gottman. “All criticism is painful.” He is correct. We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. Psychologist Jill Hooley’s work at Harvard measures the impact of critical, hostile comments made by loved ones and shows just how venomous disparagement by those we rely on can be. This censure may even trigger relapse of mental illness, such as depression. Sue Johnson, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships

Tony Schwartz has a great opening in his Harvard Business Review article on this subject:

Here’s a question guaranteed to make your stomach lurch: ‘Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?’

What that actually means is ‘Would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback, wrapped in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not?’

The problem with criticism is that it challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged. As Daniel Goleman has noted, threats to our esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.

Schwartz cites three ways that feedback, which is often necessary in all kinds of relationships, goes wrong.

  1. When it’s more about me than you. “Any time we provide feedback with the goal of getting someone to better meet our needs, rather than being responsive to theirs, it’s unlikely to prompt the desired outcome.”
  2. When we don’t “hold the other person’s value in the process. Even the most well-intentioned criticism will, more often than not, prompt us to feel our value is at risk, and under attack.” That leads to defensiveness.
  3. When we “assume that we’re right about whatever it is we’re inclined to say.” Feedback giving works better when it’s more “in a spirit of humble exploration rather than declaration, dialogue rather than monologue, curiosity rather than certainty.”

Adam Grant (Medium), who has significant expertise in workplace management, points out that the constructive “feedback sandwich” idea doesn’t work well: “…(W)hen I looked at the data, I learned that the feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks.” Either the receivers tend to be unable to hear the positives while dreading the negative or the opposite, the positives “drown out the negatives.”

“Giving a compliment sandwich might make the giver feel good, but it doesn’t help the receiver.” Grant offers four tips for giving helpful feedback:

  1. Explain why you’re giving the feedback: Recently, a team of psychologists was able to make feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with just 19 words: ‘I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them’”…
  2. Take yourself off a pedestal“: Similar to Schwartz’s emphasis on humility.
  3. Ask if the person wants feedback: Grant says “no one has ever declined”…
  4. Have a transparent dialogue, not a manipulative monologue.