What do you do if you want to have conversations about emotions with your partner, and all they want to do is talk about how they think about things? Or vice versa? What do you do when you and your partner seem fundamentally mismatched in the way that you process the world? In today’s episode, we dropped in with Sue Johnson for a few minutes to get her take on this question. Sue Johnson is the author of “Hold Me Tight” and the creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) – and has trained thousands of couples therapists in her methods. Sue also reveals one thing that you can do, today, to add positive energy to ANY relationship.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
Want to experience a Luxury Suite or VIP Box at an amazing concert or sporting event? Check out Suitehop.com/DATENIGHT to score sweet deals on a special night for you and your partner.
Visit Sue Johnson’s website to learn more about her work.
Pick up your copy of Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide – perfect help for handling conflict and shifting the codependent patterns in your relationship
Guide to Understanding Your Needs (and Your Partner’s Needs) in Your Relationship (ALSO FREE)
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: The Railsplitters – Check them Out
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Satin. Today we’re gonna do something a little bit different. We are going to dive in quickly with one of the world experts on relationships to get answers to some of your questions. I dropped into the relationship alive community on Facebook and said, “Hey if you had 10 minutes to talk with Sue Johnson, today’s guest, what would you ask her?” And then I was like, “asking for a friend. Okay, I’m asking for myself.” And so we got some great questions from people and so I wanted to take this opportunity to ask them and to share just a few moments with our guest – as I mentioned her name is Sue Johnson, she is one of the world’s experts on relationships and specifically on how we use attachment theory and attachment science to build stronger bonds with our partner and to thrive in connection. It’s also a great way to understand when things are going south, why they’re going south, and how to rebuild your relationship.
Neil Sattin: Sue Johnson is also the creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy also known as EFT, and has trained thousands of therapists around the world in using EFT, to help couples. And it is one of the methods that has been empirically shown through research to be effective at helping couples build stronger relationships. Sue has been on the show before. If you’ve been a long-time listener, you know that. To listen to any of her other episodes, you can visit neilsattin.com/sue, S-U-E, and then a number. And so, there’s just sue or there’s sue2 and sue3 she’s been on all of those times. So this will be sue4. And we will have a detailed transcript as always, that you can get by visiting that URL or by texting the word PASSION to the number 33444 and following the instructions. Sue Johnson, so great to be here with you again, on Relationship Alive.
Sue Johnson: Hey, it’s always fun. Nice to be here.
Neil Sattin: Great, great, so thank you for being willing to just jump in and go with a few quick questions. As opposed to our long conversations that we often have. It’s so easy to talk to you for a long time ’cause there’s so much to say about this topic. Let’s start with, I thought this was a great question. And this comes up all the time, what can you do if you’re in a relationship where one person loves to talk about emotions and feelings and have those conversations and the other person would rather talk about things and events and when you start having an emotional conversation with that person they start to shut down. And that often creates this dynamic where they’re each kind of wanting more of the other or in some cases less of the other. What advice would you give a couple in that situation? And maybe you could speak to both members of the couple and how they might come to a better place.
Sue Johnson: Well, if we saw a couple like that in EFT, in therapy or if we saw a couple like that in one of our educational groups, our Hold Me Tight groups, we would get them to talk about just what you said, to talk about the process. Everybody stays with the content, and with their own kind of dilemmas and their own kind of issues. And from that point of view all you’re left with is that these two people are different. Yup people are different. Everybody’s basically incompatible on some level but they’re not. Because you can talk about the process. So if I was sitting down with that couple, I would ask the person who wanted to talk about emotion, “Could you share with your partner what’s happening for you and what it’s like for you, when you’re… What is so important for you about wanting to share your heart?” And you make it simple. That’s the other thing, “What is so important for you about wanting to share your heart, about wanting to understand something about your partner’s emotions? Can you help him understand that?” And the person might say, “Well yeah, there’s times in the relationship where I kind of feel lonely, it’s like I’m in a relationship, but I can’t quite put my hand on you Tom, I don’t quite know where you are, I don’t quite know how you’re feeling about me, and I kind of feel lonely.”
Sue Johnson: And when people talk on this process level, it’s usually new to the other person. The other person says, “I didn’t know that you felt lonely, I felt like you were just fed up with me and that I wasn’t emotional enough for you.” So this is how it kind of goes. Usually the person who’s looking for this emotional connection is saying, “Where are you, where are you, where are you? Can you connect with me? I need this emotional connection.” And we know how important that is to people. Psychology pathologized that for a long time saying, “Oh no, you shouldn’t need that. It’s somehow immature.” And now, what we’re understanding is, no, no, no, it’s just who we are. It’s how your brain is structured, you’re a bonding mammal and you need this sense of connection. So that person would say, “I don’t need to talk about my emotions forever.” That’s the other thing, that people have fears the other person who’s more withdrawn or more introverted would say, “Well, like if we start talking about emotions, are we gonna have to talk about it like for a week?” Usually the fear there is, “I’m gonna get overwhelmed.” I’m not gonna know how to do it right.
Sue Johnson: So it’s important for the person to say, “No, I don’t need to talk about emotions for a week, I just need to be able to check in with you and connect.” And the other person says, “Oh well, that’s really not so hard.” And then the other person needs to be able to say, “I’m slower than you. I’m more externally focused than you. I’m not as embedded as you in my emotions. I need to think about it a bit and I’m not always sure how I feel. And if I’m gonna share with you my emotions then you got to like understand that. And I also wanna connect about other things.” The joke with me and my husband is that, his favorite place to go is a hardware store.
Sue Johnson: So I can’t remember where we were, we were somewhere exotic. Oh, we were on this beautiful little island, a couple of days ago. And we’re wandering around after coffee, and my husband’s looking across the street and he’s looking at the hardware store, and I said, “No. You don’t wanna go in the hardware.” He said, “I just wanna go in and find… ” Right, so I wanna go look in the art galleries, he wants to go to the hardware store. The point is, if you can talk about them and talk about your needs and your softer feelings, and you can be responsive to your partner, you can deal with all kinds of differences. Tricky part is, that so many of us, that’s not what happens.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: What happens is we get stuck. We get stuck. The person who’s wanting connection gets upset and angry and says, “You never talk to me.” And that’s a challenge and it’s an accusation, really. And then the other person feels like they’re failing, they can’t do what they’re partner wants and they say, “Well I don’t wanna talk right now, I’m busy right now.” So they shut down more; the more they shut down, the more the other person gets upset, and that is what brings so many people into seeing someone like me. And that’s what I try to lay out for people in my book for the public, Hold Me Tight, because so many people don’t understand that we can get trapped there, and then the dance takes us over. And before you know where you are, the other person looks like the enemy, and looks like somebody who’s so different than you, that you don’t even know what to do with it. So it’s a good question. And we think it’s always about gender, but it’s not always. I’ve worked with folks where it’s the man saying, “I wanna talk to you or I wanna get close.” And it’s the woman saying, “What are you talking about? I come home from my law practice, I’m exhausted.” And so people have to be able to be emotionally accessible and open and responsive to each other. It’s not about making cognitive deals. Cognitive deals, they don’t go to the right level. It’s about being able to share what’s going on with you.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Sue Johnson: I don’t know if I’ve answered your question. Have I answered your… I think I have.
Neil Sattin: You have. Yeah, in detail. And one little point about that, that I’m curious about, because I was thinking about the question and thinking, “Okay, so we reached this point.” As you said, it used to be pathologized when someone was emotional in a relationship. How do we avoid pathologizing the other partner who is less emotionally oriented?
Sue Johnson: I think what we’ve learned over the years in emotionally focused therapy, is we think of emotions and how we deal with emotions as somehow random or irrational. And what we’ve learned over the years is emotions aren’t irrational for a start, there’s always a good reason for why you feel the way you feel. Emotions are all about telling you what matters in the world and what is important for your survival. And people have very good reasons. They have learned to focus on certain things and to deal with their emotions in a certain way to survive. And they’re standing in front of you, so it worked, it worked on some level.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: And now, that’s what they know how to do. So I remember working with a man who could hardly… He could not look into his wife’s face, for sure, and talk about his inner world. If he was going to do it, he had to go very slowly and stare at the rug, stare at the carpet. But what he told me was, he grew up in a very violent family, where the music to their dance was all kind of hostility and rage and violence all the time. So any time he heard that music, his brain would go into alarm. And his brain would start looking for ways out. And he needed to be able to tell this partner that, but they were very good reasons why when she would up the emotional music, he would start to freeze and go still.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: And there’s no point in telling him that’s bad or you mustn’t do that, that doesn’t help at all. The most useful thing is to say, “Well, you must have a very good reason for that. Obviously, that was important for you to be able to do that right now. And can you tell your wife how can she help you? How can she help you not move immediately into that shutdown?”
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Sue Johnson: He said, “Oh, she can talk slowly.” And his wife roared with laughter, because, of course, she spoke very fast.
Neil Sattin: Totally.
Sue Johnson: He said, “She can speak slowly, because everyone in my family spoke very fast and all this fast emotional stuff coming at me, and I feel like I’m in a hail of bullets.” Listen to his image, “I’m in a hail of bullets, I’m gonna get hurt.”
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: No, we must not pathologize. People have certain ways of regulating their emotions. And the thing about that is, if we accept them and we understand them, people can then add to them. Relatively withdrawn folks can learn to come out and talk about what’s happening inside and know that it works, and that the other person listens and actually it creates connection. And people who are really hungry for emotional connection, for all kinds of good reasons, could also learn to trust another person and to not have everything so urgent all the time. Like, “You’ve got to speak to me now.”
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: Can translate into, “Basically I know you care for me, and I’m gonna take a deep breath here, and I’m gonna give you some space after you come home from work. And I’m gonna trust that, then if I come and talk to you, you’ll be willing to talk to me.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Sue Johnson: So it’s a lot of distress in relationships comes from partners triggering each other and ending up feeling disconnected and insecure, rejected, or abandoned. And as human beings, what people don’t get is that feeling rejected and abandoned by someone you count on, your brain translates that into a danger, straight danger, just like walking up on a freeway, crossing a freeway is danger. Your brain says, “Uh-oh, emotional isolation. If you call no one will come. Danger!” Right?
Neil Sattin: Right.
Sue Johnson: And people don’t understand how they trigger each other.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And so the words that come up to mind for me is: One, I’m hearing that there’s this sense of moderation. The “emotional person,” I’m putting that in quotes, like learning how to be emotional without overwhelming another person. And the less emotional person learning like, I don’t think anyone is devoid of emotions, but learning like, “Oh, there’s actually something happening here.” And it could be useful, it doesn’t have to overwhelm the system. But it’s not like you’re gonna turn a non-emotional person into emotional person unless they discover some joy in that. I’m reminded of a conversation with…
Sue Johnson: I think that’s a good point. Yes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I’m reminded of a conversation with Dan Siegel, where he talks about… He was doing mindfulness work with someone who was in their 80s or 90s and woke that person up to their physical sensation and their emotional experience, and suddenly the world was a rich place where they really wanted to be and we’re enjoying it more. It’s not to say that that’s required, but I think that’s available for people if they’re willing to dip their toe into that water.
Sue Johnson: Yes, and also in relationships, the bottom line is, relationships are all about emotion, relationships are a dance, and the emotion is the music, and relationships are all about emotion. So when I’m working with a couple and one partner says something pretty loaded they’re like, “Well, sometimes I think about leaving. I get so desperate I think about leaving.” And I say to the other person, who might be the rather shutdown person, “What’s happening for you?” And they say, “Nothing.” I mean, I deal with it respectfully, but the bottom line is, in my head I say, “No. That’s impossible. If you care about this person and you’re not dead, and you’re not a lizard, you are feeling, because she just sparked alarm in your mammalian brain. In your mammalian brain that knows that emotional isolation and losing someone who’s a huge resource for you and who you depend on is a safety cue. Your mammalian brain knows that, your whole nervous system sings that song.” So when people say, “No. I feel nothing.” I just go, “Aha!”
Neil Sattin: Right. And I think with what you’re… Go ahead.
Sue Johnson: Then I say, “Let’s try that again. She turned to you and she’s dead.” And I run it past his amygdala again and finally he says, “Well, well, well, I don’t know. I just wanna get out of here.” So then he starts to tell me, “My body tells me to just get out of here. So then we go with that.” And the whole thing opens up. We haven’t taught people to trust their emotions and listen to them and make them their friend, we haven’t taught therapists that. We’ve taught people that emotions are sort of dangerous stuff, they get out of control, they’re associated with women. [chuckle] Women kind of going hysterical.
Neil Sattin: What’s wrong with that?
Sue Johnson: Yeah, that’s a bad idea. So there’s a lot of interesting stuff in our society about putting rationality on a pedestal and ditching our emotional realities, actually, when the bottom line is, it’s our emotions that organize our inner world and it’s our emotions that organize the signals we send to others and the way we dance with others. So from my point of view, we might as well get to know them and start to use them well, but then I do something called emotion-focused therapy. So I am gonna feel that way.
Neil Sattin: Right, right. Thank you so much. I’m wondering before we go, ’cause I promised something quick, and it’s so easy to talk to you, and we could keep talking about that very topic, probably for an hour.
Sue Johnson: We could.
Neil Sattin: I’m wondering if you’d be willing to just… Anyone listening, if they wanted to do one thing today that would infuse their relationship with some positive energy, and if they’re not in a relationship maybe just infuse their relationships with others in their life with some positive energy. What’s one thing that they might be able to do? They turn off this podcast and they can go and do it today.
Sue Johnson: Oh my goodness, there’s so many things you could do.
Neil Sattin: I know, I know.
Sue Johnson: There’s so many things you could do. What we see when couples have repaired their relationship or when they’ve gone through our education groups, is that they reach for each other. They reach for each other, and they risk sharing. So that’s what we do when relationships are working. So that doesn’t have to be a big thing. I worked with somebody last week, for a whole week. This young woman was helping me, and at some point during the evening I looked across at her face and I saw… And she was starting to talk about something and I saw the emotional music change and her face change, and I suddenly really got in my body that this was something… She was in pain, she was certainly in pain. She wasn’t just chatting anymore, she was in pain. And usually, I don’t know what we do with that, we kind of don’t want to embarrass the person, so we stay away. And I just had this incredible feeling, so I saw that she was vulnerable, so I reached.
Sue Johnson: So what did I do? I didn’t want to embarrass her, so I just went around the table and sat beside her and put my hand on her arm and looked at her. What I was saying to her, we do so much non-verbal. What I said to her with my eyes was, “I see that you’re in pain.” And she just turned into my neck for a minute. Some other people at the table might not even have noticed. She just turned into me for a minute and put her hand on my hand. It was like, “I see you. I see you and I care that you are there.” And so, I reached to her and she… It’s like her whole body told me, “Thank you. Thank you for this.” People love it when we see them.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Sue Johnson: We do this with our dogs, we do this with babies, we forget the adults want it too.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Sue Johnson: My dog will come and drop his toy at my feet, and I’ll say, “Oh, you want to play? You’re such a good dog.” And my dog will quiver in joy. Why can’t we do that with people? Just see them, see them and respond to them. It’s so powerful, and in our busy lives, we don’t do that very… We don’t listen, we don’t honor, we don’t say, it’s like we say to people with our actions, “I see you. We’re two human beings on this planet. In this short little time we have here, I see you. I’m with you, you’re not alone here, you matter.” That’s a very powerful message.
Neil Sattin: I agree. Such a gift to give someone else your care, your attention, to actually see them fully. Thank you so much, Sue, for joining us for this quick dive into your world and your world of relationships.
Sue Johnson: So is this sue4?
Neil Sattin: This is sue4.
Sue Johnson: It is sue4 and do I improve every time, Neil?
Neil Sattin: I think we both improve. I think we both do.
Sue Johnson: Okay, that was very insensitive of me. Yes, you do improve, Neil. We both improve every time. That’s right. Okay.
Neil Sattin: Thank you so much for your willingness to join today and yeah, for you listening, neilsattin.com/sue4 to check out the transcript and download it. And Sue, I’m so looking forward to talking with you again sometime soon.
Sue Johnson: Yes. Take care.
Neil Sattin: Take care.