Hold Me Tight

Johnson, S. (2011). Hold me tight: Your guide to the most successful approach to building loving relationships. Piatkus.

"Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine"
- People live in the shelter of each other


Hold Me Tight, by Dr Sue Johnson (2011), the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), is a book directed at couples or individuals looking to improve their relationships. It draws off the research and lessons of EFT in an attempt to impart the knowledge gained to couples so that they may build a stronger and more loving connections.

A Science of Love

Johnson begins her book by laying out the problem she was faced with when beginning her work in couples therapy. At the time, the majority of methods for couples in counselling worked solely on communication issues, which failed to give any understanding of important concepts like connection and love, and distilled all treatment down to communication skills. Johnson was unsatisfied with this framing and felt that something else, something deeper, was pulling at the strings of the dramas she saw unfolding between couples in her therapy room.

She found her answer in another school of psychology, developmental psychology, in the theory of attachment. Attachment Theory was first pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby (Bowlby, 1988) and researcher Mary Ainsworth (1977). In their work, they showed that human beings are wired to attach to one another and that this drive is as instinctual as the drive for food and sex. Attachment Theory explains that in our early years the desire to be close and comforted by a primary caregiver, provided safety and support at a time when we were most vulnerable, which allowed us to explore and learn how to operate in the world:

Among essential features of this are that the human infant comes into this world genetically biased to develop a set of behavioural patterns that, given an appropriate environment, will result in his keeping more or less close proximity to whomever cares for him, and that this tendency to maintain proximity serves the function of protecting the mobile infant and growing child from a number of dangers, amongst which in man’s environment of evolutionary adaptedness the danger of predation is likely to have been paramount.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.68).

They showed that when people first attach to someone in life, usually their mother, the quality of that attachment mattered greatly for the pathway their development took as it set the stage for how they subsequently went out and engaged with the world. If, for example, their attachment figure was inconsistent with care and attention, or cold and distant, then it could create in a person anxiety, emotional instability or disengagement with those around him, “…the individual is uncertain whether his parents will be available or responsive or helpful when called upon. Because of this uncertainty he is always prone to separation anxiety, tends to be clinging, and is anxious about exploring the world" (Bowlby, 1988, pg.140). On the other hand, if the attachment figure is responsive, caring and consistent then it tended to create the opposite in a person: confidence, emotional stability and engagement in the world around them, "…the individual is confident that his parents (or parent figure) will be available responsive, and helpful should he encounter adverse or frightening situations. With this assurance, he feels bold in his explorations of the world" (Bowlby, 1988, pg.140).

With this framing Sue Johnson had her scientific understanding of love. Attachment to others, that is to say, the need to seek comfort, support and closeness for someone else, is a drive selected through the evolutionary process to provide safety and security so that we can learn and develop in our environment. To be loved and cared for is a basic human need in all of us, and with or without it, it sets the stage for how we meet the rest of the world. Johnson now had the framing she needed to understand the dramas playing out between couples she came in contact with. With the attachment lens, she could identify the deeper conversation the couples were having:

"Partners acted like they were fighting for their lives in therapy because they were doing just that. Isolation and the potential of loss of loving connection is coded by the human brain into a primal panic response. This need for safe emotional connection to a few loved ones is wired by millions of years of evolution. Distressed partners may use different words but they are always asking the same basic question, "Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call? Love is the best survival mechanism there is, and to feel suddenly and emotionally cut off from a partner, disconnected, is terrifying...Loving connection is the only safety nature ever offers us." (Johnson, 2011, pg.46)

Furthermore, with this framing, Johnson began to understand how to help. Far from being a communication issue between couples, interventions needed to move deeper and work on the fears and longings of the couple produced by their attachment history, "In many love relationships, attachment fears are hidden agendas, directing the action but never being acknowledged. It is time to acknowledge these agendas so that we can actively shape the love we so badly need." (Johnson, 2011, pg.263). This then set the ultimate goal of couples therapy, to help the couple create and nurture a safe and secure bond with each other.

Types of Arguments

So how can we do this? How could couples move from their distressed connections to something more secure that satisfies their attachment needs? Johnson begins by first listing out the different types of arguments she observed couples having in her therapy room. Although arguments in their specificity could be about anything, they tended to fall into overarching categories which she called the Demon Dialogues: Find the Bad Guy, where couples engage in a war of defend and attack, "The purpose of find the bad guy is self protection, but the main move is mutual attack, accusation and blame." (Johnson, 2011, pg.68); The Protest Polka, where couples can end up in a cycle of advance and withdraw, "One partner is demanding, actively protesting the disconnection; the other is withdrawing, quietly protesting the implied criticism." (Johnson, 2011, pg.75); and finally, Freeze and Flee, where couples end up gridlocked, stonewalling each other in silence, "The extreme distancing of Freeze and Flee is a response to the loss of connection and the sense of helplessness concerning how to restore it." (Johnson, 2011, pg.91).

The lesson to draw from these categories is that they are all self-perpetuating cycles that further entrench couples deeper and deeper into the conflict, leaving them battle scared, hurt, and weary, unable to reach out to one another and gain the thing they so desperately need: comfort, love and support:

"Eventually, the what of any fight won't matter at all. When couples reach this point, their entire relationship becomes marked by resentment, caution, and distance. They will see every difference, every disagreement, through a negative filter. They will listen to idle words and hear a threat. They will see ambiguous action and assume the worst. They will be consumed by catastrophic fears and doubts, be constantly on guard and defensive. Even if they want to come close, they can't." (Johnson, 2011, pg.33).

An Antidote to the Demon Dialogues

As a solution to the negative cycles that the demon dialogues create, Sue Johnson lists out 7 conversations that a couple can have. The first three: Recognising the Demon DialoguesFinding the Raw Spotsand Revisiting a Rocky Moment are designed to help a couple rise above the dynamic created by the demon dialogues and recognise their attachment styles and fears which bring them into the negative cycle. A large part of doing this is helping the couple to slow down their argument so that they can better identify the steps that pull them into the "dance", as Johnson calls it, which creates and feeds the negative cycle:

"You have to step back and see the entire picture...both people have to grasp how the moves of each partner pull each other into the dance. Each person is trapped in the dance and unwittingly helps to trap the other. If I attack you I pull you into defence and justification. I inadvertently make it hard for you to be open and responsive to me. If I stay aloof and apart, I leave you separate and alone and pull you into pursuing and pushing for connection." (Johnson, 2011, pg.86 )

Slowing down the argument helps the couple to achieve two further important steps: to see the cycle from outside is to see the "dance" as the enemy and not their partner, and also to see, and crucially own, their contribution to it, "To really take control of Demon Dialogues and soothe raw spots, both partners have to own how they pull each other into their negative spirals and actively create their own distress." (Johnson, 2011, pg.129).

The Primacy of Emotion

As the name Emotionally Focused Therapy suggests after a couple has learned to slow down their argument, it allows space for the couple to attend to one another, and it is here where emotion becomes the focus. Sue Johnson points out that if we want to move ourselves, or our partner for that matter, then we have to attend too and express our emotional experience, 

"Emotion comes from the Latin word emovere, to move. We talk of being "moved" by our emotions, and we are "moved" when those we love show their deeper feelings for us. If partners were to reconnect, they indeed had to let their emotions move them into new ways of responding to each other." (Johnson, 2011, pg.43)

As emotion is the thing that helps move and connect us, it is the language of attachment and therefore the pathway to have that deeper conversation Johnson is trying to help the couples have. The enemy in this endeavour is lack of emotion, or responding to your partner's expressions of pain and hurt rationally and practically, as many people are prone to do:

"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." (Johnson, 2011, pg.84).

Furthermore, if we can't validate our partner's emotional response, it may pull the couple back into a demon dialogue as with attachment anything that elicits an emotional response is better than no response, even anger, "Attachment relationships are the only ties on Earth where any response is better than none. When we get no emotional response from a loved one, we are wired to protest" (Johnson, 2011, pg.75). Bowlby talks about this phenomenon also showing how attachment theory gives a rational framing for anger:

“…anger is often functional. When a child or spouse behaves dangerously, an angry protest is likely to deter. When a lover’s partner strays, a sharp reminder of how much he or she cares may work wonders. When a child finds himself relatively neglected in favour of the new baby, assertion of his claims may redress the balance. Thus in the right place, at the right time, and in the right degree, anger is not only appropriate but may be indispensable. It serves to deter from dangerous behaviour, to drive off a rival, or to coerce a partner. In each case the sum of the angry behaviour is the same – to protect a relationship which is of very special value to the angry person.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.89).

This highlights the importance of couples attentively and softly attending to their own and their partner's emotions, and even within this type of conversation Sue Johnson finds that expressing negative emotions is better than expressing none, "Generally in love, sharing even negative emotions, provided they don't get out of hand, is more useful than emotional absence. Lack of response just fires up the primal panic of the partner." (Johnson, 2011, pg.118). This is further substantiated by John Bowlby who talked about the importance of responding to one another on an emotional level:

There are, in fact, no more important communications between one human being and another than those expressed emotionally, and no information more vital for constructing and reconstructing working models of self and other than information about how each feels towards the other.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.177)

Through this process Sue Johnson encourages couples to hang in there, the goal is to as best you can to attend to your partner's emotional expressions in the spirit of understanding and then to express your own. If you begin to feel stuck then rather than no response, just express that feeling:

"If you are the partner who is listening and you find yourself unsure as to how to respond or too anxious to respond, just share this. Being present is the secret here, rather than responding in any set way. Confirming that you have heard your partners message, that you appreciate that her or she is sharing with you, and that you want to be responsive is a positive first step. Then you can explore how you might begin to meet your lover's needs." (Johnson, 2011, pg.170).

Through all of this, couples will find that they start to become the thing that they long for, a safe haven. After all this, Johnson breaks down process that is going on the couple:

"They have started to go beyond just doing their steps in their negative dance and to see the pattern it is creating as it occurs and begins to take over their relationship. They are acknowledging their own steps in this dance. They have begun to see how these steps trigger each other into the primal program of attachment needs and fears. They are starting to grasp the incredible impact they have on each other. They are understanding, voicing, and sharing the hurt of rejection and fears of abandonment that drive the dance.

All this means that they have the ability to de-escalate conflicts. But more than that, every time they do this, they are creating a platform of safety on which they can stand to manage the deep emotions that are part of love." (Johnson, 2011, pg.143)

Deliberate Engagement and Maintaining Your Love

And then the real change starts to happen, "Once partners know how to speak their need and bring each other close, every trail they face together simply makes their love stronger." (Johnson, 2011, pg.47). Johnson then lists out 4 further conversations to help the couple stabilise this change: Hold me TightForgiving InjuriesBonding through Sex and Touch and Keeping your Love Alive. The purpose of these conversations is to build on the couples new way of engaging with one another and redesign their relationship for the future, "Once partners feel safe with each other, they can create a clear story of their relationship and figure out how to recover from disconnections and make their bond stronger. This not only sums up their past in a way that makes sense, it gives them a blueprint for the future." (Johnson, 2011, pg.226).

As couples get better and better at doing this, it allows them to be more flexible in their approach to each other and life in general. From their newfound secure attachment with one another, they now can meet their life with the confidence and boldness that John Bowlby showed in children who had nurturing and consistent parents. The couple has built for themselves the very thing that will allow them to rise above their attachment histories no matter how traumatic "...we can heal even deep vulnerabilities with the help of a loving spouse. We can earn a basic sense of secure connection with the aid of a responsive partner who helps us deal with painful feelings. Love really does transform us." (Johnson, 2011, pg.105). Furthermore, they have created a haven that acts as a platform from which they can thrive in a sometimes unforgiving world:

"We need our partner to be a safe haven and also a true witness to our pain, to assure us that we are not to blame for what happened and that we are not weak for being helpless and overwhelmed. As secure love relationship acts as a protective shield when we face monsters and dragons and helps us heal after the dragon has gone." (Johnson, 2011, pg.259)

Through these conversation Johnson reminds couples this is not a final destination, but a continual process. It is important that couples continue to turn towards each other healing wounds and building their relationship for the future. This requires deliberate engagement by the couple to prioritise their relationship, "To build and sustain a secure bond, we need to be able to tune into our loved one as strongly as we did before. How do we do this? By deliberately creating moments of engagement and connection." (Johnson, 2011, pg.147)

Final Thought

Sue Johnson's theory and model of Emotionally Focused Therapy not only transformed the couples therapy landscape but had a large impact on individual therapy practises also. It took the knowledge gained from Attachment Theory and gave it a practical application. Johnson also followed on in John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth's vain as she wasn't content just to theorise. She tested her theory and practises and as a result EFT has a large and growing body of research attesting to its effects and efficacy.

It's hard to quantify the impact EFT has had on the world of psychotherapy and the people it has helped, although we can say without difficulty that it has had a significant positive effect. But for me, the true impact EFT has had on people is its ability to allow them to rise above and transform their attachment styles. Because, in doing this, they stop a cycle that may have been perpetuating for many generations. John Bowlby showed that children's attachment styles tended to be the same attachment styles their parents had when they were young. Essentially parents were interacting and responding to their children in the same manner their parents had done so with them, and in doing so, they are potentially maintaining inter-generational anxieties or traumas. It takes an individual in this chain to overcome the attachment baggage inherited from their parents and break the link. The very thing that is needed to do this, is the thing they lacked, a secure attachment. When couples can be a safe haven for one another, despite the pain and hurt of their past or that which has been caused between them, and treat each other with softness, providing support and forgiving past hurts, they aren't just improving their own lives, they are improving the lives of generations that will come after them.

Compliment this article with Bowlby - A Secure Base


Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1977) 'Social Development in first year of life: maternal influences on infant-mother attachment' in J.M. Tanner (ed) Developments in psychiatric research, London: Tavistock.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base. Routledge. 

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