Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is a couples therapy book written by Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. This book focuses on the love relationship as an attachment bond and addresses how partners can become more emotionally receptive and responsive to their loved one.
The book is separated into three sections. The first portion gives the foundation of what a healthy love relationship is and defines love as an emotional bond that fulfills an innate need for safe emotional connection. Dr. Johnson says you can learn all sorts of problem solving skills, analyze your childhood traumas, and do a plethora of other great attempts to strengthen your relationship, but it all boils down to “recognizing and admitting that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner” (7). She also states that lack of an emotional connection or response can put us into fight or flight mode (for the loss of a deep emotional bond is life-threatening) which threatens our safety and closes us off to being open and responsive to our loved one. Dr. Johnson’s therapy approach is to help couples realize this, express it to each other, and create a deeper emotional bond that will sustain them through difficult times.
The second portion of the book addresses the seven conversations a couple should have in order to create emotional responsiveness in their relationship. The first three conversations help couples identify negative patterns, while the last four focus on creating intentional positive patterns and moments of emotional responsiveness. In this section, after each chapter discusses one of the seven conversations, Dr. Johnson provides questions you and your loved one can work through so as to take the steps to create a deeper emotional bond.
The final portion of the book discusses the power of the seven “transforming” conversations, as she calls them, and talks about the healing power these conversations can have on traumatic wounds and in creating the ultimate connection of love.
Dr. Johnson said something I think is so powerful. She said, “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.’ People want ‘indirect’ support, that is, emotional confirmation and caring from their partners, rather than advice.” I find it is very easy when I am not the one in the emotional distress to want to try to solve the other person’s problem (who is distressed because of the problem). But Dr. Johnson says this approach leaves the person feeling as if there was not even a response in the first place. I must exercise empathy and acknowledge the difficult emotions my loved one is feeling to sustain the attachment with that person, and once the person is not so deep in their emotion, we can then problem solve together.
I also find it interesting that Dr. Johnson refers to someone approaching “me” with a problem as an “appeal to me for emotional connection.” How often am I missing that cue with my children? When they come to me with a problem, and I try to solve it, when really, they are asking for emotional connection . . .
Ultimately, this book is about creating a deeper emotional bond by being responsive to emotions in our loved one.
My “Top Three Take-Aways” from the book are the way Dr. Johnson presented Emotional Responsiveness, Demon Dialogues, and Raw Spots.
The author describes deep love as “Emotional Responsiveness” and conceptualizes it by using the acronym ARE.
- Accessibility: Can I reach you? This is staying open to your partner even when you have doubts and feel insecure. It means working through your own emotions so you can be present and available for your partner in his/her emotions.
- Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally? This is being aware of your partner’s emotions and showing your loved one that their feelings have an impact on you. Dr. Johnsons says it is “accepting and placing a priority on the emotional signals your partner conveys and sending clear signals of comfort and caring when your partner needs them” (50). This is where my husband might say, “It’s hard to say this, but it makes me feel afraid when you’re so angry because I’m worried I will lose you.” This is where vulnerability happens—where REAL meaningful connection takes place.
- Engagement: Do I know you will value me and stay close? This means being emotionally present and available.
I also found great power in learning about “Demon Dialogues,” which are what Dr. Johnson calls the basic patterns that we get stuck in when we cannot connect safely with our partner. Recognizing these cycles and learning about them together as a couple helps you discover where you fall with you partner, and then you can see the Demon Dialogue as the enemy—not your loved one. I loved this idea!
There are three Demon Dialogues that we can get trapped in.
- The first is “Find the Bad Guy.” This is when both partners get stuck in a blame cycle, pointing fingers, and trying to absolve the guilt from themselves. The purpose of this is self-protection and the main move is to attack and accuse. Person A: “We are always late because of you.” Person B: “Well, if you had told me what time we needed to leave, I could have been ready.” Person A: “It was on the calendar, you could have looked.” Person B: “I was busy at work and didn’t have time to look.” Etc.
- The second Demon Dialogue is called “Protest Polka.” This is the demand/withdraw cycle where person A criticizes or reaches out in a negative way to get a response from person B, but person B withdraws in defense. So Person A lashes out again, and Person B withdraws even farther. Dr. Johnson says in this situation, Person A is asking for an emotional connection—but in a negative way. And Person B says, “I must be doing something wrong here, so I’ll just be quiet and not respond so I can make things better.” Which scares Person A to not get a response, so the cycle continues.
- Demon Dialogue three is called “Freeze and Flee.” This is when both partners are in defense and denial. Both are in self-protection more, trying to act as if he or she does not feel or does not need. This pattern evolves from the “Protest Polka” when Person A finally gives up trying and then detaches from the relationship. Freeze and Flee is a response to the loss of connection and the sense of helplessness concerning how to restore it.
I found it empowering to learn about these dialogues and recognize them in my own life—even applying them to my children. One of my daughters defaults to “Find the Bad Guy” when she is feeling an uncomfortable emotion, while another daughter begins the “Protest Polka” dialogue. I even had a conversation with my husband about these cycles and where we fall in them.
The third take-away from the book was when Dr. Johnson talked about “Raw Spots,” a “hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationship when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed” (98). She said there are two signs as to when a raw spot has become vulnerable and is being rubbed: 1) a sudden, radical shift in the emotional tone of the conversation, and 2) the reaction to a perceived offense often seems way out of proportion. Becoming aware of these signs helped me recognize when my own raw spots are being rubbed. Dr. Johnson describes in very specific steps what happens when these sensitivities are exposed and hurt.
- First: The cue. An attachment cue grabs our attention and turns on our attachment system, our longings, and fears. This could be a certain look from our loved one, a phrase, or a tone of voice.
- Second: The body responds. Dr. Johnsons does not mention this, but in my perspective, our body responds because we have an emotion coming to us in the situation to help us through it. So in this moment, if we can recognize how our body is responding to the cue (what it’s feeling like), and identify what emotion has come (name it), then we can be aware of how to respond appropriately and authentically (by acting on the emotion’s message).
- Third: We make meaning of it. Our front brain acknowledges our body’s emotional response and tries to determine what it means. Basically, our brain says, “I’ve asked him to take some time off to have lunch with me, but he’s not available even though I’m struggling and I’m sure it’s obvious, so that must mean he doesn’t have time for me, which means he doesn’t really love me.”
- Fourth: We get read to move. We prepare to move toward, away from, or against our loved one.
Knowing these steps helped me take a closer look at why I responded the way I did to an “innocent” comment from my husband, yet fully-loaded words to me. And afterward, when I was able to analyze these steps in the situation, I better understood his comment, my own background and response, and the emotions and messages I received because of it. Only then were we able to meet on higher ground to be receptive to each other and deepen our emotional bond.
Dr. Johnson had some great information in her book, but I also felt a little confused and lost at times because she used a music/dance analogy that she tried to carry through the entire book. She referenced artists and songs that I was unfamiliar with and could not relate to, so they were lost on me. I feel the book could have been written more clearly without the analogy.
The book was also interlaced with story after story–which was nice in the beginning, but there were even multiple stories before, in the middle of, and after certain points she wanted to make, and I felt there was too much weight on the stories, and not enough clarity on the nuggets of gold she was providing.
I also feel that while there is an acknowledgement of uncomfortable emotions in her seven conversations, she doesn’t address why those emotions are there, nor does she have the couples explore that. It seems that her main focus is helping couples TALK about their uncomfortable emotions with each other to help create a deeper bond. While this is an incredibly valuable tool for loving relationships, I believe it is just as important to help your loved one discover their emotions’ messages, and discover your own, so that you can support each other in that way as well.
Overall, I’m very glad that I read this book. It has really opened my eyes to some of the patterns from my past that surface in my life today. I can now be more aware of the cycles that occur with the onset of uncomfortable emotions, and I have a better foundation of what Emotion Responsiveness and connection means.