Hold Me Tight – Dr. Sue Johnson

I came across Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnston when I was in graduate school taking a Marriage and Family Therapy course.  A fun fact is that this theory was developed out of University of British Columbia!  This theory was developed out of research with couples.

What is love?

With having researched and counselled more than a thousand couples over 35 years, Sue Johnson argues love is “intuitive and yet not necessarily obvious.  It’s the continual search for a basic, secure connection with someone else. Through this bond, partners in love become emotionally dependent on each other for nurturing, soothing, and protection,” (2009).

Attachment Theory

Attachment develops in infancy between caregiver and infant.  This first attachment creates a blueprint that an individual will apply to other relationships in the future like with a teacher, friend, or partner  (Neswald-McCalip, 2001).

Bowlby theorized from twenty four months on infant form a goal-directed partnership where they become aware of others’ feelings, goals, and plans affecting their future behaviours.  Attachment is focused on specific individuals who are close to the child. Bowlby believed children have specific needs of trust and security from their caregivers and he believed as children became adults, they transferred these needs into their romantic relationships. A longitudinal study using the stranger situation by Mary Ainsworth with twelve to eighteen months found those infants with secure attachments later in life had “positive emotional health, high self-esteem, self-confidence, and socially competent interaction with peers, teachers, camp counsellors, and romantic partners through adolescence,” (Santrock, Mackenzie-Rivers, Leung & Malcomson, 2008).  Secure attachment during infancy and childhood is linked to the most positive outcomes for adults and it may affect an individual in their romantic relationships.

As infants and children develop, they learn from their primary caregiver the skills of emotional regulation and social referencing (Santrock, et al., 2008). Social referencing refers to the ability to internalize emotional cues from others in order to understand how to behave in a particular situation (Santrock et al., 2008). For infants and children, it becomes important for them to utilize social referencing in order to know how to act in an ambiguous situation (Santrock et al., 2008). Social regulation is important in adulthood in regards to the many social roles individuals have. Development of social referencing allows adults to adapt effectively in the various social contexts and situations individuals find themselves in.

Emotional regulation refers to the effective management of emotional arousal in order to adapt and achieve a goal (Santrock et al., 2008). The way an individual reacts can either be adaptive or disabling. During infancy, attachment theorists argue it is essential for caregivers to soothe their infants before they become so “intense, agitated, [in an] uncontrolled state,” for the development of emotional regulation (Santrock et al., 2008). Emotional regulation is critical across the life span as individuals encounter situations evoking emotional arousal on a daily basis. The way in which an individual reacts to emotional arousal can indicate either effective or ineffective coping strategies influenced by early attachment styles.

Love and Attachment

So we have a primitive need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others (attachment). It’s a survival response, the driving force of the bond of security a baby seeks with its mother.  Research suggests the need for secure attachment never disappears; it evolves into the adult need for a secure emotional bond with a partner.

Simpson, Rholes, and Nelligan (1992) found securely attached adults were more likely to provide support to their partner even when they were distressed and more likely to give support to their partner when their partner is distressed compared to insecurely attached adults (Santrock et al., 2008).  Insecurely attached adults are more likely to be depressed (Santrock et al., 2008). It appears securely attached individuals have more adaptive emotional regulation skills compared to insecure attachments.

Although our culture has framed dependency as a bad thing, a weakness, it is not. Being attached to someone provides our greatest sense of security and safety. It means depending on a partner to respond when you call, to know that you matter to him or her, that you are cherished, and that he will respond to your emotional needs.  The most basic tenet of attachment theory is that isolation—not just physical isolation but emotional isolation—is traumatizing for human beings.

Emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) refers to a therapeutic approach for couples by focusing on strengthening the emotional bond between partners based on attachment theory (Johnson, 2008). EFT argues a healthy emotional bond involves partners being open, attuned, and responsive to each other.

In love, we start out intensely connected to and responsive to our partners. But our level of attentiveness tends to drop over time. We then experience moments of disconnection, times when we don’t express our needs clearly.  Losing the connection with a loved one, however, jeopardizes our sense of security. We experience a primal feeling of panic. It sets off an alarm in the brain’s amygdala, our fear centre, where we are highly attuned to threats of all kinds. Once the amygdala sends out an alarm, we don’t think—we act. The threat can come from the outside world or from our own inner cosmos. It’s our perception that counts, not the reality. If we feel abandoned at a moment of need, we are set up to enter a state of panic.

We don’t talk about these conflicts in terms of deeply rooted attachment needs. We talk about the surface emotions or the blame.  In her book “Hold Me Tight,” Sue Johnson discusses the Demon Dialogues which further explains these conversations and conflicts we have in our relationships.

What couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all the distress, partners are desperate to know: Are you there for me? Do you need me? Do you rely on me?


Simply accepting your attachment needs instead of feeling ashamed of them is a big and necessary first step, and it applies to single people as well as to those in relationships.  Also, be aware of your emotional regulation.  Does it need work?  Chances are you may need to work on your emotional regulation individually. We all experience moments when our emotions control our actions. When this happens, we often regret the things we say or do and wish we had been able to keep our emotions in check.  There are techniques like meditation that can allow you to do just that, along with various other benefits like, mood improvement, and increased compassion and empathy.

Are you conforming to social norms? Where women are seen as being dependent and needy, and men as emotionally unavailable.  We all the desire and need for security, trust, and responsivity from our partner.  Don’t be ashamed of it.  It is something that has been developed primitively for our survival.  We are social beings.  Challenge these gender norms!


I highly recommend if you want to know more you read Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.


Johnson, S.M. ( 2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little Brown.

Johnson, S. (2009). Hold Me Tight from Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200812/hold-me-tight

Neswald-McCalip, R. (2001). Development of the secure counselor: case examples supporting Pistole & Watkin’s (1995) discussion of attachment theory in counseling supervision. Counselor Education & Supervision, 41: 18-27.

Santrock, J.W., Mackenzie-Rivers, A., Leung, K.H. & Malcomson, T. (2008). Lifespan Development (3rd Canadian ed.). McGraw Hill: Ryerson.

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