Newspaper article International New York Times

Love in the Time of Neuroscience

Newspaper article International New York Times

Love in the Time of Neuroscience

Article excerpt

Sue Johnson introduces a new approach in couples counseling called Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Love Sense.The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. By Sue Johnson.340 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $27.

In "The Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defined love as "a temporary insanity curable by marriage." Enter Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist who says that relationships are a basic human need and that "a stable, loving relationship is the absolute cornerstone of human happiness and general well-being." To repair ailing partnerships, she has developed a new approach in marriage counseling called Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT, which she introduces in her new book, "Love Sense."

EFT draws on the work of the psychiatrist John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, who argued that humanity has evolved a strong, physiologically based attachment system that drives the infant to attach to the mother. In the 1960s and '70s, he and the psychologist Mary Ainsworth put forth the idea that children develop one of three basic styles of attachment that they carry into their adult relationships. Secure individuals grow up knowing they can count on their primary caregivers, so they don't obsessively worry that they will be abandoned by their partners. However, if one's primary childhood caregiver is inattentive, unpredictable or abusive, the individual forms one of two "insecure" attachment styles. Anxious individuals worry constantly that they will be abandoned, so they cling to their partners, seeking reassurance. The avoidant, meanwhile, eschew deep connections to protect themselves from being dependent.

Ms. Johnson believes EFT can help couples break out of patterns, "interrupting and dismantling these destructive sequences and then actively constructing a more emotionally open and receptive way of interacting." She aims to transform relationships "using the megawatt power of the wired-in longing for contact and care that defines our species," and offers various exercises to restore trust.

Most interesting to me was Ms. Johnson's brain-scanning study. Before EFT therapy, unhappily married women participating in the study reported considerable pain from an electric shock to the ankle as they held their husbands' hands. After 20 sessions of EFT, however, these now more securely attached women judged their pain as only "uncomfortable" and their brain scans showed no alarm response. Secure attachment appears to change brain function and reduce pain.

But Ms. Johnson too often focuses on attachment to the exclusion of other "megawatt" brain systems. Remarkably, she lumps romantic love with attachment, saying "adult romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the one between mother and child." In reality, romantic love is associated with a constellation of thoughts and motivations that are strikingly different from those of attachment. …

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