Sue Johnson, the psychologist who had a scientific vision of love, dies at 76

Sue Johnson, a British-born Canadian clinical psychologist and best-selling author who developed a new method of couple therapy based on emotional attachment, challenging what had been the dominant behavioral approach – the idea that behaviors they are learned and therefore can be modified. on April 23 in Victoria, British Columbia. She was 76 years old.

Her death, in hospital, was caused by a rare form of melanoma, said her husband, John Douglas.

As divorce rates increased in the 1970s, couples therapy flourished. Drawing from traditional psychotherapeutic practices, therapists focused primarily on helping troubled couples communicate more effectively, deepen their education, and “negotiate and bargain,” as Dr. Johnson puts it, over contentious issues like parenting , sex and household chores.

In her practice, however, she became frustrated with how her couples seemed to be stalling.

“My couples didn't bother to deepen their childhood relationships,” he wrote in his book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” (2008), which has sold more than a million copies and has been translated in 30 languages. “They didn't want to be reasonable and learn how to negotiate. They certainly didn't want to be taught the rules of fighting effectively. Love, it seems, was all a non-negotiable matter. You can't bargain out of compassion, out of connection. These are not intellectual reactions; they are emotional responses.”

In conventional therapy that sought to change behavior, emotions had long been dismissed as problematic in dealing with marital issues – something to be tamed – and dependence on a loved one was seen as a sign of dysfunction.

Dr. Johnson thought otherwise. She was familiar with the attachment studies of John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist who studied children traumatized by being orphaned or separated from their parents during the Second World War. Researchers later began to focus on adult attachments and noticed how secure connections between couples helped them weather inevitable relationship storms.

Dr. Johnson began to see a couple's emotional dependence on each other not as a weakness but as a strength, and so he developed techniques to help couples strengthen those bonds. While working towards a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, he videotaped his therapy sessions and analyzed the couples' behaviors, from which he fashioned a treatment model with the help of his thesis advisor, Leslie Greenberg. They called it Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT

They then tested their method by giving some couples behavioral therapy, some EFT, and some no therapy. Couples who had undergone EFT fared better: They argued less, felt closer to each other, and “their overall satisfaction with their relationship soared,” Dr. Johnson wrote .

He refined his method using the paradigm of attachment theory, which notes that pair bonding – the term for selective associations between two individuals of the same species – is a survival technique developed over millions of years of evolution. His thesis was a scientific vision of love.

But when he published his work, his colleagues cried foul. They argued, she wrote, that “healthy adults are self-sufficient. Only dysfunctional people need or depend on others. We had names for these people: they were entangled, codependent, fused, merged. In other words, they were messed up.”

Decades of EFT studies have proven his colleagues wrong, he said. Nearly 75 percent of couples who underwent therapy, she wrote, reported being happier in their relationships, even those at high risk of divorce. EFT has been recognized by the American Psychological Association as an evidence-based approach and is now taught in graduate schools and internship programs.

“By focusing on creating attachment security between couples,” said Dr. John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, which seeks to strengthen relationships, “Sue focused on the idea of ​​trust and how couples can build trust in each other right now, and this has changed everything in the field of couples therapy.”

Dr. Julie Gottman, his wife and co-founder, added, “In some ways we all remain children, and when we seek lifelong love with our partners, we truly need to know that we are fully accepted and embraced in the world.” the same way a parent hugs a child, and with this kind of acceptance people can truly blossom.”

Studies have shown that consistent emotional support and strong bonds with a partner lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and reduce cancer mortality rates and the incidence of heart disease.

“In terms of mental health,” Dr. Johnson wrote in “Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships” (2013), “a close connection is the strongest predictor of happiness, far more than making a lot of money or win the lottery.” . It also significantly reduces susceptibility to anxiety and makes us more resistant to stress and trauma.”

In 2007, Dr. Johnson began showing how EFT affected the brain. He worked with Dr. James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, who had shown, by scanning areas of the brain that register fear, how holding hands relieved stress in couples.

First, Dr. Johnson recruited heterosexual couples who reported being unhappy in their relationships. The researchers then subjected the women to electric shocks while their partners held their hands. For these couples, holding hands had no effect. Then, Dr. Johnson treated the same couples with a course of EFT – about 20 sessions – and repeated the test. On the second try, the area of ​​the women's brains that would respond to threats remained silent.

“It was surprising, because this is what Sue predicted as early as 1989 without knowing anything about the brain,” Dr. Coan said. “She was a model in doggedly subjecting her therapeutic insights to scientific testing. You have to be a clinical psychologist to understand how rare this is.”

“Love is a basic survival code,” Dr. Johnson wrote in “Love Sense.”

Susan Maureen Driver was born on December 19, 1947 in Gillingham, England, the only child of Arthur and Winifred Driver. The Drivers ran a pub called the Royal Marine and Sue grew up in its rowdy environment. “I spent a lot of time watching people meet, talk, drink, argue, dance, flirt,” she wrote. Her parents' relationship was chaotic and contentious, and they divorced when she was 10.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Hull in East Yorkshire before moving to Canada, where he earned a master's degree in literature and history from the University of British Columbia and worked as a counselor at a residential center for adolescents in difficulty. After starting training as a therapist, she enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology and earned her Ph.D. in 1984. Her thesis involved her work with EFT and she was hired by the University of Ottawa to teach in its psychology department.

Dr. Johnson married briefly in the 1970s and kept her first husband's last name. She met Mr Douglas, who ran an engineering firm, in 1987, and they married a year later. In addition to Mr. Douglas, she is survived by their children, Sarah Nakatsuka, Tim and Emma Douglas.

In 1998, with Mr. Douglas and others, Dr. Johnson co-founded the International Center of Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. He trains and certifies therapists around the world in EFT and conducts clinical studies on the method. Both the Canadian and U.S. militaries have offered EFT programs to service members, and EFT has been used to reduce stress among couples coping with a partner's heart disease, diabetes or Parkinson's disease.

“Underneath all the anguish,” Dr. Johnson said, “partners ask each other: Can I count on you? Are you there for me?”

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