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WETZSTEIN: Love and compassion needed to survive

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday is a day to reflect on love. Birds are chirping. Flowers are blooming. Easter bunnies are hopping. Church bells are ringing.

In too many places, however, people who love each other are not rejoicing. Couples are fighting. Friends who need comfort are ignored. Family members who long to connect are being scolded or sent away in tears.

If love relationships are all-important to people, why are they so hard to keep alive and well? The short answer is we are still on a learning curve about the power of love.

Religion already knows love is important, and, thankfully, science is finally coming to the same conclusion. Brain research is encountering a veritable explosion of evidence that human beings are hard-wired to connect, and that love — call it attachment, affection, or "a funny five minutes" as the mother of author and therapist Sue Johnson once dubbed it — is an essential and explainable element of human life.

Bottom line, as our understanding of love grows, we should become more competent in expressing and maintaining it in our intimate, familial and personal relationships. This, in turn, should reduce both family breakdown and the terrible loneliness that is spreading like a cancer through American society.

My inspirations about love came from a speech Ms. Johnson gave in the District recently at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, which was attended by 3,600 therapists.

Ms. Johnson is a clinical psychologist based in Ottawa. She is known for her lively English accent, clever stories about love and her co-development of a successful approach to couples therapy, called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).

Ms. Johnson wrote a book last year called "Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love," to help struggling couples pull themselves out of their relationship hells.

Her advice to couples can be summarized like this:

First, understand both of you have an inborn and lifelong need to be seen, touched, recognized and comforted by others.

Love is "absolutely primary … it's a survival code," Ms. Johnson told me recently. All people long for a "loving responsiveness from other people," whereas isolation is traumatizing at any age, she said.

Second, understand that at the bottom of each argument, each rejection, each nasty comment is a frustrated desire to connect or reconnect.

When couples feel distant from each other, it's like "emotional starvation," Ms. Johnson said. If people sense they are losing the source of their emotional sustenance, panic sets in and they desperately try to regain it.

Unfortunately, she said, men and women often turn to counterproductive ways to re-establish connection — clinging, stonewalling, attacking, defending, nagging, hiding. The result is even more distance and disconnection, she wrote.

EFT, however, introduces couples to "effective dependency" and shows them that as they learn to hear their mutual pleas for closeness, safety and affirmation, their love relationships will heal, deepen and thrive. Even the joy of sex can return.

EFT has a better-than-70 percent recovery rate in less than 12 sessions with couples, according to research.

The importance of learning how to nurture love cannot be overestimated, "because our societies are getting lonelier and lonelier," she said.

The Dalai Lama said it well, Ms. Johnson added, quoting the Tibetan Buddhist leader: "Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive."

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.