“Just as predicted by attachment science, contact with a loving responsive partner is a powerful buffer against danger and threat.  When we change our love relationships, we change our brains – and change our world.”

Dr. Sue Johnson

Emotional Labor and What’s Really Upsetting Women

emotional labor

There is a new book out by Gemma Hartley called Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. Interesting! This labor is defined by Ms. Hartley as “unpaid invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” The point is, this labor is mostly considered women’s work and women resent it.

When you really get down to it, this labor turns out to be mostly about housework and who does it, although it does include administrative tasks like remembering family birthdays and scheduling events. Ms. Hartley also stresses that this division of labor is bad for both sexes. And I agree, as would most professionals who work with couples and families, that it doesn’t help men to teach them that the “emotional landscape” is somehow not worthy of their attention or is somehow not “masculine.” All this pinpoints that the caring responses that are simply expected of women, are – well – WORK!

But, for me, this book is still missing a vital element. I have listened to literally hundreds of women in couple therapy and in relationship education groups weep about feeling unappreciated and taken for granted in ways that fit into this concept of emotional labor. However, the real source of desperation and rage is nearly always more specific.

Women are usually more sensitive and attuned to the levels of closeness and emotional security in relationships than men, and so naturally take on the role of “Closeness Monitor and Regulator.” It is THIS labor that women desperately want their partners to share. After all, if only you notice that something is missing when the vital elements in love – focused attention, intimate confiding and affection – are dialled down to “off,” how can you ever feel valued or secure?

Yes, women get mad because their men do not join them in the tasks of running a household, but they get even more desperate, afraid, and frantic when their men do not help them take any care of the emotional bond that makes them a couple. Most often, they then express their pain, often cloaked in frustration.

An example:

Edith says, “How come you never take the time to talk and hold me before we go to sleep now? It’s like we are roommates who just share a bedroom and a bed. It’s lonely, is what it is.”


Unfortunately, Ted hears only criticism coming at him and counters, “God, you exaggerate. Really, you know how busy I have been. Do you always have to be so negative?”


He continues, “I am working hard for this family if you haven’t noticed,” and he turns away from her.


This leaves Edith feeling – wait for it – even more alone.

The stage is then set for the dance of distress that I call the Protest Polka. This dialogue takes over relationships and predicts future divorce. The whole relationship becomes stuck in a dreary pattern of angry demands, followed by defensiveness and distance. Both partners are flooded with the pain of rejection and isolation but neither feels safe enough to reach out or try to reconnect. For Edith, Ted, and their family, this is a tragedy in the making.

The new science of bonding is clear. Secure connection with a loved one – usually a partner in most adult lives – fulfills our most basic need: to belong, to know you matter to another. This sense of belonging calms our nervous system, gives us emotional balance, strengthens our sense of our own value and protects us from being overwhelmed by our own vulnerability. It is our deepest need.

In a good relationship, the work of maintaining this sense of safe belonging and of repairing rifts in that belonging are shared. It seems to me that Edith does not, in fact, always need Ted to remember the kids’ birthdays or to manage their schedules. That’s nice, but it’s not essential.

But it is essential for Edith that Ted sometimes opens up and reaches for her – that he responds emotionally. This emotional responsiveness is the core element that defines the viability and happiness of a love relationship. “Sharing the load” looks like Ted realizing that he is missing the emotional music in his dance with his partner.

Can you imagine what might happen if Ted turns back to Edith and says,

“Wait a minute. Maybe you’re right. I am so tired these days. I guess I don’t hold you like I used to. I miss that too. You are right, we don’t spend enough time together. I go on automatic. I don’t want us to be just roommates.”

Here, he moves to take care of the connection between him and his wife. Edith sinks into his arms – reassured. And she really doesn’t care if the next day he forgets to get his daughter a birthday card. But here’s the best part: Ted does not experience this moment as “labor” at all. This kind of loving interaction switches on pure joy and contentment in our set-up-for-bonding brains, just like when we are holding a baby or playing with our new puppy. Edith, knowing she is important to Ted, can now easily listen to his feelings of tiredness with empathy.

None of this feels like work. It feels like human connection. If love is a dance, both people have to be out on the dance floor – both have to show up emotionally. This is the “work” that has to be shared.


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NEW book : Attachment Theory in Practice

for blog on book
for blog on book


Just read the amazing reviews for my new book for therapists and counsellors  – coming out January 2019 – Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families. They are beyond positive. Talking about how the book will have an impact on the field of therapy – and that every therapist should read it! Oh and commenting that it is easy to read even! This feels like sunshine on my face!

The truth is that this book has taken me 30 years to write – 30 years of listening to individuals  – couples and families – listening to therapists telling me how they get stuck – reading research results and watching tapes of people in therapy sessions and educational groups facing their vulnerabilities and walking through them to find balance, peace and connection with others. I have had so many teachers. (more…)

What small steps do you take to reduce stress in your relationship and boost your bond?

All the research from the last 30 years from the most potent therapy for relationship growth and recovery on this planet and the new research on building intimate bonds with partners says the same thing. To foster connection we need, not just to spend time together as companions, but to risk sharing softer deeper emotions and learning to hold each others feelings in a way that calms our nervous systems and gives us a felt sense of safe connection. In our research we call them Hold Me Tight Conversations. When partners can do this, a huge horizon of possibilities opens up for their relationship and for each person’s sense of confidence  – belonging leads to becoming.We are wired to thrive when we know that we can share our vulnerability with a precious other and the other can just be present and engaged – they just have to be there with us.

So Brett, rather than shutting down when he feels stung by a comment from Cali, takes a deep breath and turns Towards her rather than Away. He says, “ Heh, I really wanted you to see how hard I tried here – I so wanted to please you. I need your reassurance that you do see how I try.” As she responds warmly to this, he then shares the problems that are happening at work that make him feel “small”. Cali feels honored that he is risking and sharing and proud that she is the one  that can help him with these emotions. Then they share the differences between them and Brett’s problems are work suddenly seem unimportant.

These moments spark a sense of safety and love in our brains – they are coded as “HOME”. Everyone wants to come home to someone, and science is showing us how to do it.



At The Heart of Health




In September 2016, Cardus Family released an in-depth report called Marriage is Good for Your Health. The purpose was to examine whether the rumours were true: Did marriage actually have a positive effect on an individual’s health outcomes, both physical and mental, in the scientific literature? (more…)

The Future of Couple and Family Therapy : Attachment Science in Action

APA International Conference: Crossroads of Couple and Family Psychology 2017

- text of plenary by Dr. Sue Johnson – 

As Sol Garfield points out, there are now over 1,000 names for approaches to psychotherapy and 400 systematically outlined methods of intervention. How the “talking cure” as referred to by Freud, first called “psychotherapy” by an English psychiatrist, Walter Cooper Dendy in 1853, has grown. Throughout history we have had many different perspectives on mental misery, symptoms and problems, more and more abstract labels for these problems and lots of varying ideas about how to fix them. (more…)




EFT stands for Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.

This approach to seeing relationships – as an attachment bond – and shaping more loving relationships is leading the couple relationship field into a new understanding of romantic love. (more…)

Attachment and the Dance of Sex: Integrating Couple and Sex Therapy



Attachment and the Dance of Sex – Integrating Couple and Sex Therapy  

We are just going to chat here a little about a couple of small topics – sex and love – and how to really put them together and make them work – in just 50 minutes or so! (more…)

tronick blog image

We have a new ten minute video for everybody. (more…)