The Words of the Saunders Family

Marital Rapport

June Saunders
April 2009

"You Have Met Someone Whom You Can Love"
True Father, "Blessed Family,"
June 20, 1982, Belvedere, NY

Two couples sit at a dining room table discussing marriage. One couple, trained in marital therapy techniques, is trying to guide the other couple through the famous reflective listening technique so that they can settle their differences. Somehow, it isn't working. The couple is not connecting, not understanding each other. If we listen closely to the couple, we can hear underneath the woman's feedback to the man a silent cry, "Do you love me?" Do you care about me? Your actions tell me otherwise. Your words tell me otherwise. Are you there for me?"

Those questions are not being answered in this session. The husband doesn't hear the questions; he only hears complaints about his failings. The trained couple hears the questions, but they are unable to get the couple to recognize the cry of the heart. The session ends with a less than satisfying result.

The reflective listening technique is the premier tool of marital therapists. It consists of a disciplined listening and speaking structure (it also goes by the name Speaker–Listener Technique) designed to help a couple to finally uncover understanding of one another. It can work beautifully.

Yet marital therapy was turned on its head when the greatest expert in the United States -- Dr. John Gottman -- found in his research that the happiest couples -- the so-called "masters of marriage" -- don't use the reflective listening technique or anything like it. Somehow, they communicate deeply without an artificial construct, and they thrive while doing it.

One vital thing Gottman noted in happy couples was a sense of connection, which seemed all important in couples' communication patterns. Without that connection, even the most sophisticated communication techniques didn't work. With it, there was no need for techniques.

Hence, Gottman now recommends a new marital therapy course called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, which emphasizes the importance of a couple's connection or "attachment." EFT was designed by Dr. Sue Johnson, whom Gottman calls "the best couple therapist in the world." Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is very successful at renewing tired marriages, making good ones better, and even rescuing those on the brink of dissolution. Why is EFT so successful? It is successful because it addresses the deepest need of the heart -- the cry for connection.

Dr. Johnson hears the deep-seated questions that are being asked underneath all inter-couple communications. What she hears are people longing for secure attachment, longing to believe that the other will be there through thick and thin -- an emotionally present, understanding and attentive lover.

These are primal needs, Dr. Johnson says, having to do with survival, which is why threats to the love in a marital relationship can be devastating to one's world. Marital dissonance can carry with it a sense of life-or-death import. Dr. Johnson says this is because attachment is a major human survival mechanism. Even among primitive peoples, tribes always out-survived lone individuals; friendship pairs in concentration camps survived at much higher rates than people who went it alone; babies who fail to attach to a loving adult fail to thrive, even when their physical needs are met by attendants.

We need to hold each other tight in unbreakable bonds of love. We need to know someone is "there" for us. Attachment -- vital to spiritual, emotional and physical survival.

Perhaps the best illustration of this attachment was given by Hyung-jin nim (a master of "interesting stories"!) In one of his sermons, he recounted the story of twin baby girls, born at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital. They were premature and had to be put in incubators. Hospital policy had it that each baby was to have his or her own incubator.

An attendant nurse worried that although one of the twin babies was thriving the other was not. They had the same external care -- state-of-the-art incubators and the attention of doctors and nurses. Yet the second twin's skin was turning bluish, she seemed to be fighting for air, and she was wasting away.

The nurse remembered a technique from Europe that she dared put into place, in spite of it's being against hospital rules. She put the sickly twin in the same incubator with the healthy one. Through the most primal instinctive desire for attachment, the two babies reached out for each other and embraced. Almost immediately, the sickly twin's heartbeat stabilized, and her body temperature rose. She stopped crying and began to breathe deeply and normally. The sickly twin began to recover and thrive because she was experiencing a familial bond. She needed someone special to hold her tight.

Hold Me Tight is the title of Dr. Johnson's book about Emotionally Focused Therapy. Johnson sees the primal survival need for attachment as acute in marital and family relationships. The fulfillment of this need is the cure for dying relationships, stressed relationships, relationships that have become dry, dull and routine, or relationships that need just a bit of improvement to be more deeply satisfying. The bottom line is that people need to be held tightly by a significant other.

Human beings were made for close attachments. We come out of the womb wailing for it. We suffer horribly if we are denied it at any stage of life -- not only mentally, emotionally and spiritually, but physically too. Doctors are finding that people with secure attachments recover more quickly from illnesses like cancer.

The problem is that we are often quite clumsy at forming and sustaining bonds with people, including the people who mean the most to us -- our families. We are bonded to them no matter what, but it takes effort to make and keep those bonds loving rather than onerous, forgiving rather than sour, close instead of self-protectively distant. We may feel that our partner isn't there for us on a deep level, even if he or she lives in the same house, puts money into our mutual bank account, alternates with us in taking care of the kids and eats dinner with us every night. If our mate isn't there for us in terms of deep attachment, we are alone and our hearts suffer.

We may paper over the pain with television, coffee, church activities, socializing or more harmful means of covering up and escaping from the agony of still being, in essence, alone, but we cannot escape it. The need for attachment is primal, survival-related, and written into our very beings.

When we speak of attachment, we mean delightful and soul-satisfying oneness such as that experienced between a mother and child during breast-feeding. The pair throb with happiness and unity. Pleasure-producing chemicals are emitted from the brain in droves -- dopamine, oxytocin (a bonding chemical) and all kinds of "feel-good" natural chemicals (which street drugs mimic but can never replace). These natural body chemicals course through both mother and child. The pair experiences heaven on earth.

Loving attachment is considered by scientists to be the beginning and foundation of all moral development in human beings, fostering as it does, empathy -- the ability to understand and love others, the ability to relate beyond the self. Attachment is our very first other-centered love, and we reach for it with alacrity.

Attachment is healing. A very young child who had been through a traumatic experience was screaming, flailing and crying, out of control during a visit to a friend of her mother's. The mother was at her wits' end.

The friend observed that when the mother had hugged the child briefly, the child had stopped crying and screaming.

She recommended the mother take the child into the bedroom, lie down on the bed with her, press her body full-length against the child and just hold her tight.

Within minutes, the child had stopped screaming and crying; after about twenty minutes, the child came out to play with the other children in a completely docile way.

In Rwanda, church missionaries set up a school for children traumatized by war. They found that the children needed most of all just to be held.

Attachment heals wounds -- both physical and psychic -- in adults as well as children. An injured woman lying on a hospital bed was told that her estranged sister was there to see her in her hour of need. They had not seen each other in decades. Wordlessly, the two held hands. The patient's heart rate slowed down to healthy levels, her brain emitted pleasure-inducing and healing chemicals, she sighed deeply -- and began to recover. One couple testifies that during a time of crisis all they did was hold each other and cry, hold each other and cry. They got through the crisis by holding each other tight.

Scientists who study the brain now know that we are "hard-wired" for relationships of deep attachment, and that without such relationships we die younger, experience less healing when recovering from illness, and experience more mental and emotional problems. In fact, scientists are finding that good relationships are a better predictor of long life and good health than major lifestyle choices like not smoking, not drinking alcohol and not eating a fatty diet.

Our partners can threaten our attachment needs -- which are literally survival needs (ask any baby!) -- and that is why ruptures in marriages hurt so deeply. By uncaring, thoughtless, reclusive, rejecting, critical, angry, indifferent or withholding behaviors, our partners can trigger deep-seated fears of abandonment without even knowing they are doing so. The need for attachment is a primal, survival-related need. If it is not there, we feel threatened in our very being and we will often react like cornered rats -- ready to fight to the death.

Does this mean that if couples just hold each other, a problematic marriage, a distant marriage, a distressed marriage, an indifferent marriage, a good marriage-wanting-to-be-better, a great marriage-wanting-to-become-cosmic, can improve?

Perhaps. Experts say that a couple's physical relationship is a measure of the health of their overall relationship. One famous marital therapist, Dr. Michelle Weiner Davis, instructs wives to adopt the Nike motto in their marriages and "Just do it!" They will be amazed, she says, at how much giving themselves sexually to their husbands enhances the relationship all around.

Yet, Dr. Johnson emphasizes, the couple's verbal and emotional communication must also be as reassuring as a tight, never-let-me-go embrace. Many people have a deep-seated fear of abandonment. Couples must learn to relate to each other in a way that shows that abandonment is simply not an option. They need to provide each other with a sense of emotional safety, where the soul of each can venture out safely to reveal needs, vulnerabilities and feelings without fear. They must know that the other will be there, present to them, in every way and forever.

Responding to attachment needs

This is where the bedrock of commitment comes in. When attachment is secure -- i.e., one knows the other person is not going to leave and will keep trying in the relationship -- it is a foundation upon which to build. That is the essential ground for the couple to work upon as they strive to make their bonds into ones of joy rather than bonds of duty, habit or even negativity. Commitment builds safety into a relationship. It is all-important.

Yet commitment must go deeper than just staying together in the format of marriage. Commitment must go into learning to love the other, no matter what. That may take re-committing to love each other again and again and again, on deeper and deeper levels of heart.

The Blessing means, in Reverend Moon's words, "You have met someone whom you can love." That is a simple yet profound summation of marriage. Blessed marriage is an opportunity to love someone.

We are called to love in our marriages, and deepening our love through prayer, study, seeking insights and -- yes, suffering -- is how we learn to find the devotion we need to become saints of marriage. As we do this, pieces of our old selves and of the fallen culture we have ingested fall away, and we will truly live for the sake of the other, who is our spouse. Our deepest needs for attachment will be answered.

True love doesn't depend on how the couple met -- whether they were "in love" when they met or not. Through interaction, habit, sharing finances, children, food, mortgages and all the other concerns of a married couple, we forge genuine bonds with the other person.

Some might think, "I still had an old love in my heart when I met this person," or "This person wasn't my first choice. I would never have really chosen this person myself -- the church leader recommended him (her). If I had married someone else, I would have been better off."

Not so. In counseling Blessed Couples, it is clear that they yearn to love the other and be loved by the other. They want to be as naked in mind and soul with the person as they were in body when they conceived children together. A Blessed husband and wife want to hold each other tightly, in all their vulnerability, assured of acceptance by the other, and not by anyone else.

The questions underneath are the same between couples who met romantically and those who married without being swept off their feet. Underneath every misunderstanding, every edged remark, every conflict, every sense of distance, disinterest or vague lack of fulfillment are burning questions. Do you love me? Do you care? Are you really there for me in a meaningful way? Can I trust you? Can I give my heart to you? Will you hold me tight no matter what?

Once relationship issues are seen in terms of attachment, many complications melt away. This is true in marital as well as other familial relationships. When we are in the midst of conflict, we would do well to plunge deeper into the understanding that attachment needs are at the root of the problem. "You didn't take out the garbage" translates into "Don't you love and value me and my efforts enough to help out?" It is pointless to get into an endless litany of who does what chores when. The vital issue is how much the other person's actions or words seem to communicate uncaring. Once that issue is cleared up, the couple or family may honestly not care who takes out the garbage.

It's all right to need one another. While therapists usually think dependency is unhealthy, human need is a reality, Dr. Johnson counsels. We need each other. There is such a thing as healthy dependency in marriages and families. There is no survival without one another, and the most basic unit of "each other" is a marriage. Inside each of us is a soul crying to the soul next to us, our spouse, "Be there for me. Hold me tight. And don't ever let me go."

We have met someone whom we can love. No matter how often (in addition to the joyful times) your relationship slips into routine, disinterest, anger, distance or angst, meeting someone whom you can love -- no matter who that person is -- is the most exciting gift we will ever be given. In fact, anger and emotional distance are actually cries of the soul to be closer to one another, cries for connection and attachment. Let's make the most of the gift we have been given by holding the one we have been given tight, soothing each other's needs for attachment, and allowing for the unfolding of our own and the other's soul. If we do so, we will be astounded by each other's beauty, by the mammoth revision and restoration that takes place inside us, and our relationships will be ever new as we explore the boundless possibilities of love with our most significant other. A Relationship Assessment Quiz from Dr. Johnson's book

Give yourself a point for each statement that is true from your perspective.

1. I can get my partner's attention easily.

2. My partner is easy to connect with emotionally.

3. My partner shows me that I come first with him/her.

4. I am not feeling lonely or shut out in this relationship.

5. I can share my deepest feelings with my partner. He/she will listen.

6. If I need connection and comfort, he/she will be there for me.

7. My partner responds to signals that I need him/her to come close.

8. I find I can lean on my partner when I am anxious or unsure.

9. Even when we fight or disagree, I know that I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together.

10. If I need reassurance about how important I am to my partner, I can get it.

11. I feel very comfortable being close to, trusting, my partner.

12. I can confide in my partner about almost anything.

13. I feel confident, even when we are apart, that we are connected to each other.

14. I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts, and fears.

15. I feel safe enough to take emotional risks with my partner.

If you scored seven or above, you are doing well in your intimate relationship.

Now, the real test is to ask yourself how your spouse would answer about you and to use the projected answers as a blueprint for how to go about bringing more intimacy and joy into your marital relationship.

June is a writer, researcher and presenter on issues of marriage and family, character education, and conflict resolution. She has authored and co-authored two character and relationships education curricula for Grades 1-12, and co-authored Cultivating Heart and Character: Educating for Life's Most Essential Goals, published by Character Development Group. 

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