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Interacting with "Hold Me Tight" by Dr. Sue Johnson - Introduction

Hold Me Tight

One of the ongoing discussions in broader biblical counseling circles is whether, and to what degree, Christians can benefit from secular counseling theory and principles in pursuit of hope and healing. At Baylight, we consider ourselves to be firmly entrenched in the biblical counseling family, while not being off-put by the idea that we can, indeed, learn from our more secular oriented friends in the greater counseling realm.

This is not, as some might be inclined to think, a capitulation to the culture, but a recognition that by God’s common grace extended to all, even the unbeliever can ask good questions about the world and the troubles of man, and arrive at helpful (if not biblically incomplete) conclusions that are not incompatible with biblical truth and wisdom. To that end, this post, and those that will follow it in a series, will interact with the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, psychologist, developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and author of the best-selling book, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

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It has often been said that underneath every marriage problem is a foundational and precipitating God problem. In other words, whenever and wherever a married couple find themselves at odds with each other, they can assume that one or both of them have strayed, to some degree, from biblical wisdom. This is a longwinded way of saying that in any marital conflict, one or both parties has a sin issue worthy of confession and repentance.

Most married, confessing Christians will accept the above proposition, in theory. The rub will come in discerning who needs to own the sin, and do the actual work of confessing and repenting. If we know ourselves well according to Scripture, we have made peace with the fact that even on our best day, our best works are stained by sin.

In marriage, by design the most intimate of human relationships, conflict resolution takes on some very unique contours because, unlike other human relationships (i.e. neighbor or co-worker), the conflicted parties most often live together, sharing a bed, a bathroom, dinner plates, finances, and quite often, little people called “children.” While marriage counseling scenarios often involve a significant sin issue belonging primarily to one particular party, a Christian worldview demands that both parties own the big idea behind the words of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, who wrote:

"Study always to keep up the lively impression of this awful truth upon your hearts, that God could find matter of condemnation against you, not only for your worst sins, but from the best of your duties."

In short, marital counseling demands that husband and wife remember that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and everyone approaches "with clay feet." This can be a difficult pill to swallow when one spouse has been sinned against in a particularly heinous way, but it is not a truth that can be set aside. In fact, it will in the long run be a source of comfort for the victim, as they learn to trust not in their own righteousness, but in God’s for their healing and provision.

As we turn now to Johnson's work, and start to consider the difficult (but rewarding) work of marriage counseling, let's remember this most fundamental truth of Scripture and the Christian life":

“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6 (CSB)

Wired for Attachment

In the Introduction to her book, Johnson writes that everyone has a need for [human] connection. While in the process of developing her couple therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), one question she was trying to answer with clarity had to do with the nature of "romantic love." In her estimation, many therapists had concluded that romantic love was essentially "rational bargains," with involved parties simply seeking to get whatever they can at the "smallest possible cost."

But, Johnson wasn't satisfied with such an approach.

Working with a colleague, it occured to Johnson that, as with child/mother relationships, "Romantic love was all about attachment and emotional bonding. It was all about our wired-in need to have someone to depend on, a loved one who can offer reliable emotional connection and comfort." Johnson dervied her conclusions from the work of Dr. John Bowlby, developer of attachment theory, which dealt specifically with the relationship between a mother and her child.

For Christian counselors and couples, focusing in on these ideas through a biblical lense can be quite helpful. For example, Johnsons's observation above that a need for romantic love is "wired-in" finds support in the creation account found in Genesis 2:18, wherein we read that "It is not good for the man to be alone."

According to John Calvin, commenting on this verse:

"Man was formed to be a social animal ... The human race could not exist without the woman; and, therefore, in the conjunction of human beings, that sacred bond is especially conspicuous, by which the husband and the wife are combined in one body, and one soul ... It as a common law of man’s vocation, so that every one ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege."

Understanding this "wired-in" need biblically can help Christian couples relate to and understand one another with more humility and less pride, promoting the emotional and spiritual attachment designed for them by God. Some may rightly ask, however, about Johnson's use of the attachment paradigm. Consider the CSB's translation of Genesis 2:24:

"This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh." [More on this, perhaps, in the next post.]

To be sure, Johnson is not writing from a Christian worldview, but believers can still benefit from many of her ideas in important ways. One might say that through common grace, Johnson has observed truths that comport with Scripture, and has expressed those observations in helpful ways.

These opening paragraphs serve as table-setting thoughts for what will be a chapter-by-chapter walk through Johnson’s book. In each post, we’ll highlight one or two particular thoughts that seem to have a connection to biblical wisdom, and which we can apply in a biblical counseling context. In chapter one, Johnson will apply the attachment theory of Dr. John Bowlby to “adult love.” We will work to understand her central idea in the chapter, and see how biblical wisdom might affirm in some way her main idea, and how we can benefit from it as Christians, even if in a biblically clarified way.

Light for Today

Read, memorize, meditate upon, and pray over James 4:6 for your marriage.

Ask God to reveal to you the hidden places where pride is hindering your relationship with the Father, and then with your spouse.

Where and when appropriate, confess this issue to your spouse, ask for their forgiveness, and humbly communicate to them your desire to understand their position and/or view related to a source of conflict. Listen actively, reflect back to them only their views, and ask them for any needed clarification. Resist the urge to offer counter-arguments until you’ve taken the time to consider their ideas.

In a later post, we will talk about why and how these moves will promote heart-level attachment with your spouse, and what could possibly motivate such difficult actions on your part in the first place.