Sue Johnson, Psychologist Who Took a Scientific View of Love, Dies at 76

Sue Johnson, a British-born Canadian clinical psychologist and best-selling author who developed a novel method of couples therapy based on emotional attachment, challenging what had been the dominant behavioral approach — the idea that behaviors are learned and thus can be changed — died on April 23 in Victoria, British Columbia. She was 76.

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

When divorce rates rose in the 1970s, couples therapy blossomed. Drawing from traditional psychotherapy practices, therapists focused mostly on helping distressed couples communicate more effectively, delve into their upbringings and “negotiate and bargain,” as Dr. Johnson put it, over divisive issues like parenting, sex and household chores.

In her own practice, however, she became frustrated at how her couples seemed to be stalling out.

“My couples didn’t care about insight into their childhood relationships,” she wrote in her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” (2008), which has sold more than a million copies and been translated into 30 languages. “They didn’t want to be reasonable and learn to negotiate. They certainly didn’t want to be taught rules for fighting effectively. Love, it seemed, was all about nonnegotiables. You can’t bargain for compassion, for connection. These are not intellectual reactions; they are emotional responses.”

In conventional therapy that sought to modify 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 knew of the attachment studies of John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist who studied children who had been traumatized by being orphaned or separated from their parents during World War II. Later researchers began to focus on adult attachments and noted how secure connections among couples helped them weather the inevitable storms of relationships.

Dr. Johnson’s 2008 book has sold more than million copies and been translated into 30 languages. Credit…Little, Brown Spark

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