Cardus Family's Andrea Mrozek sits down with Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of a highly effective strategy for relationship repair called Emotionally Focussed Couples Therapy and author of several books, among them Hold Me Tight (2008) and Love Sense (2013), to learn about a cutting-edge approach to emotional relationships and physical well being at the Ottawa Heart Institute.
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Building on research released last fall by Cardus Family on the importance of emotional relationships to physical well being, program director Andrea Mrozek sat down with Dr. Sue Johnson to learn about a cutting-edge approach at the Ottawa Heart Institute. Healing Hearts Together is based on data demonstrating that strong family life can play a vital part in helping cardiac patients regain their 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? In assessing over 50 major, peer-reviewed studies, the conclusion came back that marriage did indeed proffer benefits, particularly in the areas of mortality, mental health, cancer-care and cardiac health. There was an important caveat. It had to be a good marriage. However, with this caveat, study after study showed important benefits associated with being married, even over and above cohabitation.
It was of great interest, then, to learn the Ottawa Heart Institute is offering a structured couples therapy program to cardiac patients and their spouses/partners. Dr. Heather Tulloch is the clinical psychologist and researcher at the Heart Institute who introduced Healing Hearts Together with the first pilot group in October 2015. She assessed a need but simultaneously wondered whether the program would suit the needs of “Type A” cardiac patients and their partners. After all, "Type A" people may not be attracted to the more emotive realm of feelings that counselling inevitably invokes. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” says Dr. Tulloch, “that in fact people loved [the pilot programs]. I got patients writing letters to me afterwards saying you know ‘my husband had x, y, z illnesses over the years and this was the first time that anyone has ever offered anything to me.’” The benefits include helping patients better cope in their relationships in general, “but also in coping with cardiovascular disease.”
This is exactly the sort of outcome that Marriage is Good for your Health envisions—a program that helps marriages thrive for the good of relationship, but also for the good of other aspects of health. The research is clear: Our relationships impact our physiology. So how did this program emerge? A combination of research and relationship is the best answer. Healing Hearts Together at the Heart Institute is a collaborative effort with none other than Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of a highly effective strategy for relationship repair called emotionally focussed couples therapy and author of several books, among them Hold Me Tight ( 2008) and Love Sense (2013).
Johnson created the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Her unique and effective brand of couples counselling has been proven successful via numerous studies. She says cardiologists at the Heart Institute saw the research saying that the best predictor of whether you have another heart attack is not the severity of your first heart attack, it’s the quality of your most intimate relationships. Combine this with the fact that Dr. Tulloch has known Dr. Sue Johnson for years. The result? They got together and specifically tailored a version of Dr. Johnson’s Hold Me Tight program for cardiac patients.
There are at least two relationship myths Dr. Johnson would love to overturn through her work. One of those myths is that love is something that simply happens to us, over which we have no control. “We are still not thinking about relationships as things we need to work on or create,” says Dr. Johnson. “We think about them as happening to us.” There’s evidence of this myth everywhere, starting with the very phrase “falling in love.” This mentality can lead to problems when the relationship moves past the so-called honeymoon phase.
The other big myth is that we are independent beings who have no need for others. Here Dr. Johnson is emphatic. “We are in a mental health crisis because we keep focussing on the idea that our reality ends with our skin. It does not. We are social beings,” she says. Put differently, “[t]o be human is to need others, and this is no flaw or weakness.” writes Dr. Johnson in Love Sense.
The idea of survival via community and connection is one that makes sense. It’s intuitive. It is also arguably needed now more than ever in our highly autonomous age. Our values today almost preclude thriving relationship. We like the idea of the self-made man or woman, the individual hero who triumphs over adversity. The fact that virtually no one survives without the help or encouragement of others is more the reality, yet this community storyline hasn’t really grabbed hold of our imaginations, or Hollywood blockbusters.
Tomorrow: Andrea Mrozek speaks to Dr. Johnson about the ways the revolutionary work of attachment theorist Dr. John Bowlby is being applied in the realm of romantic relationships – and building strong, healthy, lifelong marriages.
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