Love Sense

The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships


By Dr. Sue Johnson, EdD

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The bestselling author of Hold Me Tight presents a revolutionary new understanding of why and how we love, based on cutting-edge research.

Every day, we hear of relationships failing and questions of whether humans are meant to be monogamous. Love Sense presents new scientific evidence that tells us that humans are meant to mate for life. Dr. Johnson explains that romantic love is an attachment bond, just like that between mother and child, and shows us how to develop our "love sense" — our ability to develop long-lasting relationships.

Love is not the least bit illogical or random, but actually an ordered and wise recipe for survival. Love Sense covers the three stages of a relationship and how to best weather them; the intelligence of emotions and the logic of love; the physical and psychological benefits of secure love; and much more. Based on groundbreaking research, Love Sense will change the way we think about love.



People think love is an emotion. Love is good sense.

—Ken Kesey


Unless you love someone, nothing else makes any sense.

—e. e. cummings


We are obsessed with love and love relationships. But what do we really know about love? We instinctively know that there is no other experience that will have more impact on our lives—our happiness and health—than our success at loving and being loved. We know that love makes us vulnerable, but also that we are never as safe and strong as when we are sure we are loved. We know that at the most difficult moments in our lives, nothing but the comfort of the ones we love will do. But although, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, our species has smarts enough to split the atom and soar into space, we still seem to have no clear or rigorous understanding of the intense connection that is so central to our being.

The consensus across human history is that romantic love is, and always will be, an enigma, somehow by its very nature unknowable. I am reminded of Palamon, the imprisoned knight in Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, who, through his barred window, spies the fair Emily gathering flowers and singing. He cries out in pain and explains to his cousin and fellow prisoner Arcita:

It’s not our prison that caused me to cry.

But I was wounded lately through the eye

Down to my heart, and that my bane will be.

The beauty of the lady that I see

There in that garden, pacing to and fro,

Is cause of all my crying and my woe.

I know not if she’s woman or goddess;

But Venus she is verily, I guess.

Love, to so many of us, seems a bewitchment—a force, powerful and dangerous, that strikes us without our bidding.

Perhaps because love seems so baffling and unruly, we appear to be losing all faith in the viability of stable, romantic partnerships. Pessimism is rampant. On any given day, we scan press accounts and catch videos on TV of famous folks caught in adulterous affairs. We check online advice blogs extolling swinging as the way to combat inevitable relationship fatigue, and read op-ed pieces maintaining that monogamy is an antiquated and impossible concept that should be junked. When it comes to adult love, we appear to be truly lost.

All this at a time when, ironically, romantic love is more important than ever. A tsunami of loneliness, anxiety, and depression is sweeping through Western societies. Today, adult partnerships are often the only real human ties we can count on in our mobile and insanely multitasking world. My grandmother lived in a village of three hundred people that offered her a web of companionship and support, but now most of us seem, if we are lucky, to live in a community of two. Seeking and holding onto a life partner has become a pressing organizing feature of our lives, given that other community ties are so marginalized. The evidence is that we are ever more dependent on our mates for emotional connection and support while being in the dark as to how to create love and keep it.

Moreover, we seem in so many ways to be working actively against our desire for love and commitment. Our society exalts emotional independence. We are constantly exhorted to love ourselves first and foremost. A friend at a social gathering recently commented to me, “Even you have to face it. We are in general a distant and dismissive society. People don’t believe in love relationships anymore. They are not the priority. No one has time for them anyway.”

As a clinical psychologist, couple therapist, and relationship researcher, I have grown increasingly alarmed and frustrated by where we are and where we seem to be going. Through my own work and that of esteemed colleagues, I know that the cynicism and hopelessness are misplaced. Today, we have a revolutionary new perspective on romantic love, one that is optimistic and practical. Grounded in science, it reveals that love is vital to our existence. And far from being unfathomable, love is exquisitely logical and understandable. What’s more, it is adaptive and functional. Even better, it is malleable, repairable, and durable. In short, we now comprehend, finally and irrefutably, that love makes “sense.” The word derives from the Latin sentire, meaning “to perceive, feel, or know,” and also “to find one’s way.” And that is why I have called this book Love Sense. I intend for it to help you find your way to more fulfilling and lasting love.

In Love Sense, you will learn what I and other scientists have discovered from thirty years of clinical studies, laboratory experiments, and applied therapies. You will learn that love is a basic survival code, that an essential task of our mammalian brain is to read and respond to others, and that it is being able to depend on others that makes us strong. You will learn that rejection and abandonment are danger cues that plunge us into real physical pain, that sexual infatuation and novelty are overrated, and that even the most distressed couples can repair their bond if they are guided to deal with their emotions a little differently.

My particular contribution lies in relationship repair. Working with thousands of despairing couples through the years has led me to create a new systematic model of treatment, Emotionally Focused Therapy, that honors our need for connection and support. EFT, as it is commonly called, is the most successful approach to healing faltering relationships that has yet been devised, with an astounding 70–75 percent success rate. Today, EFT is routinely taught to counselors in training in at least twenty-five countries around the globe. A simplified version of EFT for couples wishing to help themselves can be found in my previous book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

These are but a few results of the scientific quest to understand love. In the pages of this book, you will find the results of many more studies as well as the stories of many couples in their most intimate moments. (All stories are composites of several cases and are simplified to reflect general truths. Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.) You will be surprised, and even stunned, at what you read but most of all you will be enlightened, not only as to the nature of love and how it affects us personally but also about what it means to us as human beings and to our society and the world. All the research agrees that a stable, loving relationship is the absolute cornerstone of human happiness and general well-being. A good relationship is better health insurance than a careful diet and a better anti-aging strategy than taking vitamins. A loving relationship also is the key to creating families that teach the skills necessary to maintain a civilized society—trust, empathy, and cooperation. Love is the lifeblood of our species and our world.

Jonathan Larson, the late composer and playwright, put it well in a song from his musical, Rent, that asks the measure of “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,” or a year in one’s existence. The answer: “Share love, give love, spread love…Measure, measure your life in love.” Nothing else makes sense.

I write this book not just as a warning but also as a revelation and a promise.

Part One

The Relationship Revolution

Chapter 1

Love: A Paradigm Shift

I believe in the compelling power of love. I do not understand it. I believe it to be the most fragrant blossom of all this thorny existence.

—Theodore Dreiser

My memories are full of the sounds and sights of love:

The ache in my elderly grandmother’s voice when she spoke of her husband, gone nearly fifty years. A railway signalman, he had courted her, a ladies’ maid, for seven years on the one Sunday she had off each month. He died of pneumonia on Christmas Day after eighteen years of marriage, when he was forty-five and she just forty.

My small enraged mother flying across the kitchen floor at my father, a former naval engineer in World War II, who stood large and strong in the doorway, drinking her in with his eyes, and she, seeing me, stopping suddenly and fleeing from the room. She left him after three decades of slammed doors and raised fists when I was ten. “Why do they fight all the time?” I asked my granny. “Because they love each other, sweetie,” she said. “And watching them, it’s clear that none of us knows what the hell that means.” I remember saying to myself, “Well, I won’t do this love thing, then.” But I did.

Telling my first great love, “I refuse to play this ridiculous game. It’s like falling off a cliff.” Weeping just months into a marriage, asking myself, “Why do I no longer love this man? I can’t even pinpoint what is missing.” Another man smiling quietly at me, and I, just as quietly, leaning back and letting myself plunge into the abyss. There was nothing missing.

Sitting, years later, watching the last of the ice finally melting on our lake one morning in early April and hearing my husband and children walking through the woods behind me. They were laughing and talking, and I touched for a moment the deepest joy, the kind of joy that was, and still is, entirely enough to fill up my heart for this lifetime.

Anguish and drama, elation and satisfaction. About what? For what?

*  *  *

Love can begin in a thousand ways—with a glance, a stare, a whisper or smile, a compliment, or an insult. It continues with caresses and kisses, or maybe frowns and fights. It ends with silence and sadness, frustration and rage, tears, and even, sometimes, joy and laughter. It can last just hours or days, or endure through years and beyond death. It is something we look for, or it finds us. It can be our salvation or our ruin. Its presence exalts us, and its loss or absence desolates us.

We hunger for love, yearn for it, are impelled to it, but we haven’t truly understood it. We have given it a name, acknowledged its force, cataloged its splendors and sorrows. But still we are confronted with so many puzzles: What does it mean to love, to have a loving relationship? Why do we pursue love? What makes love stop? What makes it persist? Does love make any sense at all?

Down through the ages, love has been a mystery that has eluded everyone—philosophers, moralists, writers, scientists, and lovers alike. The Greeks, for instance, identified four kinds of love, but their definitions, confusingly, overlap. Eros was the name given to passionate love, which might or might not involve sexual attraction and desire. In our day, we are equally bewildered. Google reported that the top “What is” search in Canada in 2012 was “What is love?” Said Aaron Brindle, a spokesman for Google, “This tells us about not only the popular topic for that year…but also the human condition.” Another website,, solicits definitions and experiences from folks around the globe. Scroll through the responses and you’ll agree with the site’s founders that “there are just as many unique definitions as there are people in the world.”

Scientists try to be more specific. For example, psychologist Robert Sternberg of Oklahoma State University describes love as a mixture of three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Yes, but that doesn’t solve the riddle. Evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, explain love as nature’s reproductive strategy. In the grand abstract scheme of existence, this makes sense. But for illuminating the nature of love in our everyday lives, it’s useless. The most popular definition is perhaps that love is…a mystery! For those of us—and that is almost all of us—who are trying to find it or mend it or keep it, this definition is a disaster. It robs us of hope.

Does it even matter whether we understand love?

If you had asked that question as recently as thirty or forty years ago, most of the world would have said, “Not really.” Love, despite its power, wasn’t considered essential to daily life. It was seen as something apart, a diversion, even a luxury, and oftentimes a dangerous one at that (remember Romeo and Juliet and Abelard and Heloise?). What mattered was what was necessary to survive. You tied your life to your family and your community; they provided food, shelter, and protection. Since the earliest conception of marriage, it was understood that when you joined your life to another’s, it was for eminently practical reasons, not emotional ones: to better your lot, to acquire power and wealth, to produce heirs to inherit titles and property, to create children to help with the farm and to care for you in your old age.

Even as life eased for growing numbers of people, marriage remained very much a rational bargain. In 1838, well into the Industrial Revolution, naturalist Charles Darwin made lists of the pros and cons of marriage before finally proposing to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. In favor, he noted, “Children…Constant companion, (& friend in old age)… object to be beloved & played with…better than a dog anyhow… a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music…These things good for one’s health.” Against it, he wrote, “perhaps quarreling—Loss of time.—cannot read in the Evenings…Anxiety & responsibility—less money for books &c…I never should know French,—or see the Continent—or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales—poor slave.”

We don’t have Emma’s list, but for most women the top reason to marry was financial security. Lacking access to schooling or jobs, women faced lives of punishing poverty if they remained unwed, a truth that continued well into the 20th century. Even as women gained education and the ability to support themselves, love didn’t figure too highly in choosing a mate. When asked in 1939 to rank eighteen characteristics of a future spouse or relationship, women put love fifth. Even in the 1950s, love hadn’t made it to first place. I am reminded of my aunt, who, when she found out that I had a “man in my life,” advised me, “Just make sure he has a suit, dear”—code for “Make certain he has a steady job.”

In the 1970s, however, love began heading the list in surveys of what American women and men look for in a mate. And by the 1990s, with vast numbers of women in the workforce, marriage in the Western world had completely shifted from an economic enterprise to, as sociologist Anthony Giddens calls it, an “emotional enterprise.” In a 2001 U.S. poll, 80 percent of women in their twenties said that having a man who could talk about his feelings was more important than having one who could make a good living. Today, both men and women routinely give love as the main reason to wed. And indeed, this is increasingly the case around the world; whenever people are free of financial and other shackles, they select a spouse for love. For the first time in human history, feelings of affection and emotional connection have become the sole basis on which we choose and commit to a partner. These feelings are now the primary basis for the most crucial building block of any society, the family unit.

A love relationship is now not only the most intimate of adult relationships, it is also often the principal one. And for many it is the only one. The American Sociological Review reports that since the mid-1980s, the number of Americans saying that they have only their partner to confide in has risen by 50 percent. We live in an era of growing emotional isolation and impersonal relationships. More and more, we dwell far from caring parents, siblings, friends, and the supportive communities we grew up in. And more and more we live alone. According to the latest U.S. census, more than thirty million Americans live solo, compared with just four million in 1950. We toil for longer hours and at more remote locations requiring lengthy commutes. We communicate by e-mailing and texting. We deal with automated voices on the telephone, watch concerts performed by holograms of deceased artists (such as rapper Tupac Shakur), and soon we will be seeking assistance from holographic personnel. At New York City–area airports, travelers were recently introduced to a six-foot-tall, information-spouting AVA, short for airport virtual assistant, or avatar.

Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, contends that in Western societies, “social connection has been demoted from a necessity to an incidental.” As a result, our partners have been forced to fill the void. They serve as lover, family, friend, village, and community. And emotional connection is the only glue in this vital, unique relationship.

So yes, understanding the nature of love absolutely does matter. Indeed, it is imperative. Continued ignorance is no longer an option. Defining love as a mystery beyond our grasp and control is as toxic to the human species as is poison in our water. We must learn to shape our love relationships. And now, for the first time, we can, thanks to an unheralded revolution in the social and natural sciences that has been under way for the past twenty years.

A Revolution

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines revolution as “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something: a change of paradigm.” And that is exactly what has happened to adult love in the field of social sciences. Two decades ago, love didn’t get much respect as a topic of study. No emotion did. René Descartes, the French philosopher, associated feelings with our lower animal nature and thus considered them something to be overcome. What marked us as superior animals was our ability to reason. Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am,” he famously proclaimed.

Emotions were not rational and therefore suspect. And love was the most irrational and suspect of all, thus not a fit subject for scientists, the supreme rationalists. Scan the subject index of professor Ernest Hilgard’s exhaustive historical review Psychology in America, published in 1993; you won’t find the word love. Young researchers were routinely warned off the topic. I remember being told in graduate school that science does not deal with nebulous, soft indefinables, such as emotion, empathy, and love.

The word revolution also means “an uprising.” Social scientists began to recognize that much of their work was not addressing public concerns about the quality of everyday life. So a quiet movement, without riots or bullets, began in campus laboratories and academic journals, challenging the orthodox adherence to studies of simple behaviors and how to change them. New voices began to be heard, and suddenly, in the 1990s, emotions emerged as legitimate topics of inquiry. Happiness, sorrow, anger, fear—and love—started appearing on the agenda of academic conferences in a multitude of disciplines, from anthropology to psychology to sociology. Feelings, it was becoming apparent, weren’t random and senseless, but logical and “intelligent.”

At the same time, therapists and mental health professionals began adjusting their frame of reference in dealing with relationship issues, especially romantic ones. For years they had focused their attention on the individual, believing that any turmoil could be traced back to a person’s own troubled psyche. Fix that and the relationship would improve. But that wasn’t what was happening. Even when individuals grasped why they acted a certain way and tried to change, their love relationships often continued to sour.

Therapists realized that concentrating on one person didn’t give a complete picture. People in love relationships, just as in all relationships, are not distinct entities, acting independently; they are part of a dynamic dyad, within which each person’s actions spark and fuel reactions in the other. It was the couple and how the individuals “danced” together that needed to be understood and changed, not simply the individual alone. Researchers began videotaping couples recounting everyday hurts and frustrations, arguing over money and sex, and hassling over child-rearing issues. They then pored over these recordings, hunting for the critical moments of interaction when a relationship turned into a battlefield or wasteland. They kept an eye open, too, for moments when couples seemed to reach harmonious accord. And they looked for patterns of behavior.

Interest in emotions in general, and love in particular, also surged among “hard” scientists as advances in technology refined old tools and introduced new ones. A major hurdle to investigations had always been: How do you pin down something as vague and evanescent as a feeling? Or, as Albert Einstein lamented: “How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”

The scientific method depends not only on observation and analysis but also on measurable, reproducible data. With the arrival of more sensitive tests and assays, neurobiologists launched inquiries into the chemistry of emotions. But the big push came with the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Neurophysiologists devised experiments that peer into the brain and actually see structures and areas lighting up when we are afraid, or happy, or sad—or when we love. Remember the old public service announcement showing an egg frying in a pan while a voice intones, “This is your brain on drugs”? Now we have films that actually do capture “This is your brain on love.”

The result of all this ferment has been an outpouring of fresh knowledge that is coalescing into a radical and exciting new vision of love. This new love sense is overthrowing long-held beliefs about the purpose and process of romantic love as well as our sense of the very nature of human beings. The new perspective is not only theoretical but also practical and optimistic. It illuminates why we love and reveals how we can make, repair, and keep love.

Among the provocative findings:

The first and foremost instinct of humans is neither sex nor aggression. It is to seek contact and comforting connection.

The man who first offered us this vision of what we now call attachment or bonding was an uptight, aristocratic English psychiatrist, not at all the kind of man you would expect to crack the code of romantic relationships! But John Bowlby, conservative and British, was nevertheless a rebel who changed the landscape of love and loving forever. His insights are the foundation on which the new science of love rests.

Bowlby proposed that we are designed to love a few precious others who will hold and protect us through the squalls and storms of life. It is nature’s plan for the survival of the species. Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence. “In uniting the beloved life to ours we can watch over its happiness, bring comfort where hardship was, and over memories of privation and suffering open the sweetest fountains of joy,” wrote George Eliot.

This drive to bond is innate, not learned. It likely arose as nature’s answer to a critical fact of human physiology: the female birth canal is too narrow to permit passage of big-brained, big-bodied babies that can survive on their own within a short time after birth. Instead, babies enter the world small and helpless and require years of nurturing and guarding before they are self-sustaining. It would be easier to abandon such troublesome newborns than raise them. So what makes an adult stick around and assume the onerous and exhausting task of parenting?

Nature’s solution was to wire into our brains and nerves an automatic call-and-response system that keeps child and parent emotionally attached to each other. Babies come with a repertoire of behaviors—gazing, smiling, crying, clinging, reaching—that draw care and closeness from adults. So when a baby boy bawls from hunger and stretches out his arms, his mom picks him up and feeds him. And when Dad coos or makes funny faces at his baby girl, she kicks her legs, waves her arms, and babbles back. And round and round it goes, in a two-way feedback loop.

Adult romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the one between mother and child.

We’ve long assumed that as we mature, we outgrow the need for the intense closeness, nurturing, and comfort we had with our caregivers as children and that as adults, the romantic attachments we form are essentially sexual in nature. This is a complete distortion of adult love.

Our need to depend on one precious other—to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us—never dissolves. In fact, it endures, as Bowlby put it, “from cradle to grave.” As adults, we simply transfer that need from our primary caregiver to our lover. Romantic love is not the least bit illogical or random. It is the continuation of an ordered and wise recipe for our survival.


  • "This book is an absolute must for anyone who wants to understand how Love Makes Sense. Sue Johnson covers all the new science, and she has led the scientific field in helping us all understand love and how to repair an ailing relationship. The book is a real page-turner, an easy read that will enlighten all of us who want to build a lasting and secure bond filled with romance and passion. We need no longer wander around in the darkness, stumbling from one disastrous relationship to another. Read this book and learn how to create a life that is a safe haven for love." --John M. Gottman, PhD, author of What Makes Love Last?
  • "A life-changing book! Dr. Johnson elucidates the science of love, convincingly demonstrating the underlying emotional logic of relationships. In an entertaining way, she gives us practical, down-to-earth examples and exercises to help us develop our 'love sense.' It will enrich the lives of all who read it." --Richard Lannon, MD, coauthor of A General Theory of Love

  • "You won't find a better book combining wonderful insight, practical wisdom, and the latest science of relationships. Plus the passion of a psychologist intent on making the world safe for the kind of intimacy we all long for." --William J. Doherty, PhD, author of Take Back Your Marriage
  • "Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotion Focused Couple Therapy, has written a powerful book on the science of securely bonded marriages. Dr. Johnson's very human and inspiring approach to relationships will keep the reader mesmerized." --Barry McCarthy, PhD, author of Rekindling Desire
  • "Sue Johnson sees no contradiction in viewing love as biology and poetry, physiology and romance. For her, love is the hard won endowment of our evolutionary history and a source of hope a world of uncertainty and danger. With this book, Sue reveals that love is scientifically understandable. She emerges not only as a world authority on love's repair, but also on its underlying, neural, physiological and psychological structure."--James Coan, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia.
  • "In Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson creates fascinating and enlightening connections between cutting-edge research, professional applications of research in marital therapy, and scores of apt case examples and engaging exercises for people who struggle with relationship difficulties. Besides being an excellent researcher, theorist, and clinician, Johnson has a unique gift for inspiring and motivating other therapists and nonprofessional readers. With genuine enthusiasm and admirable clarity, she shows how emotion-focused therapy, guided by attachment theory and research, can heal troubled relationships while benefiting society more generally. This is a wonderful, uplifting, energizing book."--Phillip R. Shaver, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis; Past President, International Association for Relationship Research

On Sale
Dec 31, 2013
Page Count
352 pages
Little Brown Spark

Dr. Sue Johnson, EdD

About the Author

Dr. Sue Johnson, a recipient of the Order of Canada, is an internationally recognized leader in the field of couple interventions, adult attachment, and change in psychotherapy. A clinical psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor at Alliant International University in San Diego and a professor at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Johnson is the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and has trained thousands of therapists in North America and around the world. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Hold Me Tight, Love Sense, and Created for Connection.


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