Iconic Therapist Dr. Sue Johnson — How to Improve Sex and Crack the Code of Love (#529)

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“When we’re safe and secure and we feel we matter to others and that they have our back, our potential and our resources come out.”

— Dr. Sue Johnson

Dr. Sue Johnson (@Dr_SueJohnson) is a leading innovator in the fields of couple therapy and adult attachment. She is the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT), which has demonstrated its effectiveness in over 30 years of peer-reviewed clinical research. Sue has received numerous awards in recognition of her development of EFT, including the American Psychological Association’s “Family Psychologist of the Year” and the Order of Canada.

Her best-selling book Hold Me Tight — with more than one million copies sold—has taught countless couples how to enhance and repair their love relationships. The book has since been developed into a relationship enhancement program called Hold Me Tight Online. Her most recent book for clinicians, Attachment Theory in Practice, delineates the promise of attachment science for understanding and repairing relationships.

As the founding director of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT), Sue trains counselors in EFT worldwide and provides guidance to 80 affiliated centers. She consults for the US and Canadian militaries and is a popular presenter and speaker for the general public.

Please enjoy!

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#529: Iconic Therapist Dr. Sue Johnson — How to Improve Sex and Crack the Code of Love

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with someone who seeks to help people better connect? Listen in on my last conversation with psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel, in which we discussed conducting remote therapy with couples during quarantine, coping with uncertainty, the paradoxes presented by spending more time with the family, prompts for reconnecting with old friends and colleagues, dancing versus exercise, the importance of decompressing from too much bad news, and much more.

#418: Esther Perel — Tactics for Relationships in Quarantine
  • Connect with Dr. Sue Johnson:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube | LinkedIn


  • What peer-reviewed clinical research supports Sue’s work? [06:25]
  • EFT has a high success rate in studies with distressed couples. How is success clinically defined for these couples? [09:33]
  • What scales are used to assess marital satisfaction and bond, and how has this played out in research? [13:33]
  • What is a hold me tight conversation? [19:41]
  • Examples of how hold me tight conversations can take shape. [21:01]
  • How a hold me tight conversation might work for someone who has a tendency to isolate (or feels isolated). [32:01]
  • On just how common such isolation is, and how “dependency” has become such a dirty word. [40:17]
  • Attachment parenting vs. sleep training. [44:36]
  • What are micro-interventions from Rogerian models of therapy (aka evocative questions)? [54:18]
  • How does Sue respond to a client who can’t really answer how they’re feeling in their body? [1:02:47]
  • How would someone “up the ante” in the context of a hold me tight conversation, and why does it usually have the opposite of its intended effect? [1:09:41]
  • How does Sue help someone work through anger? [1:11:35]
  • Why Sue is fascinated by Winston Churchill, and reading she recommends for someone who wants to know more about him. [1:15:02]
  • Tango talk. Since it famously takes two to tango, what kind of arguments do tango couples get into? [1:20:33]
  • How would Sue advise a couple who’s very much in love but their sexual spark has faded? [1:33:44]
  • Advice for a couple in which the woman has a more sustained sex drive than the man. [1:43:11]
  • What brought about the development of Sue’s Hold Me Tight Online program, and what can people expect from it? [1:48:44]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:53:17]


“Love is an ancient, wired-in survival code.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“If you can’t find comfort in the arms of another to heal from trauma, it’s bad news.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“What attachment science tells us is that emotional isolation is toxic for human beings. We found out that in the pandemic, but we still don’t get it.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Once you feel seen, accepted, and held, there’s a natural human growth process that happens.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“The way human beings have survived through the centuries is through tuning in to others, reading their cues, collaborating, cooperating, moving close, supporting—that’s the way we’ve survived. And if you look at the problems facing our world right now, we’d better be learning from this science or we’re not going to survive. We’ve got to be able to come together.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Shutting down and numbing out is a fragile strategy you can’t keep up for your whole life. It shatters under any kind of pressure.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Parenting is a moving target. You accommodate your child, then your child changes.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“We understand that to be emotionally alone traumatizes a child. We need to apply that to adults because in that sense, we never grow up. Attachment goes from the cradle to the grave.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Some of the cliches we have about love are really awful misinformation. But one of the cliches that’s really true—and this is true in most religions—is that when we’re loved, we grow and expand.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Attachment gives us a map to how we dance together with the people we love and where those dances go in terms of outcome. It gives us a map to our own vulnerabilities and emotions. It tells us how supremely sensitive we are to signals of rejection or abandonment by other people, and that this sensitivity is wired in.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“We all know on some deep, visceral level how much we need others, and the strongest among us can accept that and learn how to connect.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Tango is about attunement, and so is love.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“In the end, what none of us can bear is the feeling that we’re alone and that we don’t matter to another human being.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“Passion is about feeling safe enough to be completely absorbed in the experience and let it take you over. Passion is about full engagement.” — Dr. Sue Johnson

“It’s very hard to be open and physiologically responsive when you’re afraid and guarding yourself all the time.” — Dr. Sue Johnson


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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20 Replies to “Iconic Therapist Dr. Sue Johnson — How to Improve Sex and Crack the Code of Love (#529)”

  1. I really enjoyed this episode and wanted to comment about the “cry it out” vs “attachment parenting” debate. I’m on kid number 3 now and have never done “cry it out.” It’s terrible for me to listen to my kids cry. But I also believe that it’s important to teach your kids to sleep. There’s plenty of middle ground in there. As much as possible, I put my babies to bed drowsy but awake (which isn’t always possible. Sometimes nursing them to sleep is the only thing that worked.). When they woke up at night as small babies (3 months or less), I’d get them right away to feed them. As they got a bit older, I’d let them fuss for a couple of minutes before getting them. Never hysterical crying. Just fussing. As they got older and older, I waited longer and longer. And, eventually, they were able to put themselves to sleep. It wasn’t traumatic for anyone. Mom and Dad get to sleep alone in their own bed. It’s a slower process than “Cry it out,” but the end result is the same. All my kids (including my 9-month-old) are great sleepers.

    I’d also recommend The Happiest Baby on the Block. It’s the only parenting book for babies that I found to be helpful. And get a SNOO – they’re great for little babies.

    Best of luck!

    1. Agreed 100% Rachel. Clarity here is important for young parents and prospective parents. I know Tim has more than a passing curiosity as I’ve heard him ask for reflection on parenting issues several times in the past year. In our experience of sleep training (boy-girl twins, sleeping 12 hours by 12 weeks of age) – there was almost no additional crying. The approach is essentially kaizen. Daily incremental expansion of the infant’s ability to sleep without feeding. Near the end of it, we’d go into our kids’ room for just 1-2 minutes, sit them up in the crib, feed them One ounce of breast milk from the bottle, and lie them back down. After a few days, even that nighttime visit was unnecessary. I believe many parents have a similar experience. Sleep is job #1. Food is a distant #2 – as a well-rested kid has a much better relationship with nutrition.

  2. I too love the idea of kelp farming.
    I learned about it from the movie/ documentary 2040 which explains many areas of environmental rejuvenation projects worldwide.
    There is so much potential in kelp farming.
    When I am able, I hope to invest too.
    All the very best.

  3. I really enjoyed the podcast and learning about all the great things that secure attachment can bring us.
    However, I’m currently literally swallowing the books by Anthony de Mello, because his “theory” that (I’m oversimplifying here) “attachment is the root of all unhappiness in our lifes” really resonates with my experience.
    –> Sue and Anthony seem to have a diametrically opposed view on attachment … did you notice that? And if so, did you find a (fraction of a) resolution?

    1. What an interesting question. Am not familiar with Anthony de Mello´s work. Wonder if when he´s referring to attachment to “things” you may have a relationship with (like objects and “possessions” like a car or house) versus attachment to “living things” you may have a relationship with (like people, animals)?

      Wonder if this might have similarities with Buddhist scholars (and translators) who, in light of findings from Attachment Science, apparently are re-defining “Non-Attachment” to mean “Secure Attachment”?

  4. as your email newsletter says the only way to bring things to your attention is via blog comments I am giving feedback on your newsletter here (sorry to everyone who has trawl past this to read comments on this podcast episode)

    your newsletters are long, and much of the content duplicated, more than once, in the same newsletter, to the stage the newsletters are becoming spam rather than something that has real insight and creates a interest in other content.

    time to review and see if what is currently going out reflects your values and creates value for you audience (and isn’t buried in all the repeats and marketing blurb).

  5. Great episode. I wanted to leave a note about sleep training. Sleep training doesn’t only have to be the one method of cry it out. It could also be viewed as training your child to sleep which can also be done in more gentle and loving ways where they know you’re there for them. We sleep trained our daughter using a method where you are there for your child and help them learn how to fall asleep on their own with your support. We liked it because you’re there for your child and supporting them while they learn how to fall asleep on their own. They will cry but it’s because they’re learning a new skill and it’s hard and uncomfortable for them. But it never gets to the frantic scared crying that I’ve heard other parents describe with cry it out – the crying never goes too far, you don’t abandon them, and they know you’re there. It’s a more gentle approach to teach a child how to fall asleep on their own and it’s worked for me and my wife. Our teacher for this was a woman named Lara Rabb but there are others who you can learn from that have similar methods. Tim – for a smart person with the resources to have help with a child (night nurse) I think this is an experiment you’d want to try. This method takes more time – it took our daughter 1.5 weeks to learn how to sleep on her own – but for us it was worth it. And as your Polish friend says “The easy way is the hard way. The hard way is the easy way.” I just wanted to pass along this bit of info as I’ve gotten so much from your podcast throughout the years. I hope it’s helpful.

    1. I had similar thoughts when listening to the podcast as we too used a sleep training method that was not cry it out. We used the Baby Whisperer (Tracey Hogg) – we were there with our son when he was crying and learning how to sleep. We also put him on a routine from a very young age (about 6 weeks) so that it was never like we suddenly had to sleep train him when older – it was a gradual approach. He is nearly three and is a great sleeper still. There is definitely a middle road between attachment parenting and cry it out methods.

  6. It was an intense episode to listen too. I was surprised by the bias towards gender and the difference that plays in sex. Sue made it seem very definite; she did admit her bias but then referenced her own client experience. Tim’s question about men having lower sex drive, I will add be it right away in a relationship or 7 months later, bought out how really strong this bias was. If you are a man with lower sex drive, you must be broken, and she affirms that there is something in a man’s past that is causes this issue. What about Asexual individuals? Something in their past is blocking them too I suppose. If one assumes that genetics cannot play a role then it means, I suppose, that something in the past occurred to make these types of individuals how they are and therapy will be the key to grant them a normal sexuality or one that is relative to their biological gender. Wow. That’s something to chew on.

  7. I truly enjoyed this podcast and thought long about how it applies to single people. It is highly unlikely that I will marry or form a life partnership again and, as much as I’ve learned from attachment theory, I wonder how this applies to all of us singles (pretty much by choice) out here? Is there a self-attachment version of this? Thanks for all the thinking this has stimulated.

    1. Did you have a look at the books of Anthony de Mello? E.g. “Awareness” which Tim recommends quite often … it goes into the direction of your question … or he actually argues against “attachment”, if I don’t get him wrong …

  8. Just listened to this (very interesting!) episode. The part about being torn between style of parenting resonated and I liked Sue’s response.

    I ended up going down the attachment parenting route – in part because my first son screamed and screamed if you put him down and there was zero chance of him sleeping anywhere other than in bed with me. Even there he struggled. But after six months of less than four hours sleep per night, I hit breakdown point with sleep deprivation. We did ‘gentle’ sleep training – of the ‘stay with your baby while they cry’ variety in the end.

    Looking back, the whole experience helped me grow as a person and as parent. I think there is false dichotomy between attachment parenting and sleep training. I couldn’t actually find any clear evidence that attachment parent has any relationship with the ideas of secure attachment of Bowlby and Ainsworth which doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in parts of attachment parenting, but that it is not as clear-cut as the attachment parenting enthusiasts often make out. What helped me most was the Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy which encompasses much more than sleep – Janet Lansbury’s blog is a good introduction to that, and also the ideas of Aletha Solter. I also found Pamela Druckerman’s book about French parenting and the idea of the ‘cadre’ useful.

    Specifically in terms of sleep, a lot of advice recommends things that overstimulate some babies or are hard to wean off. Things that I found useful when I had my second (who also wasn’t a natural sleeper but whom I did better job with!) were: the idea of the ‘cuarentena’ (known by different names in different cultures) – the idea of a confinement period after birth; the importance of helping the establishment of circadian rhythms (Satchin Panda’s book there which isn’t about parenting but I found useful) and working with the Basic Rest and Activity Cycle (from a book by Polly Moore) and ‘the pause’ from Pamela Druckerman’s book.

  9. Dear Tim,
    your question about Sues point of view about attachment and sleep deeply resonated with me because I was the same. Before having my first baby I tried to research everything about sleep and how to get a baby to sleep properly quickly. Now, after my third child, I think I have found a rather simple formula. I feel like you might be interested in it, because it’s easy, a mixture of attachment and training and without crying.
    My kids started to sleep through the night by 3, 9 and 5 month and have been good sleepers ever since. As your books and podcast have given me quite a few good tips over the years, I thought, maybe I can help you back. So, this is what you do:
    First, you personally decide where your baby is going to sleep (your bed, his or her own bed). I personally followed the official safety recommendations and had them sleep in a little bed right next to my own bed. But I think it works either way. Then, learn to swaddle baby for sleep time. In the beginning they feel more comfy to sleep like that. The important thing is to swaddle them tightly further up but leave their legs very free. That way their hips can grow properly. This was all general. Now comes what I think is most important. Get them into the following habit: sleep – eat – play – sleep – eat – play…… there is theories out there to put them on a fixed schedule, e g breast/bottle every 3-4 hours. But I’ve tried it and the advantage of doing the sleep, eat, play “schedule” is, is that they learn to not connect sleep with food. This goes hand in hand with my second tip. As they need to learn to connect their sleep circles (in the beginning they can do only one (45min)), they do it more easily when they fall asleep again when they wake up where they fell asleep. I mean, when you walk with baby on your arms and put them only in their bed, once they have already fallen asleep, they naturally wake up after around 45 minutes and wonder where they are. Which won’t help to fall back asleep. So, I found it effective, to have it like this: baby wakes up. You pick baby up and feed him/her. Then you change nappy. Give the other breast or second halve of bottle (this way baby wakes a bit more up and gets more milk) then you “play” until you see tired cues. Then you swaddle baby (after checking the nappy again) and, if possible, put baby in his/her own bed and let baby fall asleep there. If baby is fussy don’t let baby cry (and this is against the typical sleep training method!!!) I’d pick baby up again, sooth it and try again. This way you never really let the baby cry, but baby still learns to finally fall asleep on her/his own. You can stay with baby until he/she is sleeping.
    Tip three: during the day be really responsive: baby wakes up, you are there! But at night, don’t react immediately. Especially the little ones are sooo noisy in their sleep and can do all lots of things whilst sleeping plus they still have to learn to connect those sleep circles. Just wait a couple of minutes to be sure they won’t fall asleep again by themselves. If you are sure they are awake, pick them up (best in darkness) give them a feed and put them back to bed. I think this method is not as fast as the very strict sleep training. But with my three children it worked really well and I never had to let them “cry it out”. So it’s much gentler then typical sleep training but with the same result.
    I wish you the best and hope this was helpful!

  10. Super episode, thank you! I feel compelled to weigh in on the “cry it out” versus “attachment” debate. This seems like a false dichotomy to me, as Rachel also comments, there is plenty of middle ground. Before I get to that, there are real risks to sleeping with your infant, that far too often are not spoken about plainly. SIDS is real, but what is often not stated is that in many cases an infant death attributed to “SIDS” is more likely the direct result of a parent suffocating their child by co-sleeping. Nobody wants to make a parent feel bad about this, and it can be hard to prove causation, so it is often swept under the rug, but ask any ER doctor and they will tell you that sleeping with an infant carries this risk, it’s just not worth it.

    So what to do? I found Penelope Leach’s “Your Baby and Child” enormously helpful. Two main points of hers worked for both of my children:

    1. Don’t delay going to an infant who needs to feed in the night. If you go to them immediately they will feed in a semi-awake state and easily drift back off, as will you, since instead of lying in bed for 10-20min hoping that they will quiet down before you go to them,(they won’t, they are hungry) you just get up, sleepily feed, return them to their crib and return to your own bed, all in a matter of minutes.

    2. When settling an infant for the night tell them that you will come back to check on them in ten minutes, and then potter around nearby, but not in the same room, making quiet noises so that they know you are around. Return when you say you will, give a gentle murmur, little pat on the head, and repeat. This builds trust (Mummy/Daddy comes back when they say they will), and soon enough baby relaxes into sleep.

    If this all sounds too good to be true, sure, I had plenty of less than stellar moments too, but on average, these worked like a charm.

    1. I’m laughing at the idea of them easily drifting back off to sleep or pottering around the room without them screaming! But those are still good tips for babies that aren’t reasonably ‘normal’ 🙂

      I found the SIDS data rather frustrating, though there may be better data than 8-10 years ago. Cosleeping and things like ‘falling asleep on a sofa with your baby’ were generally conflated. It was hard to get data on the risk if you make a bit effort to make sure that they can’t be suffocated by bedding etc. and the data didn’t distinguish between being suffocated by a parent and the type of SIDS where a baby is asleep in a cot by itself. The things that increase the risk of SIDS mostly seem to be things that help babies sleep so I always wondered if any advice that helped babies sleep would in fact increase the risk.

  11. This was a really helpful episode, especially since “working” on relationships isn’t appreciated as much as working on career, fitness, etc. in our culture. I’d love to see other guests that specialize in human relating and wanted to make a plug for having Diane Poole Heller on the show. She is an expert in Attachment Theory and offers great insight into how it’s foundational to all human relationships. Thanks!

  12. Wow. What a fantastic episode. Dr. Johnson seems like a real riot. You two had such great chemistry and round 2 is definitely in order. What a lovely conversation. My favorite part was her saying “Why would Tim Ferris be interested in interviewing ME?” Because you’re SUPER INTERESTING, that’s why. 🙂

  13. Just listened to this episode. Absolutely wonderful. Tim, if you want to have a truly revolutionary conversation about sex, you need to have Emily Nagoski on the show!

  14. What a great show, thank you for sharing Dr. Johnson. Found it so interesting when I first discovered that simply acknowledging the feelings of others is such a helpful thing in relationships! Wonder if anyone else would like examples showing how to do it?