Sue Johnson (1947-2024): Psychologist pioneered emotional focused therapy

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Sue Johnson told the story of how as a child she sat in the dark on the steps of her family’s home in England listening to her parents fight.

“Why are they doing this?” he asked his grandmother.

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“Because they love each other,” was the response.

Johnson, who died Tuesday in Victoria, BC, told that story in his best-selling 2008 book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Whether it was that experience of hers that propelled her into the field of couples therapy (“I was excited about helping people change,” she once said) not even Johnson could say for sure.

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But Johnson’s groundbreaking research at the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa, where she was professor emeritus, revolutionized views on adult relationships and the nature of romantic love.

“His influence will remain for generations to come. He has really revolutionized psychotherapy,” said Gail Palmer, who met Johnson when they worked together on the family therapy team at what is now the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus. In 1999, they founded the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute with Johnson’s husband, John Douglas, and her colleague Alison Lee.

“Sue was larger than life. It was incredible to witness the brilliance of her,” Palmer recalled in a telephone interview from Victoria.

Sue Johnson was born in 1947 in Kent, England, where her parents ran a pub. She was 11 years old when her parents divorced her, a fact that left her devastated. Eager to leave England and its rigid class structure, she immigrated to Canada at age 22 and arrived with $60 in her pocket. After her doctoral research at UBC led her toward couples therapy, she landed a job as a psychology professor at uOttawa.

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Johnson pioneered what became known as emotion-focused therapy, which examines relationships between adults in the same way one might view the bond between a child and its parents.

“She dedicated her life to developing the EFT model and seeing it spread throughout the world,” Palmer said.

“It was about incorporating emotions into psychotherapy, which was revolutionary, and then making those emotions make sense,” he said.

“It’s really about getting to the heart of the matter, about helping people express themselves from within, from their vulnerability. What is driving the negative patterns that couples get stuck in? When you can see that vulnerability in your partner, you will respond.”

Johnson expressed the concept of EFT in his own words in Hold Me Tight:

“Underneath all the anguish, partners ask each other: Can I count on you? Are you there for me? Will they answer me when I need it, when I call? You care about me? Am I valued and accepted by you?

However, when it was first developed in the 1970s and 1980s, EFT was not well received, especially coming from a woman in a male-dominated field.

“Sue was fierce. Being a woman wasn’t always easy. I think there were a couple of times where the male leaders in the field confronted her. But she never backed down. She never gave up,” Palmer said.

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“Emotions were not trusted. It was about controlling your emotions and trusting only your cognitions. In terms of attachment, in those days it was about self-differentiation and autonomy. As an adult, depending on another was considered childish and immature.”

EFT is now used in counseling clinics around the world. Palmer has used it in her own family therapy work, including in the Canadian Arctic, where she says she can help heal the wounds of intergenerational trauma.

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“When I was teaching at Oxford, one of the students stood up at the end of the lecture and said, ‘You know, I’ve learned a lot of techniques in my studies and they’re like tools in my tool belt. But EFT is like a tool shed,” Palmer recalled.

“I thought EFT was beautifully illustrated.”

Outside of work, Johnson enjoyed dancing, gardening, and of course, her family. She was a voracious reader and possessed a wicked sense of humor. Palmer wondered what people at Civic Hospital thought of the laughter emanating from the family therapy clinic “after Sue said something outrageous.”

In 2016, Johnson was named a member of the Order of Canada, an honor that made her burst into tears when she received the news. In 2022, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Psychotherapy Network.

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Hold Me Tight has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. In 2023, it was among seven titles recommended by the New York Times to “strengthen your relationship.” Most recently, Johnson’s first work of fiction. Edgar and Elouise “for children from 9 to 90 years old” use animals, each with their peculiarities and weaknesses, to tell a saga of emotional growth.

Johnson died April 23 after a three-year battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband, John, and her children Sarah, Tim and Emma.

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