Originally Aired: April 11, 2017
EPISODE 9: Love from the inside out.
Sheila: I wrote you a note as I recall and it said ‘That was a sweet moment in time and I look forward to others.’ Maybe a week later? I went to the computer and I sat down, and I said, ‘If I do not say this I will explode. I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m in love with you.’
IN THIS EPISODE WE HEAR FROM SHEILA AND JOE, A COUPLE THAT HAS BEEN MARRIED FOR TWELVE YEARS, BUT LIVING TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME. AFTER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IN PRISON, JOE WAS RELEASED EXACTLY ONE WEEK PRIOR TO THE RECORDING OF THEIR CONVERSATION.
LATER IN THE EPISODE, I TALK WITH DOCTOR SUE JOHNSON. SHE IS A RELATIONSHIP RESEARCHER, THE DEVELOPER OF E-F-T, EMOTIONALLY FOCUSED THERAPY, AND AUTHOR OF THE SEMINAL BOOKS HOLD ME TIGHT AND LOVE SENSE.
Sue: You can tell people not to be so mean to each other and give them exercises for fighting in a nicer way. You can give them insight in to their past and how come they’re so sensitive to their partner. That’s probably a complete waste of time, but you can do that.
MY NAME IS ANDY HORNING, AND THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK. IT’S ABOUT ALL THINGS RELATIONSHIP – THE SOULFUL, THE SILLY AND THE SEXY.
Host IN 2002, JOE SENT A LETTER TO THE RIVERSIDE CHURCH IN NEW YORK CITY ASKING FOR SOMEONE TO CORRESPOND WITH, AND TO READ AND TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BIBLE. SHEILA WAS VOLUNTEERING AS A LETTER RESPONDER TO ABOUT TWENTY DIFFERENT INCARCERATED PEOPLE THROUGHOUT NEW YORK STATE. NEITHER WAS LOOKING FOR A COMPANION.
Sheila If you recall your letters tended to be on yellow or white paper, lined paper, and I would type my letters unless I was on the road, then I would write my letters to you. I remember once I was travelling or something was going on and I remember I didn’t write to you for a little while, and you wrote and said ‘is everything okay?
Joe Because I loved the letters, I like writing to you, I like receiving your letters.
Host JOE WAS INCARCERATED IN 1991 FOR A SENTENCE OF TWENTY-FIVE YEARS TO LIFE. THAT SAME YEAR, SHEILA RETIRED AFTER THIRTY YEARS AS A JOURNALIST FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Joe I think largely due to your professional background as a journalist, a print journalist, that through our letters and your letters in particular, you were able to drew out certain things in me and ask certain questions that, to be honest, I hadn’t been asked by anyone, let alone a woman. The last time I was on the outside, meaning in the free world and not in prison, I was twenty-one so most of my relationships were… I won’t say superficial but they weren’t nearly as deep as ours is now and so I wasn’t used to that type of someone trying to get to know me and uncover the different layers of me, sort to speak. It was scary at times, even though I’m open it was scary because we went there, we talked about all sorts of things that were sensitive, or hurtful, or things that I had suppressed over the years in order to get through life and especially to get through prison life.
Sheila I remember when we talked about your mother and I was stunned to know that your mother had never visited you.
Sheila Because I asked you ‘why hasn’t your mother visited to you twelve, over thirteen years, you’ve been in prison this long’ I said ‘Was it some huge argument or did you do something?’ and you said ‘no, nothing’ and I said ‘That’s crazy’ and I said ‘You can love your mother and be angry at her’.
Joe Right, and that took some processing because I did love my mother very much and I think what I said, probably said at that time, was that it was very common for people not to get visits from people very close to them, not that that was an excuse and I think that I suppressed the anger because it was there. I think it was things like that, like ok, on some levels ‘why are you going there?’ you know, ‘That’s me and my mom and let’s just deal with us’ in some ways.
Joe And so through your letters I was able to really drew out things that I had, I guess packed in over the years.
So we began to correspond more and more frequently, again for me, because you were able to help me do what I had hoped from the beginning, to keep me in touch with my humanity.
Sheila I remember you had asked me to visit a couple of months into our writing.
Joe I felt connected, I wanted to get to know you more.
Sheila First I said ‘oh! Sure’ but then I said ‘you know, I really like our friendship so I don’t think a visit would serve our friendship because it could be a distraction or start kind of pinning our hopes on certain things’ and I said ‘so let’s just not… tamper with this good friendship’.
Joe Oh! I had sent a picture.
Sheila You did, you sent a picture.
Joe I sent a picture and it’s also common for people to- on the outside, to send a picture back like ‘Hey! This is what I look like.’ And you didn’t, you said ‘Oh! I don’t like taking pictures’ or something to that effect, so again I’m like ‘ok, this is different.’ You know, and other times it felt like you were just keeping a distance.
Sheila It was about a year into our corresponding with each other, and I remember saying to myself ‘Life isn’t promised to any one, I should meet Joe, I should meet Joe. And so I decided to travel to the prison and that was October third 2003.
Joe I probably called and said ‘How would I know what you look like in a visit? You know what I look like! But I won’t know what you look like [Laughter]’ You said ‘I’ll wear a flower or something like that in my hair and I have dreadlocks.’ So it terms for our visit, I probably was a little nervous. It was a big day, very big, you know we had been corresponding for fourteen months, fourteen months before you first visited.
Sheila I took the bus up and waited for him in the visiting room, he came out and we hugged each other. And I was totally new to this experience. And we talked. We talked for about five hours.
Joe Leading up to the visit, like that month or so before, I think I said ‘oh! I can’t wait to see you so I can get a hug and a kiss’ or something like that, meaning a kiss on the cheek and a hug, and you said ‘I’m coming to collect’ I remember you said that, so I said ‘ok! We’re making progress here’ [Laughter]
Sheila I mean it was just like old times, two people kicking it, you know just friends. When I left I wrote you a note as I recall and it said ‘that was a sweet moment in time and I look forward to others’ maybe a week later? I was at home and I was- all of a sudden I went to the computer and I sat down, and I said- I wrote Joe a letter [Laughter] and I said ‘if I do not say this I will explode. I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m in love with you.’
Joe That blew me away; I was like ‘wow! Finally a breakthrough’ I mean, in a major way! You went from one extreme to another [Laughter] it’s like in one point I was this young whipper-snapper you liked to call me. So that was something. I’ll never forget that. I showed it to a couple of guys, of course, I mean because it just felt so enveloping and warm, and incredible. Incredible. I said ‘I love her, too’ and I wrote you back and said that.
Sheila Well you put it on the back of the envelope. And you wrote ‘I love you, too’ so that it was written out there, so I didn’t even have to open the envelope.
Joe That sounds like me. But I remember you writing back immediately you asked me was I really in love with you or was I saying it as a mean to getting through prison, it was something to that effect.
Sheila I think it was more ‘Are you sure you love me?’
Joe Or the idea of being in love, something like that.
Sheila Right! Right! ‘Or is it more the idea of being in love? And also because in prison you are so deprived of touch and companionship, and warmth, and support, are you calling it love when it’s really something else?’
Host AFTER SEVENTEEN YEARS IN PRISON, JOE APPLIED FOR CLEMENCY.
Host HIS APPLICATION REPRESENTED HIS EXCEPTIONAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT, ACCOMPLISHMENTS, AND HIGH PROBABILITY OF NOT REOFFENDING. THE PAROLE BOARD VOTED FOR HIS RELEASE. UNFORTUNATELY, THE GOVERNOR, HOWEVER, DENIED THE APPROVED RECOMMENDATION.
Joe It was very difficult. We thought this was it. We were devastated, devastated.
Sheila But no, we were both devastated, I mean, it felt devastating.
Joe It took me a while to rebound from it and I usually rebound quickly but I felt that I deserved it, that I was ready.
Sheila We found out later that the parole commissioners had in fact voted to release you. But it was the governor because it is his purview, the governor said no but the parole commissioners, they unanimously said you should go home.
Joe Unanimously. Right.
Host IT WOULD BE SEVEN MORE YEARS BEFORE HE WAS WAS APPROVED FOR PAROLE.
Host AFTER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IN PRISON, TWELVE OF THOSE MARRIED TO SHEILA, ON OCTOBER THIRD TWO-THOUSAND-SIXTEEN, JOE WALKED INTO HIS NEW LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE.
AH What’s it like to be together in- now that you’re a couple more than just inside-outside, you’re together.
Sheila Well, when I use the word- the phrase ‘real time,’ we get to experience each other in real time. When you were in prison, I remember it felt like saving up things so that I would- I’d say ‘Oh, wow! That was great,’ and I’d write a note to myself to remember to tell you. If I had an event I’d be walking home alone thinking ‘I wish Joe could’ve experience that.’ And it just seems like such a small thing but it is so huge that I can turn to you at any given moment and say ‘you know what I was just thinking?’ Most people would say ‘Wow, that’s what we do every day.’ But we didn’t have that and I just think it’s such a gift.
Joe For me I think a huge part that makes this reentry journey less daunting is the fact that we work on a marriage, we talk, we talk. I tend to be the more open one so I draw stuff out, you know, not let issues just sit on the side, it’s like ‘let’s talk about this, let’s deal with it.’
Another part is the conjugal visits, I can’t say that enough; I mean we lived in little, small trailers, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen area, a living room, for eleven years. And it has made the difference so transitioning in being in the same physical space with you at home felt like home.
Sheila That was 2005.
Joe The same year we got married, months later.
Sheila We were married in January, our first conjugal visit was…
Sheila You have to apply and you have to meet certain criteria in order to be… it’s called the Family Reunion Program in New York State and if you meet the criteria, then you can have visits, roughly forty-four hours so if you go in on a Monday afternoon, you come out on Wednesday morning.
Joe That made all the difference for years. That made a difference because we had a sense of each other’s rhythms, patterns.
Sheila There was this familiarity so it made it really, so far so good.
Joe Right [Laughter].
Sheila It’s a week [Laughter].
Joe Ok, it’s a week!
Sheila We’ll stay tuned [Laughter].
– BREAK –
AH You’ve been married thirteen years?
Joe Almost twelve.
Sheila Almost twelve.
AH Twelve years.
Joe January 12th
AH But now… a full week. Have you had any fights?
Joe It’s not a fight but the only thing in all honesty- and this is before I came home last week, but you tend to… step on my words.
Sheila I do.
Joe You read my mind, I guess. It’s helpful to me to say, in other words, to complete whatever it is I’m trying to say, it’s helpful to me and let’s say I’m trying to figure something out and I ask how to do this, and then you’ll cut me short or whatever and then begin to explain, I’d say ‘well, let me say it, let me get it out so I can process it, like fully process it.’ It’s frustrating because I’ll get quiet. But ‘I wonder if you feel that you’re trying to be helpful, and it is, but it would be – just being honest -it would be more helpful if I can complete my sentence and then you give me a fuller response so that would be more helpful to me.
Sheila You’re absolutely right, I’m trying to be helpful.
Joe I know my wife, I know you.
Sheila [Laughter]. I’m trying to be helpful. I would say there is a change of behavior inside in prison, so that people- if people step on each other’s words is considered disrespect.
Joe Ok, that makes sense because it’s true.
Sheila And it’s not on the outside, it’s just the way people roll but inside it is disrespectful and respect is everything in prison.
Joe Yeah, ok, that makes perfect sense. So next week I will be cutting people off [Laughter].
Sheila [Laughter]. Just not me [Laughter].
Joe I’m home now, you know, I’m home now so –
Host Sheila and Joe fell in love the old fashioned way through letter writing. How often does that happen nowadays? Yet, it’s a very non-traditional relationship in the sense that he was on the inside and she was on the outside. They had accomplished so much. They had gotten to know one another through that unique situation. They had also written a book together, started a nonprofit together, and yet when we sat down to the record their conversation a week after he had been released, I was aware they were at the very beginning of this new part of their relationship. They were heading into new territory as they were beginning their life on the outside.
DOCTOR SUE JOHNSON IS THE DEVELOPER OF E-F-T, EMOTIONALLY FOCUSED THERAPY, A RELATIONSHIP RESEARCHER AND TEACHER, AND AUTHOR OF THE PIONEERING BOOKS HOLD ME TIGHT AND LOVE SENSE. AND I’M SO EXCITED TO BE INTERVIEWING SUE JOHNSON BECAUSE SHE HAD SUCH A BIG IMPACT ON MY WORK AS A THERAPIST IN HER ROLE FORWARDING THE IDEA THAT RELATIONSHIPS CREATE EMOTIONAL SAFETY.
Sue One of the issues I think we come up against is going and getting help for your relationship or even talking about your relationship still had some sort of stigma and shame attached to it. It’s almost like if you’re an okay person, you should be able to create good relationship and you certainly shouldn’t talk about it if you can’t.
AH Right. The only time you should talk about is when you’re doing really well and in that lovey-dovey face. If there’s anything else going on, keep it to yourself kind of thing.
Sue That’s right because somehow it means that you’re somehow less than or incompetent. Relationships have changed so much, marriages have changed so much. The main force behind marriage never used to be being close and intimate and giving each other emotional support until about 50 years ago.
AH On a larger level, we’ve just begun learning how to do this thing called intimate partnership and so why would we expect ourselves to be very good at it?
Sue That’s right. The bottom line is we haven’t known how to do it. We haven’t known how to do it.” Most people, if you ask them in sort of western countries, developed countries, if they were honest, they would say, “I want a partner, I want a good relationship with a partner. I’d like it to last and if it goes wrong, I’d like to be able to leave it and find another partner.” We’re learning how to do this. We’re just learning.
AH You’re saying, “Let’s be patient with ourselves.”
Sue We haven’t known how to really understand love relationships. So I think people get very disillusioned and they get scared and they say, “I don’t know how to find someone I can really depend on, I can really grow with. I don’t know how to do that. I’m not even sure it’s possible. You can meet hundreds of people on the internet to date in a really short time. But when I talk to the people who are doing that, especially young people, and I say to them, “Well, do you really know what you’re looking for? Do you really know what you need? Do you really know how to choose someone and do you know how to handle moments when you suddenly are vulnerable with somebody and you want to know if they’re going to respond to you?” And people look at me like I’m a rabbit. The overwhelming answer to all of that is no, of course not. So I think we’re all flailing around, desperately trying to figure out what is possible in relationships, what can I believe in, what am I entitled to, what can I ask for, and some of it we come up with some different answers for different folks, but we also come up with some funny answers.
AH It is complicated, it is nuanced, and sometimes in our effort to find clarity, we oversimplify it and make it more simple than it really is. I often think if we were to have a successful partnership, it is perhaps the most courageous and great thing we could do in our lives.
Sue I think the thing that worries me a bit is I don’t think people have ever needed a good close relationship more than now. The world gets faster and faster. It gets lonelier and lonelier. We don’t live in villages. We don’t live next to the people that we went to school with or our extended family. People have never needed relationships more. And I think the sort of cynicism about relationships, they worry me because they totally discourage people. Not only that, but it’s not true.
The key thing I guess what I want to say to people is we have a science of love that’s immerged in the last 20, 15 years. And this science of love is powerful stuff. It’s powerful enough to change people’s brain in an fMRI machine. It’s powerful enough that we can predict from watching a couple have a conversation, how they’re going to be together. Towards the end of therapy, they have a conversation, and we can predict that they’re going to be bonded and happy and connected and having a great sex life in three years’ time. I mean that’s a powerful science.
Sue But it doesn’t get that much press. It doesn’t get much press that we finally learn how to understand love and what you understand you can shape.
AH Dr. Sue, you’re the author of two books, Hold Me Tight and Love Sense as well as the developer of EFT, Emotionally Focused Therapy.
AH One of the things I know about EFT is that it has been proven as the most successful form of couple’s therapy. Why do you think that is? What is it about EFT in particular?
Sue I think it’s because it’s on target. You can look at a distressed relationship and it’s kind of like when you have a cold, you have lots of symptoms, right? And you can address anyone of those symptoms. You can take Tylenol to stop your nose running, but it’s not actually going to impact the virus that’s giving you the cold, right?
AH Right. Yes.
Sue So you can address symptoms in a relationship. You can tell people not to be so mean to each other and give them exercises for fighting in a nicer way. That’s probably a complete waste of time, but you can do that. You can give them insight in to their past and how come they’re so sensitive to their partner. It depends on how you do it, but that can also be a waste of time.
What we do because our work comes out of a science of relationship is we go on target. We understand that the problem in relationships is not conflict per se or differences in personality per se. It’s emotional disconnection. If you like, conflict is the inflammation. The virus is emotional disconnection. And we help people understand how they get caught in these dances of disconnection where often one person is sort of pushing for some sort of emotional response and the other person just hears criticism and withdraws. The more that person withdraws, the more the other person pushes for a response. Nobody is to blame. We all get caught in those dances. The point is to know how to get out and reestablish safety in the relationship.
And it’s so powerful that it creates a safety in the middle of the relationship so that couples can still argue and still have differences, but they know how to come back to this island of emotional safety. The longing for that is wired into our brain as human beings. It’s the biggest reward that you can get human beings. We’re social bonding animals. So we are wired to just be filled with joy and calm and for our nervous system to just sing when we have this particular kind of emotional connection with other people. That’s just who we are.
AH That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.
Sue So we know how to create that. We didn’t make this up. This came out of all the science on adult bonding which is only developed in the last 15 years and us plugging into that. It’s really all the distressed couples that I saw in the first few years when I was working with couples and didn’t know what I was doing. They taught me about this stuff, what is natural movement is in the relationship where you end up in a good loving place and then attachment science helped me understand it. In my book Love Sense, I call it a revolution. I think it is a revolution. The thing is we need to tell people about it.
AH Yeah. It’s got to get out there more.
Sue The good news is no good if it’s not on the front of the paper.
AH Do you ever use your own marriage in your work and in your teaching? Because if the experts aren’t willing to share their own story, on some level we get this perception that, “Oh, well, they have it all figured out. They don’t have normal everyday issues.”
Sue I use my own stories from my family and my relationship all the time and my family knows that. I think it’s useful for me in my position to share with people that of course I get stuck in huge fights with my husband. Of course I do. Of course I go down all the same stuck places that everyone else does. Even though I’ve been married to my husband for 27 years, and basically if you ask me, do we have a good relationship, I’d say yes. I’m incredibly lucky. We have a great relationship and we work on it all the time. I’d also tell you that we fight and we get stuck. I say all the things in my head that all partners say in these fights. I say that husband is a creep. He’s not going to do this to me and I blame him and I put him in boxes and I feel righteous and I would say I’m going to refuse to take any risk with him and I’m going to show him and all this stuff. Because I want people to hear that we all get stuck and I also want people to hear that there’s a way out.
AH So what’s different for you?
Sue You are going to get stuck in a relationship no matter what your skill set is or what your insights are because we’re vulnerable to our partner. We’re incredibly vulnerable. And when we don’t get the responsiveness we need, we lose our balance. And when we lose our emotional balance, it’s hard for us to move in really constructive ways. The point is it doesn’t have to be the end of the road and it doesn’t have to be the beginning of more and more disconnection to the point where people decide not only that I can’t have this relationship, but that relationships are impossible.
AH I love to what you said, you’re going to do anything to regain your balance and that’s probably when you might step on the other person’s toes just because you’re trying to regain your balance.
Sue Oh, for sure. I mean the other person is almost irrelevant at that point. When we start to get our balance back then we can look across and say, “Oh! Wait a minute! He’s not the enemy. This man had my back in a thousand situations. He’s the guy I love. All right!”
AH If couples talk more about everyday problems that they were navigating and areas of growth for them as a couple, wouldn’t that sort of diminish the challenges associated with being in intimate partnership?
Sue Yes. I think it would. And I think the trouble is we don’t really have forums to do that. We have a whole educational program based on my book Hold Me Tight. Hold Me Tight groups are bringing up all over the world. People listen to other couples share in a really safe environment. People try out new conversations with their partners and then tell the group what it was like. We have a special version for Christian couples because we made a Christian version of the Hold Me Tight book called Created for Connection which respects the Christian faith and points out that a lot of the truths that are found in attachment theory can actually also be found in scripture.
AH Yeah. So what are you finding in your initial results?
Sue What we find is people love them. We do it for the hospital and they asked us and we do it with 15 couples where one person had a heart attack. The gentleman who said to me, “I’m here because my daughter said I should be here, but I’m very shy and I don’t want to talk about my relationship and I’m just here because my daughter told me to come.” And his wife is almost in tears as he says this. He comes up to me at the end of the eight weeks and he’s crying and then he says, “Why didn’t I ever know all of this? I thought I was all alone. I thought it was just me who felt scared that I was failing my wife. I thought it was just me who didn’t know how to talk about my feelings. I thought it was just me that felt lonely all the time even though I love my wife.” I said, “No, it’s not just you. We can understand this and we can help each other.”
AH There are lots of modalities and practices to get us to a happier, healthier life, and I feel like nothing is a faster vehicle and a more available vehicle than intimate partnership. It’s right there waiting for us to use it to make our life better.
Sue That’s right. And I think if you try not to struggle and not to learn about them and not to have them, you’re even worst off. So like the biggest risk in love is not risking at all, then what we know from this new science is that emotional disconnection and loneliness kills you. Love it’s a wired in survival code designed to keep the people we need close to us and our need for this emotional connection and to know that somebody is there for us is wired into our brains and our nervous system. We’re not wired to survive without these loving connections with a few other people on this planet.
THAT WAS DOCTOR SUE JOHNSON. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EFT, HOLD ME TIGHT GROUPS AND HER BOOKS, VISIT DRSUEJOHNSON.COM.
THANK YOU TO SHEILA AND JOE FOR SHARING THEIR STORY. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THEIR WORK HELPING FORMERLY AND CURRENTLY INCARCERATED PERSONS AND THEIR LOVED ONES, VISIT THEIR FOUNDATION THINK OUTSIDE THE CELL AT THINKOUTSIDETHECELL.ORG.
WE’RE LOOKING FOR COUPLES OF THE SO-CALLED TINDER GENERATION. IF YOU’RE IN YOUR TWENTIES AND WOULD LIKE TO SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RELATIONSHIPS WITH US, PLEASE SEND US A NOTE TO HELLO-AT-ELEPHANT-TALK-ORG. OR MESSAGE US ON FACEBOOK OR TWITTER.
OUR PRODUCERS ARE LISA GRAY AND KIM POLETTI. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY ROB BURGER. ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY JEFF WAHL, REZA MANZOORI, AND MANELI JAMAL. AUDIO PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE PROVIDED BY LESLIE GASTON-BIRD AND JOSH KERN.
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THANK YOU FOR LISTENING. I’M YOUR HOST ANDY HORNING. THIS IS REAL LOVE. THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK.