What’s our nervous system got to do with relationship  counselling?

A LOT it turns out! 

Once upon a time, about 40 or 50 years ago, relationship therapy was a cognitive process, where advice and techniques on how to rationally negotiate and compromise were provided to couples.

Then along came Susan Johnson and her colleagues, and they saw that love and relationships were a very emotional affair and so created a therapy that focused on the emotions. Helping the couple to identify their feelings, and share these in a way more likely to get their needs met. 

Research showed that this therapeutic approach, Emotional Focused Couple’s Therapy, had much better outcomes than the cognitive-techniques approach, because as Sue states, “all the techniques go out the door when a couple become upset.”

In this evolution of trying to create relationship therapy that truly makes a difference … 

I’m going one step further. I’m saying, it’s even ‘deeper’ than emotions. 

Those primordial emotions are very difficult to manage when we feel like our partner isn’t listening to us, isn’t respecting us, isn’t there for us. We can go a little crazy – act a little crazy! It can be very difficult for us to manage our emotions, let alone, our cognitions in what we say!

So what’s under these emotions? 

Stephen Porges, a talented neuroscientist, would say our automated Polyvagal Nervous System. Actually it’s not just one nervous system but three, that are automated, bio-directional and hierarchical. 

So what hope have we got of managing these emotions, let alone talking kindly to each other in the ‘heat of the moment’, if we are controlled by an automated nervous system? 

Well, luckily, it turns out we do have a master control switch! Just like there’s an on switch for the upset – there’s also an off switch for the upset.

 and that is where I begin my relationship therapy …

Helping a couple feel calm first, so that we can look at the issues and disconnecting cycles that upset them and threaten to sabotage their relationship.

It’s about working on the cause, not just alleviating the symptoms of the emotional distress and relational discord.

That’s where I start my relationship therapy, with the Poly Vagal Nervous System. It takes a whole lot of blame and hurt out of the cycle of upset in the very first session, and facilities an exponential reconnection of the couple. 

 It makes sense to go to the root of the problem – don’t you think?


Porges, S.W., (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-regulation, WW Norton & Co, US.

Johnson, S. M., (2018)  Attachment Theory in Practice, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples and Families, Guildford Press, NY.