three pillars of a thriving relationship

3 pillars of a thriving relationship, according to Dr. Sue Johnson

Having a successful, thriving and intimate relationship with your partner doesn’t have to be a mystery.  

3 pillars to a thriving relationship

According to Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, there a three pillars that make up a thriving, fulfilling relationship.  Those pillars are Accessibility, Responsiveness and Engagement.

What brings about connection?

We connect to our partners through our emotions.  Think about it, if you had a long day and you’re stressed out, maybe you come home wanting support and comfort from your partner.  On the other hand, if you’re excited about something important that happened at work, you may be wanting to connect and share that excitement with your partner.  Now think about how painful it is when your partner misses you emotionally in those moments.

Missing the emotion

So often couples will come into therapy because they’re missing the emotional connection with one another.  Either they never really had it or it has dwindled over time. Missing emotional connection can look like lots of intense fighting or it can look like distance and coldness.  When you’re missing each other emotionally, the foundation of your relationship is in serious danger of collapse.

How can I reconnect emotionally with my partner?   

You can learn to become more emotionally responsive to your partner in a variety of different ways.   Below I’m going to explain how using Accessibility, Responsiveness and Engagement (based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson) can help you reconnect in a more meaningful way.   For the purposes of describing these concepts, I’m going to use a fictional gay male couple, Davis and Johnson. Imagine they’re coming in to see me because they have drifted apart and they don’t know how to talk about what they want sexually from one another.  

Accessibility: Can I reach you?

The main question underneath the concept of accessibility is: Can I reach you?  Imagine Davis and Johnson come in because they’re having communication issues.  They have trouble talking about and having the kind of sex they want to have together.  Imagine Davis is brave enough to begin to share his sexual desires with Johnson. For Johnson, a whole bunch of emotions may come up that get in the way of connecting with Davis.  If Johnson chooses to emotionally shut down or get defensive, he is not there emotionally for Davis. However, if he can let Davis know that he is there for him emotionally no matter what, they will make progress toward becoming more connected.  

Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?   

The main question underneath the concept of responsiveness is:  Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally? If Davis shares that he feels very vulnerable asking Johnson for something sexually, Johnson has a choice about how he wants to show up for his partner.  Can Johnson put himself in Davis’s shoes and try to understand what that vulnerability feels like? If Davis feels like Johnson really understands him emotionally, they’ll have achieved the second pillar of a connected relationship, emotional responsiveness.   

Engagement:  Do I know you will value me and stay close?  

Underneath the concept of engagement is the question: Do I know you will value me and stay close?  Once Davis shares his vulnerability about sex and Johnson shows him that he understand what that’s like, they can decide how they want to engage about the topic further.  If Johnson is able to be responsive to Davis’s emotional needs and then engage with him about the topic further, forward movement will be possible. Imagine Johnson asking open ended questions or helping Davis explore his needs in an open and encouraging way.  That will surely deepen their emotional connection. And probably bring some spice back into their sex life, too.

Think about your relationship

After hearing about the concepts described above, think about your own relationship.  Are you able to be fully open and honest about your emotions with your partner? If you are, do they respond in an encouraging and supportive way?  


We emotionally attach and depend on our romantic partners in all sorts of ways.  When trust, connection and intimacy begin to feel threatened, we often move into a fight, flight or freeze fear mentality.  As humans, we’re wired for connection. If our intimate bonds are feeling threatened our mental health is at risk.

Action step

Think about the concepts described above.  Be brave and think about your own relationship.  Imagine having a vulnerable and honest conversation with your partner about the state of your connection with one another.  If you have the courage and it feels safe enough, have a conversation with your partner about the topics described above. Remember, you don’t have to do this alone and get some support from a profession if you’re feeling stuck.

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.