Starting in October 2019, I – Olivier – have gone to the Netherlands twice to record the peripheral temperature of partners in couple therapy. In a previous blog post, I explained the basic dynamics of romantic relationships and how couples can enhance their feelings of connection and safety through Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). In this blog post, I will discuss how and why we investigate temperature responsiveness during so-called Hold Me Tight weekends to further enhance connection and safety in relationships.
What is Hold Me Tight?
Let’s first explain the concept of Hold Me Tight (HMT). HMT are short versions, either online or in-person, of the EFT protocol (which I described in the previous post). After HMT, couples typically proceed into a longer and somewhat more formal protocol of EFT. In-person HMT is a program that lasts 3 days (over a weekend), and usually involves about 10 couples who are supported by therapists trained in EFT. The HMT weekend is standardized so that the program is similar across couples and across time. The HMT program starts with an introduction aimed at understanding love and attachment as it is understood in research. Then couples go through the following seven chapters:
- Recognizing Demon Dialogues: During this conversation, partners identify the negative cycle they enter when arguing (e.g., one is blaming and the other is emotionally closed). Identifying the root of the problem is the first step that will help them figure out what each other is really trying to say.
- Finding the Raw Spots: Next, partners learn to look beyond their immediate impulsive reactions. They discuss and exchange about their negative thoughts (e.g., “When you say that, I think you are going to leave me”) emerging during their negative cycle.
- Revisiting a Rocky Moment: This conversation is about defusing conflict, and building emotional security. Partners analyze a specific conflicting situation using what they learn during the previous two conversations.
- The Hold Me Tight Conversation: During this conversation partners practice how to be more responsive to each other. They learn how to be more emotionally accessible, more emotionally responsive, and more deeply engaged with each other. They talk about their attachment fears and try to name their needs, in a simple, concrete and brief manner. This is usually considered the main conversation of the weekend.
- Forgiving Injury and Trusting Again: In order to offer forgiveness to each other, partners are then guided to integrate their injuries into the couple’s conversations. To do so, partners reminisce and discuss moments when they felt hurt.
- Bonding Through Sex and Touch: Partners discover that emotional connection creates great sex, and that, in turn, a more fulfilled sexual life increases their emotional connection to each other. They discuss what makes them want to have sex, or not, and if they feel secure having sex, or not.
- Keeping Your Love Alive: In this last discussion partners are looking into the future. After understanding that love is an ongoing process of losing and finding emotional connection, couples are asked to plan rituals in everyday life to deal with their negative cycle. They summarize what they did during the weekend, talk about their feelings, and discuss how they will implement in their daily lives what they have learned.
These chapters focus on how couples can consciously recognize their attachment dynamics. But what if there is more about attachment?
Recognizing our inner penguin dialogues: why temperature may matter for partner responsiveness
In the previous post, we talked a bit about the research John Gottman and his colleagues did on “coregulation”. We have taken a keen interest in this concept, but we depart from a radically different assumption: we try to understand if and how partners’ temperature regulation influences their feeling of safety. To investigate this, I regularly travel to the Netherlands to visit Berry Aarnoudse and Jos van der Loo who organize HMT weekends. During those weekends, I record both partners’ peripheral temperatures.
The immediate objective of this ongoing research is to link peripheral temperature recordings to the participants’ answers to psychological questions asking about their emotions, their feelings of safety, and their perception of the dynamics in their relationships. We suspect the partner’s individual responses to the questionnaire to be related to “signature” variations in peripheral temperature at the couple level.
The procedure for this study is as follows. Before I go to the Netherlands, I typically ask couples registered for the HMT if they are willing to participate in a study investigating how attachment dynamics in couples relate to temperature fluctuations. I kindly ask interested couples to fill in (independently to each other) an online questionnaire that assess relevant psychological and emotional variables, such as: responsiveness to the partner, feeling of security in relationships (in relation to attachment theory), and willingness to be close to their partner. The answers are of course anonymous; part of this is emphasizing that the other partner will never have access to their partner’s response (which can be a challenge during the time of open science!).
To record peripheral temperature, we rely on a sensor (ISP131001) former members of the lab have validated in earlier work (Sarda et al., 2020). This wireless small sensor is placed on the tip of people’s fingers and linked via bluetooth to a smartphone application developed by our lab that records and store data on our server1This mobile application is being developed by CO-RE Lab and the code is open source. You can find it on our GitHub repository here. Don’t mind using it for your own project; please keep us up-to-date if you develop a new version.. The device is very light, which allows wearers to carry out their everyday activities almost just as normal (see above)2Since people wear the device all day long, we provide disposable gloves so that people can go to the bathroom while wearing the device. Also, while our device seems to work pretty well for temperature measurement, the design is not really user friendly. So, feedback from users, and from partners during the HMT weekends is something we incorporate. For example, during previous HMT measurements, people’s feedback allowed us to improve comfort while avoiding as much as possible the breakage of our (very fragile) material.. At the start of the weekend, I give each partner a smartphone (to be kept in their pocket) and I put one temperature sensor on each person’s finger. At the end of the day, I remove the sensor from people’s fingers. So, throughout the entire program we record people’s temperatures. The data of one couple looks like this:
The aim of this project is to understand thermoregulation mechanisms in order to help therapists and couples to improve receptivity between partners. But we cannot do that having “only” data from couples in therapy. This is why, simultaneously, we are recruiting couples in the general population of Grenoble in France. We know from previous studies conducted by our lab that these couples tend to declare being very satisfied with their relationship. We don’t really know why, but having data on couples from HMT and from the general population will help us identify cues to develop interventions for couples that report having lower than average relationship quality. Having this variety will allow us to understand – via deep learning – how peripheral temperature variations between partners are related to partners’ scores to psychological variables (their answers to the anonymous questionnaire). Because we are focused on helping therapists and couples, we intend to develop in the future an algorithm that will manipulate peripheral temperature which we hope will improve partners’ responsiveness. In the end, can we add another chapter to the Hold Me Tight weekend? Our data will tell.
Just before the beginning of the lockdown in France, we decided to stop collecting data in order to protect our participants’ health. But social isolation or being confined together makes the research even more relevant. The lockdown was recently lifted in France, but working from home remains the norm. Couples thus spend more time together at home than ever. Because we believe that the results of this study could help us to understand and improve intimate partner relationships, we are planning (adhering to the COVID-19 prevention measures in place) to resume the study data collection. For every 60 couples that participate, we raffle off some awards (e.g., an iPad). As we now send the sensors via postal service, people all across the European Union can participate. If you are interested in participating in the study, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are a therapist and want to help measure temperature during HMT weekends, please shoot us an email as well.
This blog post was written by Olivier Dujols and Hans IJzerman.