Justin and Sophie: They stare because they care

Grégoire Trudeau recently revealed that she and Trudeau learned to gaze into each other’s eyes in couples therapy. We asked a therapist to explain the technique.
Photo, Norman Jean Roy/VOGUE. Photo, Norman Jean Roy/VOGUE.

The way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, gaze at each other has become a bit of a political punchline.

But they may get the last laugh. In a lengthy feature published recently in The Globe and Mail, Grégoire Trudeau revealed that staring into each other's eyes was an exercise she and Trudeau practised in couples therapy — something that's helped them connect on an emotional level and sustain their relationship.

"When humans look at each other and look long enough into their eyes, some people are totally uncomfortable with that. I am not," she told The Globe's Sarah Hampson. "We’ve even done couples therapy where you need to look at each other’s eyes and stand there until you become vulnerable enough for your truth and your suffering to come out. Wow, it’s cathartic!"


What she described sounds like Emotionally Focused Therapy, a technique frequently used in couples counselling, says Newmarket, Ont.-based registered psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist Shyamala Kiru. She explained it to Chatelaine.

What is Emotionally Focused Therapy?

This type of therapy is rooted in early 1900s psychoanalyst John Bowlby's attachment theory, which suggests children need a strong attachment to an adult in order to survive and thrive. In the 1990s, Ottawa-based therapist Dr. Sue Johnson created the emotionally focused therapy approach, essentially applying the idea to adult couples, to help them connect with one another and communicate their needs. According to research put forth by Johnson and affiliated study authors, the approach helped 70 to 75 percent of couples recover from distress in their marriage. Kiru uses it with most of her clients who come in for couples therapy. "It’s really about connecting with your partner in a very vulnerable way and in a very emotionally focused way," Kiru says.

How it works

The client tells the therapist how certain things their partner has said or done has made them feel — often they are articulating these feelings for the very first time, Kiru says. The therapist then asks the person to turn to his or her partner, look them in the eyes and repeat their words. "The goal of that therapy is to turn to your partner and share that pain with them," Kiru says. "So there’s a lot of eye contact in that model of therapy, there’s a lot of turning towards one another…there’s a lot of experiencing right in the moment what your partner is feeling."


The goal

It helps a person really "see" their partner's vulnerability, which has a lasting effect, Kiru says. Clients can be straight-faced when they share their feelings with their therapist, but when they turn to their partner, "that's when the waterworks start," she says. "The other person is seen and feels heard, but for the partner who is listening and seeing, it changes them. To really see your partner’s vulnerabilities and fears, their darkest places . . . that’s where the change actually happens for that couple."


How it feels

It can be awkward," Kiru says. "Sometimes the longer you’ve been with a person, the more rigid your patterns of relating are," she says. But most people work through it.

How you can use it outside of therapy

Grégoire Trudeau suggests this has helped both her and Trudeau connect with family and even constituents, which makes sense to Kiru. "Once you identify what you are carrying inside, I think it’s just easier to make eye contact . . . and be authentic and vulnerable with others," she says. Though she does suggest being judicious about where you show that vulnerability — particularly if you're the prime minister.


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