Why do relationships fail, when people profess to being in love with one another? Well one reason is - we fail to be “in tune” with one another. There are times in all relationships when we need to know that our partner “gets” us, that we are understood, on an emotional level.
In my blog on "Transforming Relationships", I focused on the idea of meeting our partners rather than seeing them as a problem to be fixed. Developing clearer roles with each other, rather than offering unsolicited advice, criticisms or feedback.
Meeting someone, is fundamentally about attuning to them, by becoming more curious and inquiring, rather than defensive, critical and judgemental. In this blog I want to discuss the consequences of distraction on attunement and the real need for attunement after there has been a transgression by one of the parties.
Attunement, is literally about, being “in tune” with someone else’s emotional state. That we know on a fundamental level that we are “gotten”, understood, accepted and mirrored. It is a subtle process, which is deeply instinctive but is easily subverted when we are stressed, defensive, over reactive, emotionally phobic, depressed or distracted (Mate’, 2008). Being able to attune to another, is not about learning a new skill, but becoming aware of what are the attitudes, beliefs, practices that prevent this happening, allowing the space for us to get out of the way of our intuition, which allows us to pick up the subtle emotional shifts in our partner's.
Although we have been recruited into the idea that we are unique individuals, we have evolved to be members of tribes and therefore we are astoundingly astute at picking up subtle emotional shifts in other people, but to do this we need to be present with them (van der Kolk, 2014).
It is clear we can be in love with someone, but not be attuned to them. On a deep and visceral level we know when this is happening, but often get caught up in giving it extra meaning. Instead of thinking we are out of sync, we instead think that it is evidence that my partner no longer loves me. We then try and resolve (confront) the wrong problem. Excitingly this is easily remedied by learning to be present with each other.
However when we try and be present, we face a world dominated by distractions. While distracted we miss these often subtle emotional shifts, that pass over and into our partner. On a romantic dinner, when we most need to connect, we check out our smart phones, rather than “being” with the one we love. We miss the hurt, this has caused and often underestimate the consequences of the disconnection that has been slowly mounting in the relationship.
I sometimes wonder why we don’t ask ourselves questions, rather than accepting that our relationships are slowly disconnecting. What would happen if we began to ask ourselves these questions?
How can we sit in a restaurant with our partner and yet still be tempted to look at our smart phone?
What is drawing us in, what need are we wanting to fill?
How did connection with our partner not become enough?
As we miss these opportunities to attune with each other, what are the consequences going to be for our relationship?
Have we accidentally allowed loneliness and emptiness to creep into our lives?
Can this really be filled, by how many likes and hits, we have in response to the digital self we have created?
How much do I really miss my partner?
How is this missing being acted out in the relationship?
Have I become, critical, angry or withdrawn?
Instead of anchoring in deep connections with another person, we search for 1000s of shallow little hits, to try and compensate for what we have lost. But there is always a void, which we crave to fill, but we are seduced into looking in the wrong place. We have been recruited into the idea of living a life vicariously, sitting together on the couch while we are entertained. Not even looking at each other or being emotionally present. Watching made up lives, being drawn into judging and criticising, whilst our life passes by.
I have spoken to numerous men, who while dating and courting, paid attention, worked hard on building connection, but once married, they relaxed and accidentally disconnected as they felt they had achieved their goal - getting married. Now they can focus on other things as the job was complete. Only as they break up does he get, that he needs to put in the effort.
Counsellor’s often recommend a date night, to assist people to to connect again. But primarily what is needed is a technology free time, to just be with each other. This doesn’t have to involve spending money, it can be as simple as sitting in the park, at the beach, but whatever it is, we just need to be present. The art is to slowly let the connection rebuild, to not make it stressful, but to ease in again. Initially we may only be able to do it for a few minutes, before we become awkward and seek safety. But like mindfulness meditation, we need to not judge our disconnection, but just return our focus to our partner.
Not surprisingly that when we are on holiday with each other, we can again connect, but is this really about the landscape and the new environment, or could it be more about us actually “being” with each other, as the day to day distractions are put aside?
All relationships seem to go through struggles that require a significant mending or healing. As a counsellor couples often attend when there has been some form of transgression. It is at these times that we most need to attune to each other. We need to 'get' what we have done, how we have impacted our partner. This requires us to become vulnerable and really stay present. The trouble is, a lot of us carry wounds from our childhood, not just abuse but also from our parents struggling to be attuned to us. We protect these wounds rather than stay present. We armour up, deflect, deny, blame rather than try and genuinely resolve issues. This over reacting to challenges, by allowing our emotions to have a first crack at the problem, often escalates the discord, and makes us feel unsafe, even with those we love (Brown, 2012).
As Bessel van der Kolk stated “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” If we don’t truly get the impact of our actions, how can we really mend and make amends? Sometimes it is not the original transgression that causes the harm but rather our inability to take in, to attune to the other's hurt and pain, that causes the lasting problem. If we don't really “get it” the wounded party, constantly rehashes it, trying to get you to understand.
To just be with someone as the express their hurt, loss, and grief, is really hard. To witness another's suffering, is immensely painful, but not life threatening, rather it is life enhancing. We often don’t know how to sooth and stay with our emotions. When we are faced with these challenging times, some of us want to runaway, others hide, some come out swinging and others come out people pleasing (Brown, 2012). We seem better at inflicting pain than we are at handling and staying with pain. As we defend, deflect, counter blame, excuse, justify and minimise the harm we have caused, we cause even more distress.
I remember early on in my counselling practice a conversation that has stayed with me and helped guide my responses to making amends. Nancy (fictitious) had fallen in love with another man, had an affair and left her husband. It would have been easy for her to have justified her decision, to blame her ex husband, as if he had driven her to it. Nancy realised that her actions had really hurt her children. Instead of explaining and justifying her decision and try and to get them to understand her, she would just sit with her teenage children as they expressed their anger and hurt, at what she had done. There would be tears rolling out of her eyes as she bore witness to their pain. She met them, rather than saving face, or protecting her image. It was not a problem to be fixed but a situation to be met. They knew that she realised how much she had hurt them, and with this knowledge they were able to stay connected with her. She related how easy it would have been to blame her husband, to justify her actions, but in the end she knew that she had to just be present to their pain. To this day she has an extremely strong connection with her now middle aged adult children.
Although this approach is painful and difficult to deal with, we have to remember this pain is finite, as it creates movement. With this way of dealing with suffering, there is very real potential for healing and making amends, rather than ‘it’ taking on a life of its own, that then constantly corrupts the relationship.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable, Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
Mate, G. (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and the Transformation of Trauma. Penquin Random House, UK