I’ve written before about the “Nail in the Forehead,” video. I acknowledge that it is a humorous depiction of the way genders stereotypically interact around emotional distress, but the clip is reductive and overly simplistic, and misses a crucial element in real couple interactions. That element is emotional attunement.
In the clip, the male partner is uncomfortable when his female partner expresses emotional distress—his own distress about her emotion is what drives him to want to make her emotion go away so he can feel comfortable again. He is having unacknowledged emotional reactivity to her emotion (Hopelessness? Fear? Anxiety?) and makes an anemic show of support toward her. However, the male seems more placating than attuned. In other words, he mumbles an inane statement using words that sound validating, but with non-verbal gestures that can be construed as invalidating. What he is really saying is, “You’re ridiculous, but maybe this will shut you up.”
Genuine emotional attunement is a desire and effort to experience another person’s inner world. It’s not using words to make them go away—it’s an attempt to understand someone’s experience enough to elicit authentic empathy.
Men are often socialized to disown any vulnerable emotion, such as fear, insecurity, hurt or sadness. They learn to disconnect quickly from these emotions, which can be channeled into anger, sexuality, or numbness. In part, this is why it can feel unnatural to walk into a partner’s emotional experience. If you have learned not to feel your own emotions, why in the world would you want to feel anyone else’s?
I was amazed at how well genuine attunement worked in my own marriage a few months ago. My husband can be very stereotypically male in his response to emotional expression. I learned early to lower my expectations for his emotional response, but as he has listened to my presentations about marriage over the years, he has learned the difference between placating responses and attunement, and he surprises me with his sincere support when I least expect it.
A few months ago, I took my youngest son and daughter to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida while my husband was attending a conference. I knew my youngest son in particular would enjoy the visit, and I was excited to experience it with him. However, I had not anticipated that visiting the complex would trigger me into a state of melancholy that persisted throughout the day.
I grew up in a city with a historical link to space exploration. Rockwell International contracted with NASA to manufacture spacecraft for the Apollo missions and subsequent explorations, including the reusable shuttles. The site is now home to the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
Visiting a NASA site elicited a flood of memories related to working for my father. He owned a chemical manufacturing corporation which provided key materials used in the aerospace, defense and aircraft manufacturing industries. The summer after I turned 14, he insisted that I work at his company full-time during the summer instead of going to the beach with my friends. He was convinced that he was teaching me the value of work and saving me from being homeless and alone.
As I wandered around NASA, I recognized most of the company names from working with my father. I recalled organizing files several inches thick with invoices for Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop, the U.S. government, and my city’s own Rockwell. My focused exposure to the recollection of the aerospace glory days flooded me with a feeling of loss and longing for my father. Throughout the day, I found myself getting choked up and teary as a reaction to various memories emerging in my head. Mostly, I recalled our rides to work together, where he would give me pep talks and tell me I had an “excellent mind,” and that I should smile more because, “You are so beautiful when you smile.” Even though I would discount his attempts with, “You have to say that–you’re my father,” I always appreciated his efforts to build my confidence. He was my biggest cheerleader and I missed him terribly. He and my mother were two of the few people I could really count on to care about me, and nothing was quite the same after they both died. I longed for their presence again.
When I got back to our hotel and my husband asked me about my day, I candidly replied, “I felt so sad all day.” I explained how the visit had triggered memories of working with my father, which highlighted his loss in my life.
My husband didn’t try to tell me why I shouldn’t feel sad, or why I should just be glad I had good memories. His reply was genuine and attuned. He responded with, “It’s ok to be sad, honey. I can see why that would make you sad. I miss your dad too. You can be sad.”
Suddenly, his telling me he understood why I would be sad and that I could be sad alleviated my sadness. In essence, he communicated that even though I experienced a deep loss, I wasn’t alone, and he was with me.
His words couldn’t have been more simple, and yet, it wasn’t really about the words. It was his authentic validation. He confirmed that sometimes in life, pain happens, and nothing can fix it, and that it was really ok if I felt less than chipper in the moment, even if it could potentially impact him. He normalized my feelings and signaled that he wouldn’t leave me alone, even in times of distress.
It’s not rocket science.
Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_21kompot