Couples, Love, marriage

Emotional Attunement and the Final Frontier

I Love You To The Moon And Back - Vector love inspirational quot

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 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.


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Couples, Love

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

Photo credit.  Copyright: bubbers / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

The Truth About “Neediness” in Close Relationships

couple holding up backbend

“I don’t want to be needy,” I heard for the umpteenth time in a couples therapy session.  The reality is that sometimes we just need our partners to hold us up…and that’s actually a good thing.

At the risk of expressing an unpopular viewpoint, I think our societal views of independence often negatively impact our close intimate relationships.  Our western society highly values independence.  Independence can be practical in many contexts.  The concept of relying on others is frequently considered a weakness.  However, in intimate couple relationships, too much focus on individuality can work someone right out of a relationship, or precipitate anxious emotions, diminishing relationship happiness.

Effective Dependence

I have observed in clinical practice that many couples don’t understand that there is a concept called “effective dependence,” in which partners actually become more functional and exploratory in the world when they feel safe and secure in their close intimate relationships.  When couples don’t understand this and how it works, they often end up seeking independence at a level that paradoxically perpetuates the clingy behavior which can be smothering.

In other words, people think that if they respond to their partners’ emotional needs, then their partners will become more dependent and just want more.  Because of this fear, they push their partners away.

In fact, there is research showing just the opposite—that if a partner is responsive to dependency needs, the partner functions more autonomously likely because they feel more secure.  As human beings, we are wired to depend on one another.

Additionally, current research indicates that in the presence of a close supportive partner, the actual perceived experience of physical pain can decrease.  Predictable support from a partner helps us regulate emotion more efficiently.

In the words of study author Brooke Feeney, “Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature, relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency, not inhibit it.” She further explains that “Attachment figures promote healthy functioning by providing a safe haven to which a relationship partner can retreat for comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection, and by providing a secure base from which a relationship partner can explore the world and strive to meet his or her full potential.”

This is great news for close couple relationships, because it means there is a built-in mechanism for potentially enhancing individual well-being.  Famous psychologist and marriage expert Sue Johnson wrote, “It is easier to be completely yourself if you are securely connected to those you depend on.”  We actually individuate more readily in the environment of an accepting partner.

How needing your partner can be good

Couples don’t always recognize this benefit, however, and actually end up eliciting the type of anxiety associated with clingy behavior.  Some partners think they are doing their companions a favor by being completely independent without ever needing anything without realizing that “if my partner is always perfectly fine without me and needs me for nothing, it in essence means that he/she could leave me.”

Effective dependence has two parts

Many people in relationships haven’t learned that it is beneficial to reach out overtly to a partner for support, or they haven’t learned how important their responsiveness can be.  I often spend time helping couples understand effective dependence.  There are two sides to this concept—learning to reach out to a partner and learning to show up for a partner.  Many people haven’t learned to do either one.

Sometimes when a partner has dependency needs, a spouse can even get triggered to withdraw.  They get the idea that they aren’t good at meeting those needs or they don’t know how, or they don’t recognize needs, and so they push it away, generating relationship distress.  It is very common.

In a very typical example, I recall once having a wife in therapy tell her husband that sometimes she just needed reassurance that he still loved her.  He looked at her for a moment without responding, and then turned to me and began explaining that as a surgeon, when he completed a particular procedure, that procedure was expected to stay functional for at least 15 years.  “If something goes wrong before then,” he added, “then it means I must have done something wrong.”

I remember watching him very carefully with furrowed brows, trying to discern what he was really trying to tell me by explaining this surgical procedure.  I checked in with him, “So, are you saying that if your wife has insecure moments when she needs reassurance that you still love her, it’s like saying you’re a bad husband or you aren’t doing your job of loving her correctly?” “Essentially, yes,” he fired back.

“Oh, okay, so at those moments when she is reaching out to you for reassurance, you don’t see it as her reaching out because you are the antidote….you actually see it as her implying that you are a bad husband?”  “Yep,” he nodded.  I continued, “So it sounds like you also need some kind of reassurance from her that you are the person she wants to be with and that you actually help her in those moments…it’s important to you to feel effective?”  “Yes,” he added, “When she keeps coming back to me needing reassurance, I just end up thinking I can’t ever fix it so why does she keep coming to me?  I just want it to go away.”

A possible gender effect

This is a routine pattern in therapy, and while I observe this reaction with both genders, I actually see it more in males who have been socialized to be independent and solution-oriented, and who can actually be shamed by their wife’s emotions, because they have been socialized away from attuning to vulnerable emotions.  I can’t exaggerate how often I have seen men in very powerful career positions who are absolutely terrified of disappointing their wives and causing a perceived emotional firestorm.

It’s not uncommon for husbands to be completely freaked out by crying wives.  If their wives are crying about something they have done, they feel even more shame.  They often miss the cue that they are wanted.  They experience it as being pushed away.  It can be experienced as rejection.  They commonly withdraw in those moments when they are actually needed the most, and end up rejecting their partners in return.  They don’t realize how important their presence can be, even if negative emotion doesn’t immediately dissipate.

I once asked my own husband if he experienced my tears as shaming, because I observed it so much in therapy, and it comes up in therapist trainings.  “Absolutely!” he answered just a little too quickly, “If you are crying, then I feel like a lousy husband.”

How to do effective dependency

SOOO….in light of the research indicating that we are wired to reach out to someone for support in this big bad world, and that getting comfort from a partner in a high quality relationship is actually an efficient way of regulating emotion, how do we make the most of effective dependency in a close bonded relationship?

  1. Take turns.  In a healthy partnership, couples take turns needing each other and being there for each other.  This is important, because sometimes one partner will stop withdrawing and stay more present to meet a partner’s needs, but he/she won’t reach out with their own needs because they don’t want to risk upsetting the system.  This happens a lot with men who are disconnected from any emotional need and who don’t want to exacerbate any kind of emotional response in their wives.  They will often (not always) reach out for sex because it’s a way to get both physical and emotional needs met.  It doesn’t even occur to many people (especially men) to have emotional needs, but they have them.  We all have them.  Remember the surgeon who felt like a failure when his wife was insecure about whether or not he loved her?  That implies an unspoken emotional need on his part, for example, to be enough.
  2. Have a conversation about what your emotional needs are. I am often trying to help couples uncover these needs, which are usually related to some form of acceptance, support, and reassurance of love.  There are many ways to language these needs.  A common one is knowing that your partner would choose you again if given the chance.
  3. If you don’t know how to meet the need, reassure your partner that you are trying to figure it out, but you might need help. You might also need to balance your own emotional need (e.g. to be “enough,”) with your partner’s, and have an overt conversation about it.  My husband hates feeling like a failure.  If I am crying about something and he is processing it with me and my emotion stays high, he starts feeling ineffective.  I have to sometimes reassure him that even though I’m still upset, it helps me that he’s still there with me.
  4. Recognize how sexuality can be entwined with emotional needs. Many people don’t know how to verbalize emotional need, either because they don’t have the awareness or language, or they are shamed by having emotional needs because they think they shouldn’t need anyone, or they fear rejection.  It’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a way to get emotional needs for love and acceptance met.  It’s often a form of, “If you’ll let me get that close to you, then I know you still want me, love me, etc.  I’m still good.”
  5. Realize that learning to both reach out for and to meet emotional needs can be a learned behavior. I have had lots of couples in therapy get better at this process, and as a result, grow a more secure relationship.  It’s as important to be able to take in someone’s offer of support as it is to ask or offer support oneself.  People forget this sometimes and reject the support they are actually wanting.  Accepting support matters a lot.

A.A. Milne, creator of children’s classic storybook character Winnie the Pooh, seemed to understand attachment relationships very well.  In one exchange, Pooh expresses, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” And THAT is how relationships promote independent functioning.


The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence by Brooke C. Feeney.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92(2), 268-285.

Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat by James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson.  Psychological Science, 2006, 17(12), 1032-1039.

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan M. Johnson, 2004, New York: Brunner Routledge.