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.

 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_21kompot

 

 

 

 

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Couples, Couples Therapy

How to Want Your Partner for Christmas

32213735 - couple near fireplace in christmas decorated house interiorI was feeling particularly generous the other day, so while I was getting my morning Christmas music fix with Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Train, I called to my husband, “I’m taking Christmas song requests, dear—what do you want to hear next?” “I Want You for Christmas by Cheap Trick,” he answered. “An homage to the artists of my very first LP. I like it!” I enthused, referring to The Dream Police album I got when I was twelve.

To the tune of their own “I Want You to Want Me,” Cheap Trick crooned the words many of us long to hear in one form or another from our romantic partners. However, what’s a couple to do when they are feeling less than loving during the holidays? This creates anticipated distress for many people who are reluctant to face the awkward reality of relationship pain during the season of supposed joy. Sometimes the contrast between the desired state and actuality can be discouraging or even debilitating, and definitely depressing.

I’m actually not a huge fan of “fake it ‘til you make it,” when it comes to romantic love relationships, or “behaving your way to….” because I think all it does is set people up for falsity in relationships, and leads to placating behavior and probable resentment over time. Plus, it just feels gross to be dishonest. Couples are very good at detecting insincerity in each other, so “faking it,” will backfire eventually. In the best-case scenarios, it will confuse both partners and invalidate very real emotions people experience.

So, how does one deal with the disconnect between wanting to be in love with a partner but feeling a distinct absence of positive energy toward that person?

The question I ask a lot of couples who are essentially conflicted about wanting/loving their partners is, “Why would you WANT TO WANT your partner?” In other words, I have no interest in getting in a tug-of-war with people about whether they should stay married, or should want their partners, but I am very interested in whether they WANT the state of feelings to change. Some common responses are:

“I want to, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t think I even like who this person is anymore.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t trust him/her, so I have a hard time wanting someone I can’t trust.”

“I feel like I should want to, but I just don’t feel like I do.”

Fair enough. I always take people where they are at. I usually try to expand the conversation with, “I can see that there is a big part of you that doesn’t want your partner, but it looks pretty complex. Tell me about the part of you that WANTS TO WANT your partner.” Then, I have a clearer understanding of motivating forces for change.  My least favorite answers are those related to duty or external constraints. However, when people can give me genuine reasons why they sincerely want to increase feelings of affection or “wanting,” a partner, I am confident that we can find a way to begin building from there.

This may seem semantical, but I am a big believer in individual agency, which is essentially a state of exercising power. It does no good to try to create change where it isn’t desired. Individuals in relationships must, at least in part, want something enough to influence it to happen.  If an individual reports that he/she absolutely doesn’t want to want the partner, but is showing up because a parent, or an ecclesiastical leader said they had to, I still want to know if there is even a sliver of the person that wants it for themselves.

Sometimes in marriage therapy, I will say, “I can see you sending all these messages about what you absolutely do not want in your marriage. Can you help me understand moving forward what you “DO want?” If you are going to stay with this person, what do you want to create? What do you think a good marriage looks like?

I want people to be able to imagine a future that represents their own desires and contributions. I want ownership of purpose and meaning in the relationship. That’s when people really feel motivated enough to put in required effort for change.

If you are feeling stuck in your marriage, think about giving the gift of imagining a better future together. It may seem trite, but I’m completely serious. If you have decided to stay in your marriage for now, sit down and write what you would like your marriage to look like in a year, or five or ten. What is one thing you could do today that increases the probability of getting you closer to those goals? It could be as simple as calling a marriage therapist, explaining the situation and asking for an explanation for how a marriage like that can change (Just make sure you choose a therapist who really is highly specialized with couples–if the therapist can’t explain how it can happen, there is a good chance you are overwhelming the therapist’s skill level). Remember that you don’t have to be “all,” in. It’s ok to honor the complexity of a mixture of feelings, but use the part that “wants to want” your partner for Christmas to articulate a place to start.

photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_NejroN’>NejroN / 123RF Stock Photo</a>