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Attuning to Feelings
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2016
Attuning to a partners feelings is not always natural. It requires putting our needs on hold and embracing a partner in need. Here is where trust and Intimacy are found.
Intimacy requires more than satisfying personal wants, desires and feelings. Intimacy demands the opposite. Intimacy often insists we sacrifice, curbing momentary self-satisfactions for something much greater. Closeness isn’t obtained through a partner bowing to our constant whims. Getting what we want all the time isn’t intimacy, it’s a highly paid servant (or in many cases a poorly compensated servant). Our errant expectations of a glorious relationship that soothes every craving, coddling our desires, just aren’t realistic. Life in the real world of independent adults will disappoint.
Like Schopenhauer’s fable, the cold porcupines gathering to warm themselves, quickly realize closeness also has painful drawbacks. A supportive relationship offers security but constrains some freedom to satisfy every desire. Unfulfilled desires must be internally managed. Partnerships involve multiple experiences, where two people may have simultaneously different and competing desires begging for satisfaction. Desires never completely mesh and create conflicts that must be artfully resolved. Opposing dreams must be mindfully identified, respected and compassionately considered with kindness for a relationship to turn from the budding romance to intimacy and a long trusting friendship.
When our emotional life is explosive and unpredictable, we have limited room to empathize with a partner’s emotions. When the brain is flooded—overloaded with emotion—empathizing during a disagreement is nearly impossible. When emotions are strong, partners appear as a threat, and we treat them as such. When relationships are routinely beset with emotionally charged disagreements, the fights often incite contemptuous relationship-destroying comments, hurting feelings. Eventually, the damaging pattern takes its toll and protecting walls are built, preventing intimacy, and destroying trust.
For relationships to flourish, partners must attune to each other’s feelings. Trust is more than not cheating. Trust is knowing our partner cares for our well-being. This trust doesn’t magically materialize, it’s built. When we safely answer by our actions the question, “When I hurt, will you be there for me?” we lay a foundation for trust. This sounds easy; but it’s not. Expressions of hurt ignite our insecurities. Attuning to a partner’s expressions of hurt, disappointment or sadness doesn’t comfort our needs. Contrarily, we feel the negative side of their emotion. Their pain resonates within our bosom. We feel their pain. When I have an enjoyable day and feel happy, but wife had a terrible day and feels sad, her sadness penetrates my soul and my joy temporarily takes a back seat as I share her sadness. We must draw from our reservoir of strength while a partner recovers and regains balance. For the insecure, this is difficult.
"Attuning to a partner’s expressions of hurt, disappointment or sadness doesn’t comfort our needs. Contrarily, we feel the negative side of their emotion. Their pain resonates within our bosom. We feel their pain."
Trust requires more than superficial attempts to soothe but strengthens through compassionate and courageous availability to a partner during their healing process, even though our insecurities will be heightened.
When we personalize our partner’s expressions of hurt, we quickly tire withdrawing tenderness and condemning them for being sad. Let’s face it, we often trigger the emotion—intended or not. We do something that provokes an emotion—whether their reaction is appropriate or not. The message they give is: I hurt and it’s your fault. This message threatens our security, challenges our positive self-evaluations. We want to protect instead of comforting them in their hurt; we become defensive, protecting our ego. With a swift retort—verbal or not—we defend, “You’re too sensitive. You shouldn’t feel that way.” We protect ourselves while disregarding their tender feelings, further aggravating the ache. The message sent is, “I don’t care.”
The hurts we received burn brightly but the hurts we dealt are easily dismissed and quickly forgotten. The times we are wronged accumulate in our psyche; the times we do wrong accumulate in our partner’s psyche. We must fight this unfair balance of memory. Without resistance, overtime, both partners in a couple feel as if they are the victim to the others brutish and selfish ways, visits to professionals isn’t to improve the relationship, but to expose the partner: See, this is what I have to deal with.
Patterns don’t change easily. Each partner waiting on the other to repent of their ills. Nothing changes until one partner makes the courageous movement to put positive action into motion. To change the pattern, you must change your response. The new responses don’t magically undo years of hurtful communications, but they begin the necessary transformation. Hurt feelings dwelling in memory, long entrenched protections from angry responses, and thoughtless rebuttals will taint the new efforts for some time. Persist. The past will eventually begin to fade.
As we attune, compassionately listening instead of defending, the environment transforms. Over time, with patience, our attuning to needs, fears, and partner’s desires creates security and a new era of trust begins. We may wonder, will our partner change too? Usually. They still have freewill. We can’t magically transform others. Some, perhaps, need the drama of conflict, that’s all they know. Our new movements towards closeness may create rushes of discomforting energy that they can’t contain. We can’t play into their drama with defensive anger. We have lived this path and know it doesn’t work for us. Once we change and expressed our desires, we must patiently watch; if the nastiness continues, we must make a difficult choice—stay or run. This is a personal choice, requiring much thought and usually outside objective guidance (we still may be wrongly seeing ourselves as an innocent victim).
The future of the relationship aside, with our changes, we have grown. We have prepared our soul for intimacy, and openly invited our partner to join. Now they must choose—something new and better or the comfortable routines of destruction. We attune to their fears, angers and joys as they work through the new environment of the relationship, giving them the first tastes of love, throwing out the life-preserver that they may grab or ignore. Attuning to a partner’s emotions may not save a relationship from long ingrained patterns of bitterness (it may), but the skill of attuning will save us from a life time of sorrow and disconnection.