Attuning to Our Partner's Emotions
By: T. Franklin Murphy | February 8, 2021 (edited April 4, 2022)
Emotional connection is not always natural. A emotionally connected partnership requires putting some personal desires on hold to embrace a partner during their times of need.
Emotional connection doesn't satisfy every personal desire. Intimacy demands prioritizing personal needs with the needs of a partner, often curbing momentary self-satisfactions for something much greater. Our errant expectation that a glorious relationship that soothes every craving, coddling our desires, just isn’t realistic. Our personal emotions occasionally annoy, poking sensitivities, and igniting fears. In an emotionally connected relationship, partners navigate each others disrupting emotions, providing safety and soothing until the emotion passes. Assisting a partner emotionally regulate takes skill, patience, and willingness to set person insecurities aside.
Relationships Don't Always Please
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 individual freedoms. Unfulfilled desires must be managed.
Partnerships involve two people having different and competing desires. Desires never completely mesh, conflicts must be artfully resolved. Opposing dreams must be identified, respected and compassionately considered for a relationship to grow from a budding romance to emotionally connected partners.
When our personal emotional life is erratic, we have limited ability to assist with our partner's emotions. Our capability to empathize lacks foundation. Partners share emotions. When emotionally immature, a partner's emotions ignite our insecurity, fears, and unhealthy responses. Instead of joining together to calm the arousal, emotionally disconnected couples often fuel each other's emotion.
See Shared Emotions for more on this topic
Emotionally connected relationships are intimate relationships where partners contribute to healthy regulating of each others emotions.
When overloaded with emotion, empathizing with a partner is nearly impossible. Our partner's emotions threaten. The slightest emotion floods those lacking regulation skills. Sensitive to feeling they quickly become overwhelmed.
See Emotional Overload for more on this topic
Daniel Goleman in his best selling book, Emotional Intelligence, explains, "people who are flooded cannot hear without distortion or respond with clear-headedness; they find it hard to organize their thinking, and they fall back on primitive reactions. They just want things to stop, or want to run or, sometimes, to strike back. Flooding is a self-perpetuating emotional hijacking" (2005, location 2865).
When relationships are routinely beset with emotionally charged disagreements that both partners struggle to regulate, 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.
See Relationship Drama for more on this topic
Emotional Connection Creates Security
Emotionally connected partners attune to each other’s feelings. This connection provides an additional resource for regulating emotions. Emotional arousal doesn't ignite frightening conflict but elicits compassionate support.
Many relationships are mixed with what author and psychoanalyst Michael Eigen refers to as 'toxic nourishment.' Love comes mixed with a variety of pollutants (1999). We want love so we settle and suffer.
Emotional moments are what John M. Gottman calls sliding door opportunities. The critical moment where trust can be established. Gottman explains, "Sliding-door moments... are very small moments in which a need is expressed and the responsiveness of one’s partner is a test of trust. In these moments we test whether we can trust that our partner will turn toward our expressed need" (2011, location 3353).
Trust is much more than not cheating. Trust is knowing our partner is concerned for our well-being. Many husbands and wives have refrained from affairs but provide little emotional support to their spouse. Trust doesn’t magically materialize, it’s built. When we safely answer to the implicit question, “when I hurt, will you be there for me?” we lay a foundation for trust.
See Building Trust for more on this topic
This sounds easy; but it’s not. Expressions of hurt ignite our insecurities. Emotionally connecting to a partner’s expressions of hurt, disappointment or sadness doesn’t comfort our needs. Their pain resonates within our bosom. We feel their pain. We feel the negative emotion and first must regulate our reaction and second assist our partner with their experience of emotion.
When we have an enjoyable day and feel happy, but discover our partner's day was horrendous, their sadness penetrates the emotionally connected partner's soul, who willingly temporarily suspends their joy to share in their partner's sadness. We must draw from a emotional reservoir to support our partners as they recover and regain balance. For those insecure, this is difficult.
See Emotional Intimacy for more on this topic
Emotionally connected partners must occasional suspend their joy to share in a partner's sadness.
Emotionally Connected Partners are Patient
Emotional connection requires patience. Emotional experiences require more than controlling attempts to change the emotion. We often get caught in massive problem solving movements. Our partner is upset and we are going to fix it.
Attempts to resolve miss the point. Emotions are experienced, not resolved. Overbearing efforts to resolve have many negative consequences. Emotionally connected partners soothe through compassionate and courageous availability during the healing process.
Personalizing a Partner's Emotion
When we personalize our partner’s expressions of hurt, we quickly tire, withdrawing tenderness. Let’s face it, we often trigger our partner's emotions—intended or not. We provoke 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 positive self-evaluations and we feel inclined to defend. We want to protect instead of comfort. With a thoughtless and swift retort—verbal or not—we defend, “You’re too sensitive. You shouldn’t feel that way.” We protect our ego while disregarding their tender feelings, further aggravating the ache. The message sent is, “I don’t care.”
The hurts we receive burn brightly but when we cause hurt, we wish our actions to be quickly dismissed and forgotten. The times we are wronged accumulate in our psyche; the times we do wrong accumulate in our partner’s psyche. We must rebalance this cognitive trap. Without resistance, overtime, both partners feel as if they are the victim.
See Self-Confirming Labels for more on this topic
Emotionally Connected Couples Work Together
Patterns of interaction don’t easily change. Often partners wait for the other to repent of their ills before engaging in the difficult work of change. Both partners wait and nothing changes. Step up, be courageous and make the first positive move for change.
To change a pattern, we must change our response. New responses don’t magically undo years of hurtful communications, but they begin the transformation. Hurt feelings dwelling in memory from protective and angry responses taint interpretations of new efforts. With persistence, the past fades.
As we emotionally connect, compassionately listening instead of defending, the environment transforms. Over time, with patience, and by attuning to needs and fears, we create security and a new era of trust begins.
We may wonder if our partner will also change. Usually, they do. They still have freewill. We can’t magically transform others. Some, perhaps, need the drama of conflict, that’s all they know. Our movements towards closeness may create rushes of discomforting energy that they can’t contain. We can’t play into this drama with defensive anger. We have lived this path and know it doesn’t work. Once we change and express our desires, we must patiently watch to see if the nastiness will continue. If it does, we must make a difficult choice—stay or run. This is a personal choice, requiring much thought and usually outside objective guidance.
Books on Emotional Connections
The future of the relationship depends on the autonomous efforts of both partners—our growth, however, is ours alone. We can offer emotional connection, and openly invite our partner to join. Now they must choose—something new and better or stay with the comfortable routines of destruction. We attune to their fears, angers and joys as they work through the new environment, giving them, perhaps, their first taste of love. We throw out a life-preserver but they must choose to grab or ignore.
Emotional connection may not save a relationship from patterns of bitterness (it may), but the skill of emotionally connecting will lift us from the mire, preparing our hearts for true intimacy when it comes along.
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Eigen, M. (1999). Toxic Nourishment. Routledge; 1st edition.
Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary edition
Gottman, J. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition