Many of you have probably heard complaints from your partner about “not feeling connected”. If you have not spent some time considering your own emotional needs, you may have no idea of what s/he is talking about. Here I will address three basic questions: What does it mean to feel connected? How do two people get disconnected? What can be done to minimize the problem of disconnection?
What does it mean to "feel connected"?
Basically, feeling connected means feeling in touch with someone who cares about us. Most people acknowledge that children need to feel a safe attachment to an adult who cares for them. The reality is that adults also need a secure attachment to another adult. Each of us has an innate need to feel safely attached to another person who will be there in our times of physical or emotional need. When we enter into a committed relationship, this need actually intensifies due to the hope that this one special person will consistently be there for us. Specifically, we hope that this one adult will meet our emotional needs in three ways. (Susan Johnson, 2008).
1. Can I get your attention when I need it? When I ask for your attention, can you be available to me? Can you listen to what I am saying? Am I a top priority to you? To sum up, Are you accessible to me?
2. Can you comfort me when I am anxious, sad, lonely, or afraid? Will you make some effort to comfort me in those situations? In other words, Are you responsive to me?
3. Do you care about my well-being even when we are not together? I need to know that you care about my joys, hurts, and fears. Will you care about me consistently and reliably? Are we truly engaged in each other’s lives?
How do two people get disconnected?
Often the offending partner is not even aware of the behavior that led to a loss of connection or the threat to secure attachment. It is not humanly possible to stay constantly tuned in to your partner’s emotional needs. Even if you are both trying to be attentive, you may miss each other’s signals about sensing detachment.
In the case of one of my therapy couples, Kari became accustomed to getting an affectionate hug from Jim every evening before going to sleep. When the hug went missing for several nights in a row, she began to feel a disconnection from him. It seemed to her that he had stopped feeling affection for her, which signaled to her that their attachment was no longer secure. This triggered a deep fear in Kari. Jim missed the signals of her emotional distress and was unable to reassure her of his commitment before they spiraled down into an argument about “how cold and unloving he was”.
All couples have instances of emotional disconnection. Many times, these lead to complaints, defensive reactions, and heated arguments.
What can we do to minimize the distress and the arguments that usually result?
There are 3 steps involved in avoiding the arguments that result from disconnection. 1. Become aware of the patterns of your arguments, 2. identify your emotional triggers that lead you and your partner to feel the loss of connection, and then 3. learn to ask for and to provide comfort.
1. Many arguments fall into recognizable patterns. To illustrate one common pattern, I will again use the example of my therapy couple. Kari stops receiving hugs and files a complaint to Jim. She feels disconnected due to the loss of affection, but rather than saying that, she tells him that he is “not affectionate enough”.Jim defends himself; he has been preoccupied lately and caught up in his own thoughts at night. Kari then feels further disconnected because she has filed her complaint and is still not getting what she needs – a sign of his ongoing love for her. Her increased frustration quickly escalates to anger because now she feels “not heard”, or “ignored”. Her increased anger leads Jim to shut down emotionally, hoping that somehow her anger will stop if he does not react to it. This strategy fails of course. It is no more effective (or advised) to ignore a distressed spouse than it is to ignore a distressed child. Both need comfort and reassurance.
Let’s consider another pattern, that of finding out “who’s to blame?” John files a complaint with Sara that her 12 year-old daughter (his step-daughter) is a “spoiled brat”. Sara spends much of her evening and weekend time driving her daughter to various activities, leaving John feeling lonely. Neither of them recognize that John is feeling sad and “left out”. Sara responds to the criticism of her daughter with the accusation that John is not making an effort to bond with the child. Now John is feeling both left out and inadequate, which is overwhelming for him and triggers more angry comments from him, in an attempt to put the blame back on Sara.
It is critical to recognize the pattern of arguments between partners and to see them for what they really are: pleas for a sign that the other person cares.
2. Each of us has emotional triggers that cause our innate fear of abandonment to spike. Sue Johnson calls these our “raw spots”. Partners unintentionally hurt each other’s emotional raw spots. When we learn to identify these sensitivities in ourselves and in each other, we can make an effort to avoid them. In my sample case, Kari is sensitive to a loss of affection and to “being ignored”. Jim is sensitive to being criticized as “cold and unloving.” John's sensitivities include "feeling left out" and feeling inadequate.
3. The final step sounds simple but may take a lot of practice. We often have misguided ideas about how to get our emotional needs met. Too often, we expect a partner to know what we’re feeling and what type of comfort we need. This is unrealistic. Kari might have simply asked Jim for a hug when she needed some affection from him. A second hurdle to getting through step 3 is the fact that many of us were raised with messages such as “Don’t express feelings,” “Don’t be vulnerable,” or “Don’t let them see you cry.” We may have even been ridiculed for having feelings. These types of messages must be seen as preventing two loving adults from expressing the need for comfort from each other. The better message to tell yourself is: Have courage, and trust that your partner loves you. S/he wants the connection as much as you do. There may be times when the other person's attention is focused upon other matters, but be patient and reach out in a loving way.
For professional help in sorting out your feelings about connection, see a therapist experienced in Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy.
(Note that the names used for the sample therapy couples are fictional.)
Johnson, Sue. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown and Company.