- Feelings, our own and also other people’s, make us anxious. We can learn how to turn emotional moments into golden opportunities for connection.
- Ghosting your partner starts with ghosting yourself. When you show up at the door to your partner’s heart, first check in with your own heart.
- Proceed despite feeling awkward. We are all learners, every time, in this territory.
You’re trying, again, to have that hard conversation. The one about sex, or the one about the chores, or the one about working too hard. A shadow crosses your partner’s face. They’re feeling something. You start to get anxious. You look away, change the subject, go silent, or maybe even reassert your opinion. You’re micro-ghosting.
These difficult moments are the reason that even the words “we have to talk” can send us running for cover. But they are also golden opportunities for connection. Building strong, loving relationships happens when, instead of ghosting—fleeing—we show up. The feelings, theirs and yours, tell you that hearts are awake, vulnerable, available–if you can go there.
We Want Connection
We long for connection to each other: our health and happiness depend on it. “This longing for emotional connection with those nearest to us is the emotional priority, overshadowing even the drive for food or sex,” writes Susan Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy. 1
So then why do we fail to recognize and respond with connection when these opportunities appear? If connection feels so good, and if it’s so vital for our well-being, why is it so hard?
Connection is risky
Emotions, our own and also other people’s, make us anxious—especially emotions like sadness, anger, grief, and fear. Our brains interpret these emotions as signs of potential danger. Our survival system goes on alert.
Though we are not at risk of being eaten, we fear the emotional equivalent. There are, indeed, very real risks in attempting to connect in this more vulnerable moment. Things can go wrong. You can misunderstand each other, hurt and be hurt, uncover difficulties that you don’t know how to handle. You can feel awkward, mystified, incompetent, or rejected.
On the other hand, too little risk-taking and you miss out on getting closer. This micro-ghosting when feelings arise makes us lonelier.
So, let’s say you want to get better at this. What can you do to increase your chances of success when you decide to go for it?
Slowing down is not just a great idea for sex (though it is) but also for other kinds of intimacy. Take your time. The pace of most conversations barely allows us to exchange information, much less to sort through all the complex reactions and interactions. Things move fast, often without pauses or silences. And when we get emotional, we speed up—the opposite of what is needed. Researchers have demonstrated that even slowing down your speech can help you modulate emotional arousal in conversation. You need time to process your words, thoughts, and feelings, and those of your partner.
To increase the chances of success when you show up at the door to your partner’s heart, you must first check in with your own heart. In the middle of a difficult conversation, you may feel anger, hurt, and fear. These feelings are uncomfortable. The emotions you are fleeing are actually those inside of you. Ghosting your partner starts with ghosting yourself.
An experiment with slowing down
Develop the habit of asking for a brief pause. Get comfortable with brief silences where you each can connect to your experience.
In the attempt to protect ourselves, we close. This, of course, does not protect us and instead makes things worse. Many of the failures to connect in these vulnerable moments happen when we approach our partner with a closed heart and a closed mind. We are very resonant with each other, and we tend to open or close in response to the openness or closedness of the other. At the moment of your lover’s vulnerability, their survival system is alert. Friend or foe? Safe to be open with or not? Your own openness makes all the difference in their response.
So how do you open to these difficult feelings? How do you feel them without fleeing or closing your heart? The key here is compassion—self-compassion and compassion for your partner. We often think that uncomfortable feelings mean that someone has erred. Who is to blame for these feelings? We may turn to arguing—the "fight" part of our survival response. Instead, entertain the possibility of responding with loving kindness and curiosity to the pain that is as much a part of life as is joy.
An experiment with compassion
Bring your awareness to the present. Take a few slow breaths. On the in-breath, let yourself feel the discomfort, yours and your partner’s. On the out-breath, let yourself feel compassion, caring without judgement, for this discomfort.
You may be thinking: I don’t know how to do this; I’m afraid; it’s risky. Yes, indeed, and we could add uncomfortable, messy, complicated, and sometimes time-consuming. And yet, it is the best shot you’ve got at the connection you crave. The idea that you will have wonderful, rich relationships without these moments is a non-starter.
Relationships need and thrive on all of the wonderful, happy, easy, moments. But they also need the difficult moments for the learning that is the essential element for lasting love. If you want to be close, there is no substitute for learning how to use these moments to connect and to share the triumph of turning pain into joy.
We are all learners, every time, in this territory. Yes, you will get better at it. Yes, there are skills you can acquire, like patience, listening, and generosity. Still, these encounters will be improvisations of the most important kind, every time. Intimacy requires that we have the courage and humility to be learners. Let yourself not-know, be awkward, make mistakes.
An experiment with learning
Spend a few minutes with these questions: What do I not yet know about my lover’s moments of strong feelings? What do I not yet know about what to do at these moments? Then, when you find yourself at such a moment, remind yourself, “This is it. Now let’s see what I can learn.”
This is your moment
These moments when feelings intensify are moments of risk and opportunity. What happens next—what you do in response—can mean the difference between deepening your relationship or missing an opportunity, or, worse yet, signaling that you are not available for intimacy. Love is built, or not, in these tiny moments of encountering each other a bit more naked than usual.
Opening and becoming interested in and curious about the feelings, theirs and yours, can lead you exactly where you want to go. The door to your lover’s heart appears. You have a choice to make: Will you knock or draw back into the shadows? Will this be a moment of micro-ghosting or of loving connection?
Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Johnson, Sue.(2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, Little Brown and Company.