- Tuning in and putting words to feelings work together for relationships where people are known and cared for.
- An intuition that something is going on is a partner's cue to ask: “What are you feeling and thinking?”
- Inviting a partner to talk helps them to know themselves better—one of the richest gifts to give each other.
Are we supposed to know intuitively what our partner is feeling, wanting, and thinking? Or are we supposed to tell each other explicitly? Yes, and yes.
I’ve recently had interesting conversations with couples about the value of explicit communication versus “tuning in” to each other’s feelings, thoughts, and desires. One partner wanted the other to voice more directly what they wanted: “I don’t like it when you expect me to read your mind!” The other partner responded: “By now, you should know me well enough to know how I feel about things.” As I often do, I encouraged them to understand how they are both right.
In fact, these two abilities—the ability to be attuned and the ability to put words to feelings—work together to create relationships where we are known and cared about. We humans are neurologically wired for success in this endeavor, and also there are things we can learn to do to get better at it.
Equipped for Mind-Reading
First, a look at what neuroscience tells us about how well we are prepared to know each other intimately. When we observe others, special neurons in our brains, mirror neurons, create in us a simulation of their internal state. This information is then processed by our limbic system, a powerful part of the brain that processes massive amounts of information (400 kb/second) about our own internal state and that of other people. Much of this goes on outside of our conscious awareness.
Furthermore, our limbic systems communicate with and affect each other, again often without our knowledge. When we are in contact with each other, especially with those to whom we are closest, we are involved in a rich and continuous exchange of non-verbal information about our inner experiences and theirs. I detect and process information about your state, which then modifies my state, which you then detect, which modifies your internal state, and so on.
We are attuned to each other and affecting each other. This is known as limbic resonance, described in A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon as “a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states.”
Add Explicit Communication
Even so, this limbic, empathic sensing is an approximation; it gets us in the ballpark. If my partner is sad, I may have a vague sense that they’re upset, but I may not be able to tell if they’re sad or anxious or tired. Also, there are many variations on what my upset partner will want. Is this a moment for a hug or for a cup of tea?
For the fullest understanding, our intuitive limbic awareness must be combined with explicit communication. That feeling that something is going on is our cue to ask, “What are you feeling? What are you thinking?” Asking has many benefits, some immediate and some that accrue over time to build a relationship rich in accurate understanding.
It immediately lets your partner know that you’re paying attention, that you care. Then, as they put words to thoughts and feelings, you get more information about their experience at that moment.
Interestingly, the process of putting feelings into words also helps your partner to know what’s going on. Language, it turns out, does a lot of the heavy lifting in the vast project of integration our brains must do. Ongoingly, our brains must connect the dots: sensory information with feelings, with thoughts, with memories. We put the pieces together to make sense of our experiences and learn from them. Putting things into words is how we do this. So, inviting your partner to talk about how they’re feeling helps you to know them better, and it also helps them to know themselves better—one of the richest gifts we give each other.
Then, beyond all of that, we are improving our ability in the future to accurately interpret the “vibes” provided by our limbic systems. Our ability to “just know” what is going on with each other gets better each time we add verbal information to our non-verbal sensing. By combining intuitive understanding with explicit communication, we become increasingly more connected and skillful in knowing and meeting each other’s needs.
And if you’re thinking that all of this applies to your sexual relationship—indeed, it does!
Opening: A Decision We Make in Each Moment
Of course, all of these—sensing our limbic responses, asking about feelings, listening in a way that encourages communication—depend on our openness, our emotional aperture. When we are angry or afraid (cooling it or being irritable are versions of these), we close down. And because of limbic resonance, our partner does, too. Sometimes we need to figure out how to re-open in tricky moments. Recall that I said we are wired for these exchanges and also must learn. We are wired both for closing and for opening. We must learn how to re-open in moments when connection is hard but possible.
Will this be easy? Often not. When it comes to opening emotionally, we are almost forever ambivalent. We are cautious about being known, and we also want to be known. Opening up is not a once and forever decision but a decision we are making in each moment. Intimacy is an ongoing game of hide-and-seek. In the words of D. W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst who played a major role in our understanding of how the self develops, “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.”
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.