Looking for emotional connection or attunement without a guide can feel like chasing a mythical beast, only half-glimpsed at twilight. As a phenomenon, emotional connection is most obvious when absent. We’ve all heard people described as ‘emotionally unavailable’ or ‘emotionally absent,’ and many of us have felt the coldness when an intimate partner or close friend fails to engage with us about our feelings, offering a platitude or changing the subject. It hurts when we take a risk, confide openly with a friend or loved one and somehow we are not met at that place in our vulnerability.
Over time, real efforts to be understood by partners, parents, friends begin to feel like an exercise in futility, and some of us may shut down or bury our emotions, turn away, stop expecting empathy and real support. Or we may protest louder via criticism or anger, whether or not we know exactly where it comes from. We may run out of hope.
But what does being emotionally available or present look like when it’s there? And how important is it? On paper, emotional atunement is the ability to hear, see, sense, interpret and respond to someone, both verbally and non-verbally. This is how we communicate to the people we are close to so that we see them, feel with them and understand their experiences. In practice, attunement is when we engage with someone else’s feelings and in that moment, they feel us and we are no longer alone but connected. Director of Mindsight International, Dr Dan Siegel, says attunement is when we sense a clear image of our mind in the mind of another. Or simply put, when someone is attuned to us, we feel they really get us, experience us and understand us.
Emotional attunement should begin in infancy, with a mother or primary care giver following the baby's emotional cues. Babies are born feeling deep emotions but lack the ability to regulate or manage the intensity and duration of those emotions. Without the monitoring help of Mother, babies are engulfed by their emotional states, including those of fear, excitement and sadness. However, when Mother is able to tune in, pay attention to these emotions and respond accordingly (meet the baby’s need), she communicates to baby that she is in sync, understands what the baby is doing, feeling and thinking. This allows baby to feel safe and secure. This tuning in assists brain development and over time teaches the baby in how to self-regulate, make sense of their emotions and thus communicate his or her needs. It is a Mother’s gift to her child, an emotional road map to decipher what they are feeling. If a child’s feelings are continually discounted, ignored or reprimanded, they will not know how to soothe, respond, or express those emotions in adulthood.
As adults, our intimate relationships are where we often turn for emotional connection. Sadly, these are also the relationships where not being emotionally attuned can hurt the most. The pressures of daily life can all take a toll on couple connection, gradually allowing us to fall into a transactional kind of relationship, solving problems and sharing responsibilities, yes, but not sharing our emotional self and listening out for each other’s emotional cues, or ways to express our emotional needs.
Lack of emotional attunement is most felt when couples argue. The partner raising an issue wants to be heard whilst the other, feeling blamed, is preoccupied with deflecting or defending. Both feel an overload of emotions and fall out of sync with each other, missing the vital emotional cues and messages in the cascade of their own feelings. On the other hand, when partners are able to stay attuned to each other, their very sheer presence creates the healing and connecting space. If love is to be the glue that holds a couple together, emotional attunement and connection is the glue that makes the vows of ‘to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, till death do us part’ possible.
Of course emotional attunement comes more naturally to some than others. As we talked about in a previous post, attachment styles learned early in childhood inform how we relate to others throughout our lives and, unchallenged, can define our adult relationships. Insecure, disorganised and anxious attachment styles can all have a detrimental effect on our ability to be consistently emotionally attuned. Instead of feeling what our partners feel we focus on (mis)interpreting what they mean to us, our own security in the relationship and the extent to which our needs are met. People who grew up in families where emotional neglect (sometimes interpreted as stiff upper lip families) is the norm would sturggle with emotional attunement and emotional connection.
As a Marriage Counsellor, I see many couples who miss out on the tender, loving connection of emotional attunement. Sally and Daniel both in their early forties, educated professionals came to see me via a recommendation from close friends. They were arguing frequently, initially over major issues but as the problems escalated, small things that should have been resolvable were not. Both were exhausted, exasperated and confused. Daniel saw Sally’s nit-picking and anger as criticism and an overeaction and Sally saw Daniel’s withdrawal and emotional absence as him not caring about her or her needs.
For many years, Sally and Daniel relied on their intellect to solve emotional disconnections and problems. They found it difficult to look into each other’s eyes and their disconnection had become a vicious cycle of its own. They love each other deeply but were somehow unable to maintain closeness without one or the other pulling away. In short, they were out of sync with themselves and each other. After a few months of marriage counselling, Sally started to reveal vulnerably and without anger what she has held in for many years. And as Daniel began to take risks to tune in to Sally, listening, without jumping to his own need to avoid conflict or to fix the situation, Sally began to feel held, understood and experienced emotional closeness to Daniel which made her feel he is right there with her and for her. Daniel’s feelings of not being good enough were slowly replaced by genuine feelings of what he can do. In his words, ‘I never knew I can do so much in doing nothing but tuning in!”. Emotional attunement is a two-way street. In essence, it is a gift you can give each other, that gives back to you.
Although intimate relationships may be where we most expect emotional attunement, in fact we feel its effects and absence throughout our lived experiences. In the workplace, our ability to understand the emotional responses of our co-workers can make us better managers and employees, more supportive colleagues and better contributors to team efforts. In one well-known workplace experiment, staff are paired up and told to talk to each other. The only rule is that the person listening must keep an entirely still face, not reacting at all. In this exercise, speakers typically report feeling undervalued and finding it hard to carry on talking. More profound than this, they also report finding it difficult to remember their train of thought or form normal sentences. Listeners too found it harder to understand what the speaker was saying. What does this tell us? Even in our professional lives, where we are supposedly motivated by our contract of employment, work ethic, professional commitment and career aspirations, when we stop responding to the subtle emotional cues in daily interactions, we become less effective communicators. But more than that, we become less effective in every way, less coherent thinkers, less intelligent professionals. What makes emotional attunement so powerful, in the workplace and beyond is that it cannot be faked. If you want to be able to build trust and understanding with your colleagues, you have to mean it. You have to tune in!
So what can emotional attunement offer us, when we get it right? There are many problems we face in life that don’t have ready solutions. Grief, getting older, major life changes, fear of death, stress are all likely experiences and in some cases there is no immediate remedy. If a friend loses a relationship and loved one no amount of wishing it were different on your part will help; if a partner loses their job, it is rare that any effort on your part is going to get them into immediate employment. But you are not helpless. By being emotionally attuned, you offer them a gift and solace of not being alone. That you get what it is like for them at that moment. This offer of emotional connection at a time of another's vulnerability is really what makes us humans, feel connected and face moments and periods of life's challenges and unwilled aloneness more tolerable.
Patricia, an intelligent, attractive career woman in her late 30s came to see me to because friends have told her that if she wants to find a man to marry she will need to be less critical. In her first session, Patricia talked incessantly, sometimes forgetting to breathe. “I have no problems in attracting men but somehow it doesn’t last. I don’t mean to be critical but I do have high standards and don’t feel like I need to settle, so I say what I think, hoping that they will change but men are so fragile. They just don’t take constructive criticism. I want to settle down, get married and start a family. My biological clock is not going to wait, you know!”. Patricia continued talking for about 40 minutes until a moment whereby something she said made me feel her pain and I said, ‘Ouch’. At which point, she promptly burst into tears, tears turning into heavy sobs. She cried and she cried until her tears dried. In that space of non-judgement, as I listened intently to Patricia’s very human story of loss and longings, I tuned in to her emotional pain. She felt safe, held, understood and her wall came down. Over the course of the next 8 months, I helped Patricia in the work of creating internal awareness, to nourish long hidden emotions and eventually how to attune to her emotional self. I recently received a sweet card from Patricia announcing she will be married on the first day of August 2016.
If you’re thinking that you or your relationship might be ready for an attunement tune-up as it were, our Psychologist, Psychotherapist or Counsellor can help. For example, we often develop exercises in session to help couples do a better job of hearing the emotions in communications not just the words. Over time, couples begin to hear the emotional undercurrent in their conversations, which in turn starts to improve their sense of being understood and even their ability to articulate their own feelings explicitly. If you are single, staying emotionally connected to yourself may be challenging and working with a therapist will help you stay on track with your authentic self and goals.
Attunement can be learned but it is learned experientially. If, thanks to a tough childhood, emotionally absent parents or dysfunctional relationships, we are not used to being attuned to our own emotions, to openly sharing those emotions and to trusting our own judgement in our reading of other people, it can take time to over-learn. This is why it is so important to surround ourselves with people who foster this ability in us. In the cycle of empathy, the more emotional attunement you receive the more you can give and so on. If 'connectedness' is something you’re looking for in your life, perhaps this is the place to start. Send us an email to make contact.