By Amanda Craig, PhD
If you ever get the chance, go see the one-man comedy Defending the Caveman— I highly recommend it. It plays all over the world and offers a comical yet honest depiction of male and female dating rituals: describing men as hunters and women as gatherers, with survival as the ultimate goal.
We have learned so much about dating rituals and what we now call attachment between partners since the caveman era. Research lead by John and Julie Gottman, and Sue Johnson, has found the essential element of a healthy relationship is actually not the way couples work together, or that they have the same interests and opinions, or even share common traits.
Rather, a healthy relationship is based on a couple’s ability to be emotionally responsive. This is where individuals trust and feel connected to their partner in a way that assures them the other person will be there when it matters most.
The connection can be felt in many ways, including the way we talk to others, make eye contact, fulfill another person's needs, say “hello” when he or she enters the room, or say “thank you” when our partner impacts us during the day.
How often does your relationship not live up to your hopes and expectations, even though you put forth a ton of effort trying to make it better? Have you ever experienced the pain of trying so hard to be happy or make your partner happy, that in return you only seem to experience more disconnection?
Can I count on my partner? Will he or she be there for me when it matters most? Do they know me? Am I accepted by my partner? If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, there is a lost connection.
Watch Sue Johnson talk about lost connection in this video.
This lost connection may seem minor at first glance, but we know that human connection is vital to our mental, emotional and physical health. Numerous studies support the notion that the negative dance, where partners feel disconnected, leads to increased blood pressure and stress hormones.
Conflict-laden or overly critical relationships increase self-doubt and lower self-esteem. When our relationships feel unsafe we become unbalanced and deregulated. This article details how an unhappy relationship can impact our health.
HOW TO GET BACK TO THAT CONNECTED PLACE
#1. WATCH FOR THE DANCE OF DISCONNECTION
At first you might not recognize a disconnection until the moment passed you by and you are left feeling alone. Next time you might gain this same awareness the moment the disconnection begins. Or, you may see the moment sailing by without control to stop it. That’s ok. You are gaining awareness around the negative dance as it occurs.
#2 ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR FEELINGS:
To avoid the disconnection we often hope that our partner will change and that this will solve our frustration or hopelessness. However, the answer really starts within you.
We all feel: everyday, all day long. We often experience more than one emotion at once, and can experience competing feelings at the same time.
If we react to our partner without an awareness of how we feel, we are likely to react automatically, impulsively, and hurt our partner in the process. If we respond to our partner with a good understanding of what we are feeling, we can engage in a more meaningful way by sharing our true self.
Conversations from the place of emotional awareness and vulnerability will not put our partner on the defense, but will be more engaging and empathy-building. In contrast, when we are unaware of our true motivations, we are more likely to bicker to get attention, illicit defensiveness and make our partner feel nor heard or understood.
Get our Feelings Chart.
#3 FEELINGS PRODUCE BEHAVIORS
Your behavior is often a manifestation of your feelings. People act out emotions in either a guarded and defensive way or vulnerable and open way. Here are some examples of the way feelings manifest in behavior that are hurtful to self or partners.
In contrast, understanding a feeling allows for a more positive reflection of self and sharing with our partner in a more open vulnerable and honest way.
Recognizing behaviors that come from a vulnerable and open place encourages our partner to support us or show us they are there for us.
#4 LOOK DEEPER AT YOUR PARTNER
Rather than focusing on the current issue or the last comment you heard, look deeper at your partner. Can you tell the difference between what your partner is saying and what he or she is actually feeling? Do you understand his or her emotions, and how that may be affecting their behavior?
For instance, Chris comes home after a long day of work and walks past his wife and to the bedroom to change. After 20 minutes he comes out and joins the family with minimal energy. Does his wife assume that she is the reason for his low energy and starts to question him about it? Or does she recognize that Chris had a long day, that he is under a lot of pressure at work and he wants to be home with his family now, but it is hard for him to let go of all of the worry?
Know your partner’s tendency for communicating their feelings is important in order to support each other rather than grow apart.
Now that you have identified what you were feeling, and what your partner is feeling, you can find empathy for your partner’s emotional and behavioral dance. You can do this in one of two ways:
Your acknowledgement and understanding of your partner will offer an opportunity to connect because they feel like you get them.
Some additional examples:
When you consistently understand your own emotions as well as your partner's, you can reduce how often you will find yourself in the negative dance, as well as how long you stay in it.