Finding An Emotional Connection With Your Spouse Finding an emotional connection with your spouse requires more than just doing what the other wants. Use these tips to help broaden your views. BY ESTHER BOYKIN, LMFT
Reconnecting with your spouse can happen with just a few simple steps.
While communication issues or conflicting styles are usually what couples call my office to talk about, the most common underlying issue is a lack or deteriorating of emotional connection. That sense that we are in a close, safe marriage is crucial to the success of every relationship. Yet that close bond that we all seek is often very elusive. In fact, understanding exactly what we mean when we say things like "feeling connected," "being close" or "emotionally present" has been difficult for therapists and researchers to define until recently. What couples are seeking, according to Sue Johnson and many other couples therapists, is a secure attachment with one another.
This idea of attachment, or adult attachment style, comes from decades of research with parents and children trying to understand the connection that happens with an infant and their primary caregivers. While we have often left these concepts of emotional safety and the importance of physical touch to the arena of child development, more and more research is revealing how these same principals may be at the root of our adult relationships as well.
So what does all this talk about attachment mean for you and your spouse? For starters, it means there is a scientific reason that sometimes your fights dissolve into a desperate plea by one or the other to be heard and that those never-ending battles about "silly" things may in fact be masking a primal need for emotional responsiveness. Adult attachment theory and the schools of coupleís therapy born out of it could fill many books; though, there are some basic concepts that you can implement today to start reconnecting with your spouse. Ultimately attachment is about feeling confident in our partnerís ability to be "there for us" when we need them. In her book, Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson helps us to understand this idea by simplifying the issue into three basic questions:
Are you accessible when I try to reach out to you?
Will you be responsive to my needs?
Are you engaged in this relationship?
Her acronym, "A.R.E." address the most basic foundation of our intimate relationships. Are you always going to be there for me? Often this question is dismissed by both as needy or dependent, but attachment theory teaches us that our need for a loving connection with another person is not a character flaw or weakness. It is a primal desire like our need for food and shelter and one of the most powerful drives behind our behavior. Think about it for a moment. How many times have you felt an almost desperate need for your spouse to pay attention to you or respond to what may, on the surface, seem like a mundane request? Have you ever found yourselves going around and around in arguments about an issue that, when emotions have calmed, you both agree are silly yet in that particular moment neither of you could relinquish your position? These may have been moments that, what was really at stake, were your sense of secure connection to one another. Unfortunately, couples often overlook the emotional context of their conversations and miss the opportunity to strengthen the love between them. But by answering these questions about yourself and your spouse, you can begin to unravel the deeper meaning behind that fight about the laundry or begin to articulate the vague sense of disconnect that may be creeping into your relationship right now.
Accessible Accessibility is the sense that when you need your spouse (or they need you) that you are available to them. For some people it is easier to think about accessibility as a priority. Itís not enough to be home at five oíclock every night or scheduling a date night once week. While physical access is vital, for many couples it is not enough and often contributes to confusion and conflict. Maybe your wife says you never have time for them anymore. Your response is likely to be something along the lines of, "I was home early every day this week" or, "We went out to the movies just last weekend." While these answers address the content of her message, they also may spark an argument because they probably missed the emotional context; she needs you. Being accessible means that it is easy for your spouse to get and keep your attention when they need it. So while coming home early every night is wonderful, it may be the 15 minutes of undivided attention at the end of the night that carries all of the weight.
Itís important to keep in mind that, while it is easy to remember these characteristics in order, they are not a prescribed step-by-step plan. In fact, one way to hear your partnerís request for accessibility is by being more responsive. A Responsive spouse is one that works to identify and respond to the emotional message of the conversation. In the above example, if the husband could have responded to his wifeís plea that they, "Donít spend enough time together" by responding to her emotional plea for connection, a negative cycle of conflict could likely be averted. Sometimes being responsive is easy, such as when your partner is crying and you offer comfort in the form of reassurance and a hug. Other times you are not sure what the emotional message or you may be feeling distant already which can lead either of you to pick a fight or otherwise bait each other into some response. Much like childrenís need for attention, our need as adults of safe emotional connection is incredibly powerful which means that sometimes any response, even a negative one, is better than nothing. The next time you find that you or your partner seems to be looking for a reason to fight or purposely pushing the otherís buttons, stop and ask yourself whether you have been responsive lately. Responsiveness is not mind-reading, you are not expect to miraculously understand every situation, rather it is a willingness to ask questions and demonstrate a desire to be involved with your partner on an emotional level. Without that it is likely that at least one of you will continue to push for more conflict as a way to get some level of interaction.
Which leads us to understanding how to be Engaged in our relationships. Engagement is often referred to as being emotionally present or connected. Not always easy to articulate, this is the feeling that nearly everyone is seeking in their marriage. Itís the sense of synchronicity between you and your spouseómoving emotionally in ways that compliment and support one another. While there will be moments of conflict and disconnect, when you are engaged with each other these moments are easily resolved and working through them can create deeper levels of connection and trust. The most fascinating part of emotional engagement, and truly all three of these processes together, is that the more you each feel supported and connected the less unsure and needy you become. Much like a toddler who trusts their mother to be there when they need her, as a couple you can learn to rely on one another in a way that allows you to confidently go out into the world and continue to grow and develop as individuals.
Esther Boykin is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Washington, DC area and is the co-owner of Group Therapy Associates, a private practice in Haymarket, VA. Her areas of clinical interest include working with couples and relationship dynamics, adolescent development, and understanding the impact of trauma on intimacy. In addition to her clinical work, Esther is a freelance writer and has published on a variety of relationship and mental health issues including teen marriage, the therapeutic process, and domestic violence. She currently writes a weekly column for "I Am Modern," a lifestyle magazine and website for mothers in the DC metro area. She is also a featured Health & Wellness contributor for AssociatedContent.com. You can find more of her writing on her blog at http://blog.grouptherapyassociates.org and learn about her clinical services or schedule an appointment at www.grouptherapyassociates.org.