Research over the past two decades about what is needed for a successful and enduring relationship has made some interesting findings. Unlike other animals on the planet, human being’s long-lasting mating relationships are not just a force to promote reproduction. Love is the important emotional force that is part of the social and psychological bond between humans. Researchers have discovered that love is an aspect of the human experience which is the pinnacle of evolution and the most compelling survival mechanism of the human species. Love drives us to attach emotionally with someone who will offer us psychological shelter from the storms of life. When we feel a loving attachment bond, we feel safe, confident and secure.
When our partner is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we feel alone and often helpless. Then we are more likely to feel intense emotions like anger, sadness, hurt, and above all, fear. Fear is our built-in alarm system which is activated when our survival is threatened. Losing connection with our loved one jeopardizes our sense of security. According to neuroscientists, the alarm goes off in the brain’s amygdala. This almond-shaped area in the midbrain triggers an automatic response. We don’t have time to think; we feel fear and then we act.
We all experience some fear when we have a disagreements or arguments with our partners. But when we feel loved and secure in our relationship, it is a momentary blip. Our fear is quickly calmed as we realize there is no serious threat, that our partner loves us and will reassure us with a hug when we need it. However, when we feel insecure in our relationship, the fear felt during an argument can be overwhelming.
According to Sue Johnson in Hold Me Tight, we become swamped by what is called “primal panic” when in the distress of a quarrel, if the relationship is insecure. Then we generally do one of two things: we either become critical, complain, and make demands, in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw, shut down and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves. What we are trying to say is: “Notice me. Be with me. I need you.” Or “I won’t let you hurt me. I will chill out, try to stay in control.”
Research has found that these two strategies for dealing with fear of losing connection are unconscious, automatic and they work temporarily. But when we end up in vicious spirals of insecurity, we are pushed further and further apart from each other. The more often this pattern repeats itself, the more neither partner feels safe. Each becomes more defensive, and each is assuming the very worst about each other and the relationship.
In our busy lives as couples, we frantically try to balance work and home responsibilities. We can become mis-attuned to our partners. We are often distracted or caught up in our own agendas. We do not know how to express our emotions and attend to our relationship. We may not give clear messages to each other about what we need, or how much we care.
Instead, we tend to speak tentatively, being uncertain about our own needs. If we do speak about our needs for connection, they may sound like more complaints and criticisms than invitations for close conversations or intimacy. If we end up demanding rather than requesting, we will find ourselves in power struggles, rather than in the comforting embrace we need. Some of us try to minimize our natural longing to be emotionally close and focus instead on actions. We focus on sex, when what we really want is the experience of feeling connected that being physically and emotionally close can bring. Disguised and distorted messages may keep us from being vulnerable, but they also make it harder for our partners to know how to respond.
Developing Emotional Responsiveness
The solution to this mis-attunement and to the challenges of busy living or an insecure relationship is to learn a special kind of emotional responsiveness. This increases the feelings of love in a relationship. The three components of this emotional responsiveness are:
- Accessibility – staying open to your partner when doubts arise;
- Responsiveness – tuning into your partner’s emotions and responding reliably;
- Engagement – being emotionally present, the very special kind of attention given to a loved one
This questionnaire is a great way to begin to see your relationship through an attachment lens. Simply read each statement and place a check mark in the appropriate box. You can use this questionnaire on your own or you and your partner can each complete it and discuss your answers together. This is from Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.
|Accessibility, Responsiveness, Engagement)||True||False|
|From your viewpoint is your partner accessible to you?||1||0|
|1. I can get my partner’s attention easily.|
|2. My partner is easy to connect with emotionally.|
|3. My partner shows me I come first with him/her.|
|4. I am not feeling lonely or shut out in this relationship.|
|5. I can share my deepest feelings with my partner and he/she will listen.|
|Accessibility Sub Total|
|From your viewpoint is your partner responsive to you?|
|1. If I need connection and comfort, he/she will be there for me.|
|2. My partner responds to signals that I need him/her to come close.|
|3. I find I can lean on my partner when I am anxious or unsure.|
|4. Even when we fight or disagree, I know that I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together.|
|5. If I need reassurance that I am important to my partner, I can get it.|
|Responsiveness Sub Total|
|Are you positively emotionally engaged with each other?|
|1. I feel very comfortable being close to, trusting my partner.|
|2. I can confide in my partner about almost anything.|
|3. I feel confident, even when we are apart and that we are connected to each other.|
|4. I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts and fears.|
|5. I feel safe enough to take emotional risks with my partner.|
|Engagement Sub Total|
A R E
Your Scores are: ___+____+____=_______
Your Partner’s Scores are: ___+____+____=______
If you scored:
7 or more: You are well on your way to having a secure bond with your partner and can use therapy to strengthen it.
Less than 7: You are probably feeling insecure in your relationship and therapy can to help you strengthen your connection with your partner.
Understanding the emotional connection between you and your partner and sharing how you see it, is the first step to creating the connection you both want and need.
- Does your partner’s view of how accessible, responsive and engaged you are fit with your own view of yourself?
- How safe do you feel in your relationship? (Try to remember that your partner is speaking about how safe and connected he/she feels right now in your relationship, not about whether you are a perfect partner.)
- You can now take turns talking about the question/answer that was most positive and important for you. Keep the conversation to five minutes each. If you feel comfortable, try to discuss the answer that brought up the most difficult emotions for you. Do this in the spirit of helping your partner tune in to your feelings. Avoid criticism and blame. Keep this conversation to five minutes each.