Emotional Attunement for Couples
It is a well-known notion that relationships take effort. The majority of us enter into them with the understanding that we have to work and nurture our commitment towards each other. Often times I find myself working with couples who despite their best efforts have found themselves feeling out of touch with each other. Couples naturally disconnect, because separateness takes no effort. It is easy to drift apart as life gets busy, children arrive, and we slowly grow away from each other. But there are many ways we can rebuild our connections, starting with emotional attunement.
Developed by Dr. John Gottman: Emotional attunement is a process of improving communication skills between you and your partner. Attunement is explained using the word “ATTUNE” as an acronym to provide a guide for how to use this skill.
Awareness of your partner’s emotions. We can become more aware by making a conscious effort to start noticing and responding to the positive or the smaller, less escalated displays of negative emotions. An example of how to do this would be to ask the question “How are you doing, honey?”
Turning toward the emotion. Make the decision to turn toward your partner and the emotion. Talk about the emotion with your partner! Let them know that you recognize it as well as care about what they are experiencing (be it positive or negative).
Tolerance of the emotional experience. Tolerating our partner’s emotions means accepting the reality of the emotion. We may not agree with why our partner is angry, sad, or even joyful—but we can still respect their current perspective.
Understanding the emotion. Because it can be difficult to understand your partner’s current emotional state it can be helpful to ask about it. This is not necessarily the time to give advice or problem solve, but more of an opportunity to ask open-ended questions to help you understand their emotion.
Nondefensive listening to the emotion. You will get the chance to respond to your partners reactions. However, this is the time to “bite your tongue”. The goal is to listen to understand, NOT listen to respond!
EMPATHY. Treat your partner’s emotions with kindness and gentleness. Empathy is an understanding of the heart. And showing this compassion for your partner’s feelings will increase trust, so that they can express to you what they are feeling without fear of repercussion or furthering the emotional distance.
Now that you have the basic skill set outlined for you there is still the question of, “So when can I use this skill?”. The easy answer is to practice this daily! With passing moments between you and your spouse you can be in the ATTUNEment mindframe of paying more attention and requesting to talk to your spouse about their current emotional state. Anytime we are learning a new skill it often feels unnatural and rehearsed. But with time and practice you can get into the habit of closing the gap and learning how to turn towards your partner. As I mentioned before, separateness takes no effort—therefore effort is due in rebuilding your emotional connection! If after practicing this skill there is a continued struggle to bridge the gap it may be time to seek out a professional to assist.
Sarah Harrison, MA, LMFT is a Level II Gottman therapist. Sarah takes a whole family approach to counseling, seeing couples, families, and children in her practice.