Love Touches: I SEE You
A couple I met through my work as a marriage therapist and couples weekend workshop presenter recently shared this with me –
Her: He doesn’t listen to me. This has happened for years and years, and I’ve given up. Sometimes I just talk to have a conversation. Isn’t that what marriage is about? A friendship? Sharing stories at the end of the day? And sometimes I need to tell him the little things, like that he needs to take our son to baseball practice or that I made dinner plans for us. He says he forgot, but I think he never heard me in the first place because he tunes me out. Forget about talking to him about something that is very important – like how I can’t stand him sometimes. I hate myself for the horrible feelings I have for him.
Him: I’m tired at the end of the day. I work in a busy office and when I come home, I just want peace and quiet. I know she says I don’t listen to her talk. But her funny stories and funny way of looking at things is one of the reasons I fell in love with her in the first place. But now she mostly orders me around and never really talks about anything of importance, like what’s going on with her. She doesn’t listen to any of my stories either. Like I have to repeatedly tell her the names of the people I work with. I talk about what’s going on at the office, and she can’t even keep everyone’s names straight. Why is there a double-standard? I don’t ever complain about her not listening.
“Communication” is one of the top problems couples list when I meet with them. Communication is a challenging (but very possible) skill to master, and good communication is a basic human need. Hence, frustrations rise when poor communication exists in a relationship.
Society’s increasingly obsessive and addictive use of technology – electronic devices that make “tuning out” to your partner a pervasive habit – only fuels the fire of poor communication.
Technology increases instances of failed bids – identified by marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D, as that moment when a person seeks the attention of their partner, and the partner does not respond or mis-responds – which is a key indicator of divorce.
Fortunately, the solution to the problem is in your hands – literally. But rather than to simply tell you to “put down your electronic device,” let’s first discuss the word “tune.”
Couples and friends say they are “in tune” when they understand each other.
Musicians “tune” their instruments to make beautiful harmonies. Back in the day when radios had dials, we’d “tune in” to the exact channel until the reception was clear. Mechanics “tune up” your car regularly to ensure they run properly. Some people talk about being “in tune” with the Spirit when they feel and act upon God’s directions to them.
“Tune” is the root word of “attune,” which means to bring into accord, harmony, or a sympathetic relationship; adjust.
It is not surprising, then, that we desire to be in an attuned relationship with our partner. But exactly what is an attuned relationship?
People display certain body language characteristics when they are truly attuned with other people. What does this body language look like? Making eye contact; looking at the same object or in the same direction and then back at one another; mirroring the facial expressions and body movements of the one we’re talking with; even regulating our physiology, such as heart rate and breathing, to our partner’s; touching affectionately; sharing similar emotions in the moment.
Infants are naturally attuned to other humans, as shown in the photo above of a baby. Sadly, we sometimes lose this natural ability to attune as we grow older. Perhaps it’s a function of feeling less dependent upon one another as we become more competent, while the reality remains that we never lose the need we have to be DEEPLY emotionally connected.
The formula to ATTUNE, from Dr. John Gottman’s work with couples, does not address tech addiction per se, but it addresses the larger issue facing couples. It helps you re-learn the critical relationship skill of accepting your loved one’s bid for your time, attention and affection.
To ATTUNE expands beyond merely achieving an “attuned” physical expression, to being mentally and emotionally attuned to your partner. The goal of ATTUNE-ment is to increase emotional connection and create a secure attachment. A fringe benefit is that it decreases conflict and contention in our relationships.
A = Attention
Provide undivided attention when it’s needed, not just when it is convenient for you. We’ve all heard “Kids spell love T-I-M-E.” So do adults. Infants and children innately desire and make efforts to connect. When caregivers make multiple, consistent efforts to respond effectively, a secure attachment is created. Clearly, it is an essential human need that we do not outgrow.
TT = Turn Towards
Turn Towards is to physically and emotionally respond in a loving way. Turn your body and face toward the person. Your facial expression is one of genuine concern and interest. Negative reactions to your partner’s bid for attention include Turning Away (ignore, not look up, blank face, not respond) and Turning Against (responding with hurtful words or irritable/angry facial expressions).
Turning Towards is easier said than done, especially when you are busy or in the middle of something, and your spouse wants to suddenly strike up a conversation. We are imperfect beings. Extensive research on marriage has been conducted to determine the “magic number” – the ratio of positive interaction (Turn Towards) to negative interaction (Turn Away or Turn Against) – that predicts whether a couple will remain in a happy relationship. Researchers found the ration to be 20:1 or 20 positive interactions for every one negative interaction. These occur in the very small, every day moments of interacting.
U = Understand
To be attuned means the listener strives to seek Understanding by suspending judgement and asking follow-up questions, especially when our partner desires to discuss a concern. We can respond with “Can you help me understand?” Or, “What are you worried or upset about?” We all want to see ourselves as being an “understanding person.”
However, the reality is that we can only truly be understanding when we value the person in front of us more than our own response, point of view, argument, agenda in that moment. We have to have a desire to connect that is stronger than our desire to be right.
N = Non-Defensively Listen
Similar to “Understand” is to listen in a “Non-defensive” manner. The adage “We have 2 ears and 1 mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk” is applicable. An important relationship skill is to be able to accept that your partner experiences his/her perception of an issue as their own reality or truth, just as much as you consider your view as true.
Judy and Curtis came to me and, like many of my clients, they blamed their crumbling relationship on their inability to communicate. One area of contention: Curtis felt Judy’s countless hours on social media, including re-connecting with male high school friends, was an affront to their marriage, and he felt left out and dismissed.
Judy argued that she was not doing anything wrong. She had never sent private messages to these men, and only communicated with them through open group forums that included both guys and gals from her high school. Besides, they were in the midst of planning a high school reunion, so, of course, online conversations were a bit more frequent than normal. She loved Curtis and never considered another man as anything but a friend.
Through the ATTUNE formula, Judy realized that whether or not Curtis’ perceptions were true did not matter as much as accepting that he viewed them as accurate truth. Once she accepted this, she understood the importance of listening to him without feeling the need to quickly defend herself.
I was able to teach both Judy and Curtis the skills of “self-soothing.” Through practice, they learned to calm themselves while listening to their partner express a complaint.
Researchers who studied and followed couples, some for more than 20 years, found that couples who knew how to “self-soothe” remained in happy marriages. Self-soothing is a skill that anyone can learn and use to improve their relationships.
To Non-Defensively listen is to suspend persuasion efforts until you can summarize and validate the other person’s point of view to his/her satisfaction before you introduce your point of view.
E – Empathize
Empathy takes Understanding to the next level. Understanding is an intellectual pursuit; Empathy is an emotional one.
There’s a poignant meme being passed around online that illustrates the difference between sympathy and empathy. In it, a rabbit has fallen in a hole. Other animals look down at the rabbit and sympathetically say, “Oh yeah, that’s bad; really bad!”
They express sympathetically “how horrible it must be,” “how scary it must be” and ask “are you hurt?” They agree that the rabbit truly has a problem to solve in getting out of the hole.
Then a bear climbs down into the hole with the rabbit and sits with him, sharing the experience. The bear is demonstrating empathy rather than the sympathy of the other animals.
Empathizing with another person is like the bear with the rabbit. We “get into the hole” with our loved one; we recall times when we’ve felt or experienced similar things. We allow ourselves to feel what they are feeling to the degree we’re able in that moment. Being with them is more important than just validating that “it must be rough.”
We can “get in the hole,” or empathize, by asking questions about our partner’s feelings – “How do you feel about this?” “What are ALL of your feelings?” “What’s the worst/best feeling you have about this?” </p;>
Tune into and mirror their body language. As you do so, recall times when you have also felt similar feelings and allow yourself to be affected by their emotion.
Let your partner know that you value their feelings. Reassure your partner that they are not alone, that you will be with them in their experience. Studies show that the emotional part of the brain calms down when it feels connected to another person, which in turn decreases pain. We can do this even if we feel we don’t understand. Being a witness to a person’s experiences is powerful.
Putting It All Together
A woman once shared this with me:
We had bought a dining room set and after it was delivered, I found it was not the correct dimensions that had been promised by the salesperson. My husband would not discuss returning it. He insisted that we keep it. For years, every time I used the furniture, I felt unhappy.
As for him? He never even remembered the conversation that I had wanted to return it. He said the set was “fine” and why was I so unhappy? Finally, after an argument about another issue, I brought up the furniture again. This time, I was more calm because we were both really trying to have a good discussion about our relationship.
Then he said, this –
“I’m so sorry. Back then I had been so overwhelmed at work. My mind was just incapable of handling one more thing to do. But you are right. I wasn’t listening. We definitely had a legal case and we should have pursued a refund. Now I do vaguely remember that you had tried to talk to me. You must have felt so alone and frustrated. I’m sorry I ignored you on so many things. If you want a new dining set, we’ll sell this and buy a new one.”
Those were the magic words. I never complained about the furniture again. We still have it. It even has a hole in one of the seats and I haven’t even thought about getting a new one. Now, as I sit in the dining room, I think about how much he really does love me. I remember all the responsibilities he had at that time in our life, and I realize he had tried his best.
This is just one of the many instances that the formula ATTUNE – Attention, Turn Towards, Understand, Non-Defensively Listen, Empathize – brought harmony to a relationship.
Choose to be ATTUNEd – be in tune, connect, be vulnerable, build intimacy. Be ATTUNEd with life and loved ones. Choose to not be distracted by things of far less value.
First off, you need to know your partner. Are rom-coms cheesy or cute to them? Do they find love songs sappy or sweet? While all gestures are appreciated as thoughtful, you want to try to hit the bullseye on the target, so it feels romantic. Try asking and answering the following questions:
-What movies or shows do you find romantic? Why? What parts?
-What sorts of things (words, actions, gifts, etc.) feel romantic to you?
-What is the most romantic moment you remember having? What made it so romantic?
-What romantic things does your partner do that you see and appreciate now?
-Name one romantic gesture that would mean a lot for your partner to give you.
Planning something romantic sounds daunting to many, so it may be difficult to know where to begin. It doesn’t have to be anything grand. Think of a normal thing you would do, then ask yourself: how can I take this one step further? For example, you are going out to dinner like you do every Friday. To take it one step further, you could plan to go somewhere new, recreate the first date, plan something fun after dinner, show up with flowers beforehand, feed your partner bites of dessert, or suggest taking a loved-up photo. By giving these examples, you can see how knowing your partner is so important.