Social media preoccupation, virtual affairs, online pornography addiction. The advent of electronic devices in our everyday lives places families and marriages at high levels of risk for disintegration.
To conclude my 5-part series called “Love Touches: Being Human and In-Tune,” I share how the ATTUNE formula helped three couples, whose relationships were under distress due to technology, move toward healthier, happier relationships.
Disclaimer: Couples are a compilation of couples I’ve met, counseled, or read about. Any similarity to real couples are coincidental and not reflective of actual, specific clients. Names are fictitious.
Drift: Preoccupied by Social Media
Couple 1: Tiffany and Tom sat silently at the restaurant table. They knew they needed to do something different, but forgot how to make “something” happen. After a few half-hearted attempts to start a conversation, both retreated into their phones, checking emails, scanning Facebook and Twitter. They didn’t feel they had a bad marriage. They still believed they loved each other. The relationship just felt dead to them. Neither felt sure about wanting to make the effort to liven it up again
Virtual Affair: Gaming Relationship Becomes Real
Couple 2: Dana came into my therapy practice distressed. She was thinking about leaving her husband for man she had never met, but whom she felt she knew intimately. They had connected through an online gaming guild.
It started out innocently enough. Her husband, Rob, was very into his online games to the exclusion of everything else. After years of inviting, nagging, yelling and crying to get him to stop, she decided “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” She learned about his game and began playing in her husband’s guild.
Dana entered a world of teammates and chat rooms. Eventually, Dana and Rob’s skill levels and interests took them in different directions. “We’re still playing the same game, so I’m in ‘safe’ territory,” Dana thought.
However, over time, she began spending a lot of time dueling and exploring with a gamer named Dan. His compliments and attention fed her starved soul. Before long, they were chatting outside the context of the game, sharing more and more information about their lives. Now he wanted her to meet him in person. They dreamed of traveling the world together, living out real-life adventures. She wanted to go, and sought counseling to help break the news to her children and the imminent change in their lives.
Porn Addiction: Secrets and Fears
Couple 3: Sara thought she’d found her Prince Charming in Sam. This was a second marriage for both of them, so they had entered it cautiously, dating over a couple of years. She thought she had done her due diligence – asking lots of questions and being very clear to him on where she stood on pornography. Yet, here they were, immersed in the pain and devastation of betrayal. The couple came to my therapy center after she had recently learned of Sam’s long-standing addiction to porn, an addiction that began long before, and continued after, their wedding.
Sara could not understand how this had happened to her – again. Her first husband’s addictions had disintegrated their marriage. What had gone wrong this time?
Since Sara had found out about Sam’s pornography use, they argued constantly. He resorted to defending himself, explaining and excusing his actions. Sam was scared to death that if he didn’t fix this and make things work between them, he’d lose Sara and be doomed to living life alone with only the companionship of his addiction. He had kept his pornography addiction a secret in his first marriage, but knew it had damaged the relationship and affected his views on women.
As I work with couples dealing with technology-related relationship problems, I often utilize the ATTUNE formula, based on the work of The Gottman Institute, a world-renowned marriage and family research center. The ATTUNE formula helps couples and families form lasting, loving relationships.
The formula helps couples as they consider these questions:
1. How ATTUNE’d are my relationships with each member of my family?
2. Does my use of technology enhance or detract from being ATTUNE’d with the most important people in my life?
Let’s look at how each of these couples may apply the ATTUNE formula to improve their relationships with their partners.
A – Attention; undivided attention, when it’s needed.
T T – Turn Toward, both physically and emotionally.
U – Understand.
N – Non-Defensively Listen.
E – Empathize.
Couple 1: Kids spell love T-I-M-E; so do adults. In Tiffany and Tom’s case, they learned they needed to pay attention to each other or their marriage would not survive. Marriage, personified, needed their attention. The couple began to prioritize the need for active connection, rather than the passive entertainment and comfort offered by social media.
Being in the same room is not enough for a healthy, thriving marriage. Tiffany and Tom discovered ways to Turn Toward each other, physically and emotionally, offering their undivided attention. They discovered that attention = affection and even cherishing.
Fortunately, they sought help before developing serious problems rooted in years of misunderstanding and hurt. Building upon the positive aspects of their marriage, they elevated their relationship to new levels of Understanding – a greater Understanding of their partner’s life dreams.
They learned how to Non-Defensively Listen as they discovered the roles and expectations they had of one another while trying to achieve their dreams. They also learned the value of expressing Empathy for one another’s highs and lows in achieving their goals.
Tiffany and Tom said they felt “giddy” when they thought about their shared future. Through the ATTUNE formula, Tom was able to open up about his aspirations and found that much of what he wanted was similar to Tiffany’s goals.
“I’m Tiffany’s biggest supporter,” he says. Although much of what they long for is still in the “pipedream” phase, Tiffany says they are finding joy and connectedness in their journey.
Couple 2: In Dana and Rob’s case, Rob’s heavy involvement in gaming led to serious consequences. Dana joined Rob’s hobby to bond with him, but their habitual disconnected behavior in the real world continued in their fantasy world. Gaming became just another way of turning away and ultimately against one another.
Dana, searching for the companionship she was missing in her real life, diverted her attention from her family onto her guild friend. Part of her recovery involved becoming ATTUNE’d to her own and her husband’s pain.
Dana learned to pay attention to her own real-life needs, and refocused on how to meet them through real-life relationships rather than through a fantasy relationship. Once she acknowledged this, she felt ready to face a potentially painful next step: bringing her feelings to her husband’s attention and seeing if he was willing to reconnect with her.
I worked with her through that extremely difficult and delicate process, which included confessing to her husband of the emotional, virtual affair. Intense counseling led them to slowly Turn Toward each other emotionally in a loving way – as opposed to Turning Away (ignoring, or minimal responses to bids for connection) and Turning Against (attacking, blaming, responding in a hurtful way).
Dana and Rob had to un-learn their prior, unhealthy relationship behaviors and replace them with ATTUNE-ing. I emphasized learning to self-soothe, identifying and expressing emotions more fully, taking responsibility for their actions, making repairs, and spending couple-time rebuilding their friendship.
Both learned they had grown up in emotion-dismissing and disapproving families. They had each carried this emotional heritage into the marriage, failing to pay adequate attention to their own and their partner’s emotions and needs. Since they didn’t know how to value their own emotional experiences, they knew even less how to value their partner’s, how to use emotion to guide effective problem-solving, or how to turn towards bids for connection and make repairs when things went off track.
Instead, they learned to retreat into the distraction of fantasy worlds. As they felt less connected, it became easier to react with defensiveness and blame than to try to wrestle with problems together.
The key for Dana and Rob was learning to value and cherish the role of emotions – their own and their partner’s – in navigating through the process of solving problems together. They discovered the joy of living ATTUNE’d with one another.
Couple 3: Finally, with Sam and Sara, we talked about his misguided Attention. Sam had been overly attentive to his fear of rejection, rather than to the truth, by pretending his porn addiction was in the past. He paid attention to portraying his fantasy self, rather than his real self. Sam learned to give Attention to the truth; to Sara’s pain; and to resolving his fears, rather than acting out secretly and defensively, which essentially turned him away from Sara, himself and the world.
Like the other couples, my therapeutic sessions with Sam and Sara included teaching them to pay Attention, Turn Towards, Understand, Non-Defensively Listen and Empathize. The adage, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak,” rings true.
I reminded them that their partner’s perception is the reality they are acting from, and is more important than “the facts” of any given situation.
How do we handle conflict, accepting perception as fact? First, we develop the ability to calm ourselves while continuing to listen to our partner. We actively look for the valid points in our partner’s experience. We choose to value and cherish our partner above justifying our self. Research shows that couples who rate their relationships as happy are skilled at avoiding thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victimhood when listening.
At my Colorado couples workshops and in my private practice sessions, I outline exercises for couples to practice and develop self-soothing techniques, enabling them to listen with ATTUNE-ment. In my experience, anyone who is willing is capable of acquiring these skills.
Sam and Sara came to realize that effective conflict management centers on discovering their self and partner, rather than trying to be “right.” They learned to express Empathy – to tune into their partners’ emotions and to imagine being in their position.
Sam and Sara used their own experiences to recall emotions being expressed by their partner and, then, to some degree, mirror those emotions. They also learned to ask questions about their partner’s feelings. They noted that body language spoke volumes over their partner’s words, and they became experts at observing their partner’s body language and making repairs when interactions felt “off.”
Sam came to genuinely understand Sara’s feelings of betrayal, and accepted that earning her trust would be a long process. Sara empathized with Sam’s extreme fear of losing her and being alone, as well as the shame he carried for his addiction.
They felt each other’s pain. Then, they experienced the mental, emotional and physical calm that comes when a person feels connected to another. The knowledge that they were not alone gave them great power to move forward. Sam underwent addiction therapy to unshackle himself from pornography. Sara entered an intensive partner recovery program to find healing for herself.
Notice that in the cases discussed here, each person needed to address the good, the bad and the ugly of their own inner worlds, as well as their partner’s world.
Sometimes, the people I meet through my private practice and at couples workshops are overwhelmed by that conceptual truth – that to be in a happy, long-lasting relationship means putting in the work of being in-tune with their own and their partner’s feelings and experiences. Some are unwilling to submit themselves to such difficult work.
For couples who undergo the painful self-examination and difficult change process, they elevate themselves, their relationships and their families. They change the trajectory of not only their own relationship, but for the generations that follow them, too.
Those couples say it was worth it.
The entire Love Touches series is available here: