Emotional Attunement

It is impossible to nurture healthy relational dynamics without practicing attunement.

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It is impossible to nurture healthy relational dynamics without practicing attunement.

It is impossible to nurture healthy relational dynamics without practicing attunement.

In this post, we shared an article from the Huffington Post, in which Terry Gaspard gave us insight into self-care through the following bits of relationship advice. According to Gaspard, when experiencing relationship problems, it is wise to:

  1. Examine your own actions
  2. Adopt realistic expectations about your partner’s willingness to change

In other words, don’t try to fix your partner — this is both impossible and unethical — and don’t play the blame game (no one wins). We agree that critical self-awareness and others-awareness is very important. Here is a third suggestion:

  1. Practice emotional attunement

According to Dr. Gottman, masters of relationships approach problems as a team. To do so, they must both be aware of their personal experience in the moment and motivated to work together. It is impossible to nurture healthy relational dynamics without practicing attunement. Let’s take a look at the first couple in Gaspard’s article:

“A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. “I’ve been unhappy for some time,” complains Megan. “I’ve asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I’m at the bottom of his list.” To this Tim laments: “Megan just doesn’t make me happy anymore and things just aren’t getting better.”

Do you think that Tim and Megan are attuned to each other? This couple doesn’t feel like a team — both partners feel uncared for and unloved. Neither partner is practicing good self-care by allowing this relationship dynamic to continue.

Both Tim and Megan have succeeded in identifying a general feeling — unhappiness in their relationship — but haven’t managed to pinpoint specific sources for this unhappiness. In despair, they’ve turned on each other.

This kind of blame is universal. It feels like a personal attack on one’s character, which beyond being painful and unproductive may, with repetition, completely destroy their relationship (and personal sanity). The couple is thrown farther apart than ever, and one can hear the clip-clopping of the Four Horsemen drawing near! (Defensiveness has already arrived in Tim’s words — see the antidote here).

How can Tim and Megan turn things around? The first step is for them to get in touch with themselves: to discover what they need and want, determine what they feel is missing from their relationship. This is self-care. They have to understand themselves before they can understand each other.

But emotions are devious creatures. With so much focus invested in the small crises and stressors that arise in one’s jobs and daily activities, it is difficult to find a moment to truly connect with what you are feeling. As a result, your emotional life often spirals out of your control, and internal pressures build up. At a certain point, you explode, like Tim or Megan, potentially harming your bonds with those you care about the most.

If you cannot identify your own emotions, how are you supposed to understand them or process them or communicate about them with others? How can you expect your partner to be a source of comfort and support?

These are problems everyone struggles with!

If you feel frustrated in your inability to have intimate conversations about your deepest feelings with your partner, you are not alone. And we can help.

Here’s a brief exercise to help you deepen the connection with yourself and with your loved ones:

Tip 1: Ask Open-Ended Questions. If you ask questions that require only a yes or no answer, you are destroying conversations before they even have a chance to begin. You are accidentally slamming the door that you are trying to open. This door is unfortunately labeled “Intimacy.” Instead of “Did you watch that movie?” ask, “What was your favorite part?” Instead of “Are you upset?” ask, “You seem upset — what’s going on?

Tip 2: Relax. Take your time. If you are bothered by your inability to label your emotions, stop and meditate for a moment. Clear your mind. Search for a word. When a word comes to mind and your body relaxes, you have hit the spot. Here are a few examples you can use in this activity. Remember, these are just a starting point!

Positive Emotions 

  • Amused
  • Appreciated
  • Lucky
  • Satisfied
  • Silly
  • Turned On
  • Joyful
  • Safe
  • Proud
  • Powerful
  • Playful
  • Fascinated

Negative Emotions 

  • Alienated
  • Tense
  • Misunderstood
  • Powerless
  • Ignored
  • Inferior
  • Criticized
  • Ashamed
  • Betrayed
  • Numb
  • Unsafe

There are even more skills for building internal and external intimacy like the deepening connection in your conversations and expressing compassion and sympathy.

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.