Almost nothing is worse in a relationship than feeling unappreciated or invisible to your partner.
Couples experience this awful disconnect in many different ways.
It seems the smallest things can touch it off:
- You’ve asked your partner to pick up his or her dirty dishes or dirty clothes, but it never happens, not even after you blow up
- You come home too tired to fix dinner, but instead of solving the problem together, you end up in a big fight about your needs versus your partner’s
- You only get more angry and defensive toward each other when you ask for understanding, attention or help.
In the silence between arguments, distance and buried anger grows. One person goes off to play games on the computer or the phone. Or the other sulks and sleeps alone on the couch. One partner demands, “What’s wrong?” The other shouts, “Nothing!”
How do you heal all this hurt and hard feeling?
Finding Emotions that Help Us Connect and Bond
One of the most helpful relationship experts of our time is Dr. Susan Johnson. Growing up, Susan spent a lot of time watching her parents in their English pub. She watched as their fights destroyed their love. So, Susan devoted her life to learning why love devolves into arguing, and what to do about it.
Even angry couples can restore real, secure love. Susan Johnson’s approach to healing pain in relationships is called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).
You might be wondering, how can focusing on emotions help two people who are overflowing with anger?
You may be thinking there’s already too much focus on all the fury and fighting. You’re probably sick of how terrible your relationship feels. You may be scared to express anger or other feelings, worried that it will hurt the relationship even more.
So what good can focusing on emotions do?
It turns out, the emotions we need to focus on to heal pain in our partnership are the tender ones. We all long for connection. We seek out intimacy in the first place because we need a safe place to be ourselves. We need someone we can talk to, to share the experience of being alive.
We Never Outgrow Our Need for a Loved One
This need to be vulnerable, to be ‘at home’ with someone is natural, healthy and human. It’s called secure attachment, and our sense of well-being depends on it.
We humans are wired to depend on each other for acceptance and a healthy response to our needs. That’s how love often starts out. You find someone you feel happy being with. And you ask each other questions to learn more about each other. And you spend time together, discovering what the other person likes.
But then over time, we get distracted from our partner. Normal life takes us away from attuning to each other. We miss signs that our partner wants or asks for attention or a response from us. A partner may not be able to say what or ask clearly for what he or she needs.
As one partner starts feeling unheard, he or she may turn up the volume of complaint. Then, instead of responding to the need, the other partner feels attacked.
A new pattern starts. Partners start pushing and withdrawing, attacking and defending. You fight and retreat into separate corners, where you each feel hurt and alone.
The soothing we seek may need to start with ourselves.
The Most Important Question for Struggling Couples: Are You There For Me?
Healing begins by gently looking at our hurt and disconnection. Susan Johnson discovered that most couples don’t see that most of their fighting is really about feeling emotionally disconnected.
You may feel your partner doesn’t care, that there’s no empathy, or that your partner has turned cold. You may feel that you can never ‘get it right’.
But what’s really going on is a pattern of distress on both sides.
A very helpful first step for couples is to look at the question: “Are you there for me?”
In Emotionally Focused Therapy, this question is a memory cue. It helps each partner respond to emotions in ways that bring them together, instead of dividing them.
A.R.E. = Attentive, Responsive, Engaged
A.R.E. stands for Attentive, Responsive and Engaged. When we miss the comfort of our partner’s kind attention, it’s normal to feel hurt. We crave a caring response to our bid for connection. We want to engage in comforting each other. When our efforts don’t work, we get anxious, which often fuels anger. We end up fighting or defending against each other, when deep down we want soothing instead.
To begin healing, couples need to learn to step back from the hurt or the fight of the moment, and look for the emotions underneath that need attention.
When a love relationship runs into trouble, the conflict often follows a pattern of escalation. Emotional raw spots form. And it’s natural for each partner to try to protect those.
It’s like you’ve both fallen into a pit, taller than the both of you. On your own, you can’t climb out. You need a rope. Couples counseling is like the rope,. Climbing it together, and helping each other past the knotty parts, restores your unique way of being there for each other.
How Counseling Empowers Reconnection
Couples counseling equips partners to pull themselves out of emotional quicksand. It helps you calm your own anguish, so you can return to comforting each other in your relationship. Even if only one partner is ready or willing to start the process, counseling with a skilled couples therapist is important. It enables you to understand the agony you feel when your relationship has gotten off track, and how to offer reconnection.
Are you there for me? That is the question. Asking it helps you see and accept your healthy need for attachment and mutual care.
Healing broken or injured bonds starts with being there for your partnership. When you step back from painful patterns of arguing, you can start to be there for each other.
It’s a powerful way to begin the journey back to the empathy and compassion that makes your life together so rich and worthwhile.
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