What are we looking for in our most important relationships? It’s that feeling of a safe, dependable, steady connection with another person. It helps us stay on an even keel despite whatever is going on around us.
What we’re looking for — what we are wired for — is secure emotional connection. Without it, we’re like storm-tossed ships at sea. Much of what keeps us afloat during the tumult of life, and anchors us to a sense of purpose, is a strong enough awareness that we matter, that we are important and valued by someone we care about.
We hear popular love songs and see books and movies full of love stories. Yet for many of us, real-life emotional connection is hard to find. People are everywhere, but still many of us feel isolated, afraid, and alone. It’s like the passage to connection is hiding in plain sight. Why does this happen?
Why Is Emotional Connection So Hard Sometimes?
Many of us may have missed the chance to learn by experience what secure love and connection feels like. I see this in my counseling practice, but statistics tell this story too.
About 50% of children will witness their parents’ divorce, says Children and Divorce. The New York Times reports that 27% of US children under 18 lived with a single parent in 2015. While one-parent homes can be happy and healthy, single parents frequently shoulder more responsibility and stress with more limited resources. If a marriage has ended, children need to cope with the trauma of this loss.
Psychologist Judith Wallerstein, who studied a group of children of divorced parents up to 25 years later, found, “the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage . . . Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether,” she notes.
Less-than-ideal attachment isn’t just a risk for children of divorce. Many two-parent homes can be sad and lonely places with little room for feelings. We may learn to cope with emotional neglect. But denying our need for connection spells deep trouble for our long-term mental health and well-being.
Our Healthy Need for Attachment
“We mammals share attachment, the need for a close relationship between parent and offspring to connect and protect, to soothe and attune,” says Daniel Siegel, researcher, neurobiologist and mental health educator. “The magic of attachment is that our children internalize our patterns of communication with them, shaping the very structure of their developing brains as they move from the safe haven of our love to set out into the world from the launching pad of home.”
When the people important to us can’t show us how valuable we are, how to navigate our inner world, or create a safe haven with loved one, how can we learn to do this on our own? Many of us grow into adulthood confused, anxious, and baffled about this delicate dance of attachment.
We Can Learn to Create Secure Attachment
Even if you have not witnessed much secure connection, all is not lost. People need not give up on their hope for secure emotional attachment just because they didn’t grow up in a close family, or because things are rough now.
Connection naturally comes when we tune into each other. The ability to attune is innate to most of us. Making eye contact is one of the very first skills we learn as newborns. Just as seeds sprout and grow when they’ve got soil and water and sun, we are able to form loving, strengthening bonds when we become accessible, responsive and engaged with another.
The acronym ARE — which stands for accessible, responsive and engaged — is one of many powerful tools we can use to develop intimacy, thanks to Emotionally Focused Therapy.
We Can Build or Re-Build Connection in a Relationship
Sometimes relationships start out feeling warm and loving, but then distance grows.
If a partner stops responding emotionally, or feels negative emotions coming from the other partner, defensive walls go up. Rather than attune to their hurt, couples may try to bury it or seal it over.
Sometimes there’s a habitual pattern of disconnection because people turn to their phones, work, substance use, or other things instead of toward each other. Then, emotional intimacy and connection have little chance.
Often we don’t know how to address uncomfortable, raw feelings such as abandonment or shame with our partner. It’s not easy to open to each other to share the depths of our fear, the nature of our pain. That’s something we all have to learn — it’s easier to do with a good roadmap.
Emotionally Focused Therapy — or EFT — helps couples create healthy emotional connection. It even helps warm up the chill of disconnection that couples often bring to a workshop or therapy session.
How do we invite connection when withdrawal has set in? How do we get back to feeling okay when a rift happens?
The EFT Roadmap to Re-Connection
Our full range of feelings are valuable — especially the lonely ones. They can move us to healing action. They can help us recognize our needs for emotional connection. Rather than avoid them, couples can use them to invite each other to recognize and build on their need for each other.
EFT helps us de-escalate our experience of conflict, and make a bridge of safe connection. It does this by guiding partners to:
- Be sensitive to their own needs and emotions
- Turn toward each other with gentle openness
- Choose the time well
Being sensitive and aware of our own emotions means honoring our need for attunement. One might realize, “I’m feeling lonely lately. I see us drifting apart.”
Turning toward each other gently and openly means sharing feelings in ways that invite connection. These ways are not the ways we may have seen growing up. It’s not accusing, not attacking, not: “You’ve abandoned me. You’re paying too much attention to (fill in the blank).” Rather, in gentle openness one might say, “I see some distance growing between us. I’m feeling hurt and worried about it. Do you feel it too?”
Why is it so important to choose the time well? You want to give this delicate dance the best chance it’s got. The dance is reaching for your partner across the distance that has grown. You want to set the stage so you’re both as least defensive as possible.
Open Gently, This Way Up
Conversations that get off to a good start have a much better chance of getting to a good place. Conversations that start with accusations or defensiveness or resentment as the leading note are harder to get to a good outcome.
Something wonderful happens when couples can open up about the trouble between them in a non-attacking kind of way. They start tuning into each other, and can focus on what can they do about it together.
No Need to Be Perfect – But to Be Present
Connection is not about being great or perfect for each other. It’s about hearing and being heard — learning to listen, to say what we need, and to be there for each other. I’m talking about the deeper kinds of connection, where we’re held gently in each other’s hands.
Sometimes we may not even need words. We can foster emotional intimacy and connection by slowing down, taking the time to be with each other, and putting away distractions. Going for a walk hand-in-hand, you may find yourselves sharing enjoyment of nature and the squirrels running and the kids playing on the street, and begin to feel emotionally connected.
We can learn about emotions and how connection works. We can draw from therapy, workshops, and from other good resources like books and relationships. We can find the connection we need with the willingness to be open. Learning to share feelings gently, become more responsive and engaged allows us to find safe harbor in life with each other.