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Many of you have probably heard complaints from your partner about “not feeling connected.” If you have not spent some time considering your own emotional needs, you may have no idea of what s/he is talking about. Here I will address three basic questions: What does it mean to feel connected? How do two people get disconnected? What can be done to minimize the problem of disconnection?
What does it mean to "feel connected"?
Basically, feeling connected means feeling in touch with someone who cares about us. Most people acknowledge that children need to feel a safe attachment to an adult who cares for them. The reality is that adults also need a secure attachment to another adult. Each of us has an innate need to feel safely attached to another person who will be there in our times of physical or emotional need. When we enter into a committed relationship, this need actually intensifies due to the hope that this one special person will consistently be there for us. Specifically, we hope that this one adult will meet our emotional needs in three ways.
1. Can I get your attention when I need it? When I ask for your attention, can you be available to me? Can you listen to what I am saying? Am I a top priority to you? To sum up, are you accessible to me?
2. Can you comfort me when I am anxious, sad, lonely, or afraid? Will you make some effort to comfort me in those situations? In other words, are you responsive to me?
3. Do you care about my well-being even when we are not together? I need to know that you care about my joys, hurts, and fears. Will you care about me consistently and reliably? Are we truly engaged in each other’s lives?
How do two people get disconnected?
Often the offending partner is not even aware of the behaviour that led to a loss of connection or the threat to secure attachment. It is not humanly possible to stay constantly tuned in to your partner’s emotional needs. Even if you are both trying to be attentive, you may miss each other’s signals about sensing detachment.
For example, Susan became accustomed to getting an affectionate hug from Tom every evening before going to sleep. When the hug went missing for several nights in a row, she began to feel a disconnection from him. It seemed to her that he had stopped feeling affection for her, which signalled to her that their attachment was no longer secure. This triggered a deep fear in Susan. Tom missed the signals of her emotional distress and was unable to reassure her of his commitment before they spiralled down into an argument about “how cold and unloving he was.”
All couples have instances of emotional disconnection. Many times, these lead to complaints, defensive reactions, and heated arguments.
What can we do to minimize the distress and the arguments that usually result?
Here are three steps involved in avoiding the arguments that result from disconnection: 1. Become aware of the patterns of your arguments, 2. identify emotional triggers that lead you and your partner to feel the loss of connection, and 3. learn to ask for and to provide comfort.
1. Many arguments fall into recognizable patterns. For example, Susan stops receiving hugs and files a complaint to Tom. She feels disconnected due to the loss of affection, but rather than saying that, she tells him that he is “not affectionate enough.” Tom defends himself; he has been preoccupied lately and caught up in his own thoughts at night. Susan then feels further disconnected because she has filed her complaint and is still not getting what she needs – a sign of his ongoing love for her. Her increased frustration quickly escalates to anger because now she feels “not heard” or “ignored.” Her increased anger leads Tom to shut down emotionally, hoping that somehow her anger will stop if he does not react to it. This strategy fails, of course. It is no more effective (or advised) to ignore a distressed spouse than it is to ignore a distressed child. Both need comfort and reassurance.
It is critical to recognize the pattern of arguments between partners and to see them for what they really are: pleas for a sign that the other person cares.
2. Each of us has emotional triggers that cause our innate fear of abandonment to spike. Partners unintentionally hurt each other’s emotional raw spots. When we learn to identify these sensitivities in ourselves and in each other, we can make an effort to avoid them.
3. The final step sounds simple but may take a lot of practice. We often have misguided ideas about how to get our emotional needs met. Too often, we expect a partner to know what we’re feeling and what type of comfort we need. This is unrealistic. Susan might have simply asked Tom for a hug when she needed some affection from him. A second hurdle to getting through step 3 is the fact that many of us were raised with messages such as “Don’t express feelings,” “Don’t be vulnerable,” or “Don’t let them see you cry.” We may have even been ridiculed for having feelings. These types of messages must be seen as preventing two loving adults from expressing the need for comfort from each other. The better message to tell yourself is: Have courage, and trust that your partner loves you. S/he wants the connection as much as you do. There may be times when the other person's attention is focused upon other matters, but be patient and reach out in a loving way.
I am trained to assist you work through these challenges and experience the joy and happiness of a connected relationship. Contact me at email@example.com or on 084 779 4889. Visit my website at www.nadinetherapy.co.za.
(Note that the names used for the sample therapy couples are fictional.)
Nadine van Rensburg is a counselling therapist specializing in marriage counselling & coaching, couples counselling and family counselling.
I use a meaning and value based approach to help people conquer their problems, challenges, fears and obstacles for a happier and more fulfilled life.