This is the question that both men and women have been asking me recently. The topic is big enough to warrant a book, yet I will tackle it in short form. My hope is that this will give you several things to think about as well as experiments to try.
The biggest cause of strife between couples is not feeling connected, although that is not how it is said. Here is what I frequently hear from couples:
? We've grown apart.
? S/he doesn't want sex as much as I do (or used to).
? S/he's at work all the time.
? S/he's so busy with our kids that s/he doesn't pay attention to me anymore.
? S/he doesn't listen to me.
? S/he's always out doing things with other people, and I just want time at home.
? S/he won't talk to me.
? S/he's not parenting our children right [i.e., the way I want him/her to do so.
? S/he's out drinking and partying; we have kids now.
? We're both at home, but s/he's on the computer [device all the time, so we're not actually spending time together.
? S/he wants to spend too much time with his/her parents.
? We never talk about that [fill in the blank.
? S/he's critical no matter what I do.
? S/he's controlling; eventually I stopped saying anything.
? I think s/he is having an affair with his/her friend.
? I don't know if I can trust him/her.
As human beings we are biologically wired to seek secure attachment ? to be and feel connected (Johnson, 2008). What does that mean in English? It consists of five parts: You give each other support and empathy (not fixing); you demonstrate that you have his/her back no matter what; you seek comfort from each other; you seek sex from each other; you create a home that is a haven that gives you the energy to face everything outside your door.
What Causes the Lack of or a Break in Connection?
Firstly, it may be The Clash of the Family Systems. You may be wondering, "What does that mean?" Whatever you grew up with seems "normal" to you, whether it was healthy or not. Therefore you often assume it is normal for everyone else, too, especially for your partner. But his/her "normal" is based on his/her family, and your partner expects you to act like s/he would in any given situation. You just can't believe that s/he would do anything different. And no two families are alike. Therefore, the Clash.
Secondly, you are most vulnerable to the people to whom you are closest. That is because they matter more than acquaintances or co-workers. Your hopes are highest with your partner, and therefore your disappointments are felt more keenly. I see many people who are very good at inter-personal relationships ? until they walk in their front door!
Lastly, your attachment style is created from your earliest relationship with your primary caregiver, usually Mom. Let me make it clear here that this is not a blame-the-mom stance. With the continuing research and progress of psychoneurobiology, there is tangible information that can help you get out of your patterns and connect again. When you begin to view the strife between you as misguided (yet wired into your brain) attempts to create and access the connection you long for, you may see yourself and your partner in a new light.
Ask yourself this: When you are triggered or flooded ? i.e., upset or overwhelmed ? do you fight, take flight, or freeze? These are the biologically wired-in options for humans. This is why humans have survived as a species. You need this tool; it also gets in your way in your relationship at times.
I have heard clients describe their relationship style as "dominant/submissive" or "forceful/cowering" or "yelling/avoiding" and there is understandable anger and frustration with these systems. I do not believe it is your partner's intention to disrespect you. These are misguided attempts at connection, even though that can be difficult to remember when you are in those interactions.
When you have been in these cycles over and over again, you may lose sight that things could be any different.
What Can Couples Do?
I encourage you to reframe your viewpoint: when you are triggered (it happens in 1/200th of a second), you will have a limbic (emotional) reaction of fight, flight, or freeze.
Here are three things you can practice doing to create the connection you desire:
1. Slow Down
The trick is to s l o w e v e r y t h i n g d o w n to allow time for your cortical (thinking) brain to come online so that you may respond rather than react. Becoming instantly defensive is part of being human, too. Think of defensiveness as a wave that will rise and fall again. Your job is to breathe through it and keep your lips zipped.
If you can stop seeing your partner (or yourself, for that matter) as the "angry/avoidant/frozen one," and simply as reacting in the way one is biologically wired, you can avoid many misunderstandings and fights. Otherwise you will keep playing emotional ping-pong, and continue to fight, be unhappy and think it's your partner's fault.
Respond to what your partner actually said. Do not just wait for your turn to talk. In order for each of you to be heard and received, it is imperative that you stay on the subject that s/he brought up. Then you can go on to the next topic. Otherwise, couples end up with four or more concurrent conversations in which neither of you feel that anything gets resolved.
Attunement is the act of giving verbal support, empathy, and care (and you don't even have to agree with what s/he said). It's the right time to use "You" statements. For example, "It sounds like you're frustrated about your work situation; it must be hard to have to put up with that over and over."
2. Look and Ask for Clarification of Intention and Impact
You have an intention when you communicate with your partner. That communication has an impact on him/her (Stone, Patton, Heene, 1999). The likelihood of the intention and the impact being the same is slim to none (see above, The Clash . . .).
Please begin to see, hear, and feel your partner's interactions as longing for connection. If you notice yourself (or your partner) having a reaction to what you said (eye contact, body language, breath, expression, etc.), slow down, stop talking. Imagine the impact was somehow other than your intention.
Either of you can say, "I'm having a reaction, and I wonder what your intention was?" or "I can see/hear/feel that what I said was not received in the way I intended. What was the impact?" This is the definition of being responsible; whoever is able to respond (not react) names what s/he just observed. This is known as transparency and is an essential tool for relationships.
3. Be Explicit
I ask clients, "If I were a fly on the wall at your house, what would I see and hear?" The answer is usually different for each (due to family systems), yet both usually agree they are not explicit. What does this mean? A large part has to do with each person's role in the relationship. Mostly you act the role of husband/wife/partner as you saw it in your family growing up.
I urge you to have explicit conversations in which you share your view of yourself as a partner/wife/husband, and ask what the other person expects of you in that role. Then take turns. I guarantee there will be some overlap in your expectations. However, there may be some surprises, too.
Be explicit about your needs. Grow accustomed to hearing "Yes," "No," or "Maybe" as the answer. I have noticed that men are often leery of talking about needs and feelings because they don't want to appear needy or unmanly. And women tend to ask her partner what he wants rather than state what she wants. You are human, and both of you have needs.
The best part of being explicit is that to be truly loved, YOU have to show up in your relationship. If you are trying to be who you think your partner wants you to be, who does your partner actually love?
It is common to feel beaten down and not worth much when your relationship has not been working very well for a long time. Maybe it has been a while since you felt that you could live authentically and genuinely.
I realize that while all of this may make sense intellectually, some people find it difficult to put down his or her sword and shield. Experiment with and practice these tools for at least 21 days, and see if you feel more connected. I want you to know that this is work, and you are worth it. Spend at least half as much time on this as you do on your devices and vacation planning; you'll end up having a better life together.
Anderson, Chandrama, MFT. (2010-2012). Couples Blog. Palo Alto, CA: Connect2ï¿½
Johnson, Sue, Ph.D. (2008). Hold Me Tight. NY, NY: Little, Brown and Company
Stone, Patton, Heen, (1999). Difficult Conversations. London, England: Penguin Books