Most of the couples who sit in my office are there because they have begun to turn against each other in conflict. Communication has broken down. Love has eroded and couples are concerned that they can’t stop the arguing.
When love begins to erode, what is missing is attunement and the emotional responsiveness that goes with it. Angry protests at the loss of connection escalate. Lack of comfort and closeness feeds distrust and disagreement and the partners become more distant.
The absence of positive, intimate, supportive exchanges has been compared to a virus that takes down the body relationship. Conflict is the inflammation that results from this virus.
If couples cannot find a way to reach for each other in another way, their bond cannot be repaired and the end stage–disillusionment, despair, distrust, and detachment–will set in.
The main point of this blog post (which is the point of most of my posts!) is this: Happy lasting bonds are all about emotional responsiveness. The core attachment question behind every argument–Are you there for me?–requires a yes in response. According to Sue Johnson (Hold Me Tight), a secure bond has three basic elements:
- Accessibility–you give me your attention and are emotionally open to what I am saying even if you don’t agree with everything I am saying;
- Responsiveness–you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring; and
- Engagement–you are emotionally present, absorbed and involved with me.
When these elements are missing, disconnection takes over and conflicts begin. The demise of marriage begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. The conflicts come later. What matters is if we can repair the inevitable moments of misattunement and come back into harmony.
Bonding is an eternal process of renewal. For me, teaching and guiding couples on how to discover and experience that renewal is the goal of the work I do.