Current research in the field of neuroscience, attachment theory, and couples therapy has me quite excited over what has been discovered about the significant role of emotional attunement and its presence in healthy relationships. John Gottman is a pioneer in the world of couple therapy research and has explored emotional attunement and its role in our intimate relationships. In his book, “The Science of Trust: emotional attunement for couples”, Gottman (2011) breaks down the science and art of emotional attunement for us. He tells us that when we are emotionally attuned to our partners, we are building trust in our relationship and trust is essential to successful relationships.
What does emotional attunement look like?
When we are attuned we are making genuine efforts to understand our partners emotions. This does not involve attempts to change our partner or assess for our partner’s accuracy in a situation or conflict. Rather, it is more like turning toward our partner with a curious and open heart. It is being responsive, engaged and present. It is having the courage to enter the world of emotions with our partner.
When we turn to our partner in this way, we convey the message to our partner, “I am here for you and no matter what, I have your back.” Being emotionally attuned, we convey to our partner that they are safe with us, they are seen, they are heard, they are understood. When our partner feels safe, we feel safe and trust flourishes. When trust is strong, our relationships are strong. When we are attuned in our relationships, we are better equipped to repair from conflict.
Gottman says attuned relationships have more difficulty entering conflict, more difficulty escalating conflict and they more easily and quickly exit from conflict. When conflict is high in intensity frequency trust begins to erode and we are more vulnerable to the negative impact of conflict.
Conflict exists in all relationships
Even presumed “happy” couples have conflict. Happy couples just happen to do conflict well. It turns out, there is some science and art to conflict. When we enter conflict with our partner we become physiologically aroused and we are “triggered.” In other words, we feel threatened. We all know this experience too well. We feel this threat in a physiological way. Levels of threat vary depending on a variety of complex factors.
Feeling threatened can begin from something as seemingly harmless as our spouse forgetting to ask about our day, to more intense threat as in the case of infidelity and betrayal. No matter the level of threat, when we feel threatened in our relationships our brains enter a more primitive, less evolved physiological state. When this happens, we become incredibly self-protective. We can even escalate to the point where we become emotionally flooded. Flooding is the physiological state of “fight or flight.” Conflict runs rampant in these states.
When we are flooded, we feel like we are in great danger.
We are in survival mode and our only objective is to flee or fight.
In this state, we cannot be open to our partner’s perspective. We are not creative, and we are not using reason and intellect to guide our thoughts and behaviors. It is very difficult, if not impossible to recover from conflict when we reach this flooded state. At this point in conflict, research suggests we take time to self sooth by taking a break from the conflict. Perhaps, practice mindful breathing in an effort to bring our physiological state to calm. Gottman, (2011) suggests that couples that are emotionally attuned, however, are less likely to ever enter this level of conflict and if they do, they are more easily able to both repair and grow from it.
How does a couple become better emotionally attuned? In his book “The Science of Trust” Gottman uses this acronym to assess attunement:
A= Awareness of emotions: an aware person can respond to smaller negative emotions as they arise in the interactions with our partner, and we are continually checking in with our partner, emotionally. We see these moments as opportunities for growth and building intimacy
T=Turning toward the emotions: Partners that turn toward the other person can communicate positively what their needs are, rather than pointing out what they don’t need. This looks more like, “I need you to ask how my day went” and not “This is what you are doing wrong.”
T-=Tolerance of emotions: Having tolerance is when we recognize our partner’s perspectives in conflict. It’s doesn’t mean we agree with our partner but that we are open to the other’s perspective. We don’t seek to be right or prove wrong, we seek to understand.
U=Understanding the emotions: in understanding, we listen to our partner in a way that seeks understanding of our emotions. Gottman says this looks like, “Talk to me, baby.” When our partner is doing this, they are setting aside their own needs, their own agenda.
N=Non-defensive listening of emotions: In non-defensive listening, the partner is calm. We are not flooded, and we are able to focus on the pain of the other. There no need to seek accuracy in our partner’s emotions, just understanding of their perception.
E=Empathy toward the emotion: In Empathy, we are seeing our partner’s emotions through their eyes. This is the ability to experience your partner’s experience. We can reflect this back and validate the experience to the distressed person. Gottman says this looks like, “It makes sense to me that you would have these feelings and needs because…”
Gottman reminds us that attunement is a complex skill that comes more naturally for some while it is more difficult for others. It is especially difficult for those that tend to be generally avoidant, dismissive, and disapproving of emotions. For these individuals, tuning into their partner’s emotions can be anxiety provoking, but through persistent practice and patience on the part of both partners it is a skill that can be mastered. Couples therapy is a unique opportunity to guide a couple through this process of mastering emotional attunement resulting in a trusting, deeply connected, and fulfilled relationship.
A wealth of rich information exists related to this topic and is readily available to couples. If you have interest in deepening and widening your knowledge in this area, the following books are a great start;
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
by John Gottman PhD, Nan Silver
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
by Sue Johnson
Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship
by Stan Tatkin
Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York (N.Y.): W.W. Norton & Company.
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