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Healthy Relationships : Communication & emotional connection

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Communication Skills & Emotional Connection

Whether you are disagreeing about sex, money, household responsibilities or parenting most partners simply want to know their feelings are understood and cared about. Caring, listening and attempting to understand what your partner is feeling are relationship lifelines. It may sound simple but these are the most profound ways to demonstrate that you want to feel connected to your partner. When you are connected as a couple, a world of possibilities opens up. You can creatively solve issues, let go of unnecessary resentments and work together as a team. When you are not connected, you tend to work against each other which can lead to defensiveness, protection and distrust. Healthy communication skills are at the heart of emotional connection.

If you watched the Summer Olympics you likely witnessed amazing feats of teamwork. The fastest rowing teams moved their arms, legs and bodies in total unison. They were connected. During the 2008 Games the USA Women’s beach volleyball team won their 108th consecutive match and their second successive Gold Medal. They were absolutely connected. Consider what would happen if these teams weren’t connected or weren’t communicating well. Do you think they would have performed well?

Emotional Connection

When you are present to what your partner is feeling with a willingness to understand, you demonstrate a desire to be connected. This is foundational to healthy relationships. You are now in your heart vs. in your head. (By the way, you don’t have to agree with your partner in order to put yourself in their shoes by attempting to understand what they are feeling. It is okay to agree to disagree. The goal at this point is to show you care about how your partner feels). Research demonstrates that couples headed for a break‐up most often miss their partners attempts for emotional connection 50% to 80% of the time as compared to 15% to 20% from couples in more stable relationships. Emotional connection may come in the form of verbal or nonverbal gestures, facial expressions, touch or vocalizations. Studies also show that in these same categories of couples, those headed for a breakup engaged each other only 65 times during a one‐hour dinner conversation whereas more stable couples engaged each other 100+ times.

The most important work in developing your relationship comes in the day to day interactions and opportunities for emotional presence and emotional connection. Every encounter builds your ‘emotional connection bank account’ and has been shown to significantly increase affection, intimacy and humor during conflict and the willingness to resolve conflict. This ‘emotional connection bank account’ is invaluable to help couples communicate to resolution of issues vs. shut down communication in the middle of challenges. Shutting down during conflict leads to building resentments, tension and disconnection. It is definitely not recommended to wait until a conflict arises to try and feel connected. This is the time to draw from your ‘emotional connection bank account’. When you have a full ‘emotional connection bank account’ you and your partner have greater trust in one another to be there for each other in the easy and challenging times. This brings you huge returns in times of differences or conflict.

According to John Gottman Ph.D. author of the bestselling book, the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, there are three patterns of responding to your partners attempts at emotional connection that impact the longevity and health of your relationship;

1. Turning Toward ‐ When you respond in kind to your partners attempt to connect emotionally through a gesture, look or conversation you get more positive interactions that will build your emotional bank account.

For example your partner asks you:

Do you want to watch a movie tonight?’

You might reply:

Sure, let’s watch that movie we’ve been talking about for weeks. OR I’d love to but not tonight I have a lot of paperwork to catch up on. Can I have a rain check?

For example your partner asks you:

‘My shoulders are sore’

You might reply:

By rubbing their shoulders. OR, you might say: Hmmm, have you had a long day? Maybe you should take some time to relax.

 2. Turning Against – When you respond negatively through sarcasm, argumentativeness or hostility you foster emotional suppression, resentments, powerlessness and defeat.

Do you want to watch a movie tonight?’

Yeah, fine just don’t pick those stupid movies you usually like. OR Why would I want to sit through 2 hours of nothing when I can get something done.

‘My shoulders are sore’

They wouldn’t be sore if you’d stop working those late hours.

Maybe you should remember that next time you’re asked to help someone move all weekend.

 3. Turning Away ‐ When you don’t take the time to respond to your partner’s attempts to connect by acting preoccupied, changing the subject or overt ignoring it is considered the most destructive to relationship stability and will lead to break‐up the fastest. When you don’t pay attention to your partner, you don’t connect.

Do you want to watch a movie tonight?’

No, I don’t have time.

Do you know where I put my briefcase?

‘My shoulders are sore’

Looks like we are headed for rain this week.

I have so many things still to do today.

Suggestions to deepen your connection

  • Focus on turning toward your partner vs. turning away or turning against
  • Listen to your partners feelings and let him or her know you heard them. Find any element of what your partner shared that you do understand or can empathize with and relay that understanding.
  • Pay attention to the day to day attempts by your partner to connect with you emotionally.
  • Set time aside to connect on a regular basis (at least every few days). This could be about day to day life stuff for each of you, your dreams, your passions, play time or anything that is present for you in the moment.
  • Once you have spent time connecting more often, turn toward each other regularly and responding to each others attempts to connect emotionally, and then take the time to address any unresolved issues. If you have elephants or other animals sitting in the living room of your relationship be sure you address them. If you are at an impasse get the support you need to see if you can move through to a new understanding together or opening. Elephants tend to multiply. Before you know it an unattended to elephant turns into an animal kingdom.
  • Our most important suggestion (that is backed by plenty of research)… Develop your ability to play, have fun and be humorous together. These are sure ways to connect and create a lasting relationship.

    Coaching and Counseling

    Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.

About the Authors

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Hilary Stokes Phd

Dr. Hilary Stokes is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in San Diego, California. Dr. Hilary received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies, a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from San Jose State University. In addition to her ….

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Kim Ward Phd

Dr. Kim Ward received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies. She also holds a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. Dr. Kim is a certified trauma-informed coach and life coach in private practice in San Diego, California. In…

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