The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

October 2016: Avenues for Connection

Posted on Oct 15, 2016

October 2016: Avenues for Connection

“Love is not the least bit illogical or random, but actually an ordered and wise recipe for survival. The need for connection is our first and most primary instinct.”

~ Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense (2013) and Hold Me Tight (2008)

While the theory of “survival of the fittest” is lauded in our Western culture and used to promote or justify many terrible behaviours, it is not very accurate and rather misunderstood. Even Darwin himself realized the importance of collaboration and adaptability to change as necessary for survival.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

~ Charles Darwin, English naturalist and geologist, author of Origin of Species (1859)

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Working together to adapt to constant change. Not something we excel at as a culture. Yet there is evidence of this all around us in the natural world: species collaborating to survive and even thrive. Paradoxically, the one constant in all the change: relationships and our need for them. So how do we make them work?

“Science says: It is not familiarity or time that kills desire and passion, it is lack of emotional safety and attuned connection.”

~ Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense (2013) and Hold Me Tight (2008)

Emotional safety and attuned connection. The two aspects needed in order to thrive. Two things we are not taught from infancy—yet which we intuitively know at birth. That’s how we manage those first months of life outside the womb. When emotional safety and attuned connection are compromised, we suffer—as infants, children, adolescents, and adults. We never lose the need for connection and safety.

While developing emotional safety and attuned connection can be a complicated, misunderstood, and unappreciated process, there are two critical avenues we can pursue at any age or stage in life. They are daily affection and check-in conversations.

Daily affection (touch) is a necessity for infants to physically survive. Our lives as adults may no longer be at risk without touch, but life is certainly compromised in all aspects of our health from lowered immune systems to increased risk for depression and anxiety. Touch—especially skin-to-skin contact—produces oxytocin: the bonding hormone. When we touch, we connect and bond on a chemical level. Hence the importance of daily affection such as morning and bedtime hugs and kisses, greetings upon parting and reuniting.

Daily check-in conversations. While it may sound simple, and many people think “we do this already;” it is not a natural way we converse and requires practice as well as patience. When we check in with each other, we are going beyond the banal, perfunctory, and possibly distracted, “How was your day?” to a genuine interest made obvious. It is a structured conversation giving each person time to speak—literally taking turns. Partner 1 has 10-15 minutes (or whatever works for you) to tell about his or her day (what happened, what they did, how they felt about it). Partner 2 repeats back what is said without interpreting, problem solving, or fixing. Just listening and validating. Partner 2 can say something like, “I heard you say….” Followed by “I imagine you feel…” or “I get that would be [name of emotion] for you.” Then Partner 2 has equal time to describe their day and how they feel about it—with Partner 1 repeating back what was said and validating associated emotions. If a partner struggles to identify their emotions, ask questions about what they feel in their body and prompting with “That would make me feel….How about you?” or the “I imagine you feel…” may be enough to prompt emotional reflection.

Generally, when we are ‘listening’ to our conversation partner, we are developing a response in our head long before the partner is finished speaking. We have a rebuttal ready the moment our partner pauses. This contributes to arguments escalating to full-blown fighting that creates distance. We have lost connection and emotional safety—a threat to survival. Reflective Listening (repeating back what is said and validating emotion) is a useful tool for arguments as well as daily check-in conversations. Another communication tool, Expression of Needs (aka Complain without Blame), is also useful to keep in mind if the conversation veers of course (separate handout).

Daily check-in conversations are to be reserved just for that: checking in. They are not the time or place to resolve arguments or problem solve. Those are separate, and equally important, conversations which may go better having an overall understanding of your partner’s interior world/inner life achieved by daily check-in conversations. As well, having established emotional safety and attuned connection, arguments/disagreements will be less threatening knowing each other is secure in the relationship.

These principles can be applied to any relationship and context (with modification for dynamics such as parent-child, friends, school, or workplace). We all need touch and attunement. Armed with this information, we can fulfill our common need for affection and focused attention in respectful ways.

May your day be filled with emotional safety and attuned connection.

Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection. It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again. Minute to minute and day to day.

~ Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense (2013) and Hold Me Tight (2008)


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