Over the years, I’ve learned how important attunement or active emotional engagement is in relationships. I have noticed misconceptions around what attunement is and what it looks like. In my own relationships, I have missed the boat horribly many times when it comes to applying full attention or rest periods.
As parents it is our responsibility to notice the emotions and needs of our babies and children. Eye gazing, body posture, tone of voice and facial expressions are the most revealing ways we communicate to children and adults. Words matter less. This is a tough one for me to digest. I really like using words. Realizing most of my message gets conveyed through non-verbal methods makes me feel less in control. My facial expressions, body posture and tone of voice are much more subject to my emotions and tend to be more knee-jerk in nature.
With children it is easy to fall out of connection. I know there were (and still are) times when I misread my kids’ needs. I either half-listened to them while I hurriedly completed another task simultaneously or I was too in their face with demands and my own needs for connection. Both of these scenarios leaves the child feeling unseen and misunderstood.
Paying attention to our partners
The above scenarios also apply to relationships with adult partners. If I am busy with work, household management or a personal activity, my attunement dwindles. I look into my husband’s eyes fewer times. My tone of voice sharpens. If I feel lonely or bored and seek his attention, I am less aware of his need for space or alone time. I am more likely to infringe on his rest periods.
I’m here aren’t I?
Like many others, I have confused being physically present with attunement. I stayed home with my kids for fifteen years. They should feel very secure in my connection with them. Wrong. Just because I was physically in the room does not mean they felt seen, safe, soothed and supported.
She’s so nice but I still feel unseen
Often we think if we are positive and nice to our loved ones, we are emotionally engaged. Being nice does not mean we are attuned. Sometimes niceness is just an easy way to gloss over emotions, leaving our special people feeling confused. Our partner said nice things but I still feel ignored. Niceness does not get to the meat of our emotional needs. Compliments are better than criticism but can still leave us feeling empty. Do the compliments soothe our emotions or do they only make the messenger feel better?
What to do when we mess up
According to author and psychotherapist, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, perfect attunement is not possible nor would it be helpful. We all need to learn how to handle disconnection. What does help is the ability to repair quickly when ruptures in attunement occur.
When we see our children or partners avert their gaze when they feel overstimulated, we have to accept their need to recharge and not take it personally. Chasing after them demanding they maintain eye contact, does not demonstrate attunement. It says we need attention and their needs are irrelevant. What does help is to patiently give our loved ones time and space to return to us refreshed. And when they do return, we offer openness, eye contact and prosody in our voice.
When we pull away from our significant others to work on a big project, it is up to us to use body language, warmth, eye contact and a kind tone of voice to repair the disconnection they feel. We have to recognize the rupture we created and repair as soon as possible.
I remember more than once with a heavy heart, climbing the stairs to my oldest son’s bedroom, after everyone had been put to bed, to apologize for harsh words I used earlier in the day. I was truly sorry for the disconnection and hurt I caused him. I hope those apologies did something to repair the times of misattunement.
Over the last few years, the time before and after work/school has become the best time to truly connect with my children. We sit together at our kitchen counter and chat about what’s going on in our lives. Dinner time is another great opportunity for this kind of attunement. Sometimes we all just complain. I do my best to listen and respond thoughtfully to their worries and annoyances. These are their feelings. I want them to feel seen and secure in my presence.
It is not always possible to be 100% in tune with our loved ones. What matters is that we take the opportunities we have to engage openly and really grasp others’ feelings. When we do slip up and miss our children, partner or friend’s emotional cues, we repair quickly.
How attuned are you to your closest people? Do you have any repairing to do? Do you think compliments cure misattunement?
To learn more about increasing the connection in your relationships, check out my online course: How to Strengthen Connection Within a Relationship. Hours of real guidance to help you feel closer to your loved ones. Do the classes on your own time, at your own pace. Click the link above or the image below to sign up now.