Angela Bisignano, PhD
Emotional connection, a bond that holds partners together in a relationship, is one of the most important strengths for couples to have. Without a strong emotional connection, relationships can easily drift apart.
Many couples come in for counseling because they have become emotionally disconnected. This doesn’t just happen; it’s typically a gradual process. For many couples, it may take years before they recognize that they have become emotionally disconnected.
Many reasons exist for emotional disconnection. Attachment theory sheds light on how some couples may disconnect. It teaches us that our loved one should be a source of comfort, security, and refuge. When our partner becomes emotionally disconnected or unresponsive, we can be left feeling lonely, sad, hurt, and even helpless.
When we feel emotionally disconnected, our sense of security can feel like it is in jeopardy, causing us to feel fearful. The amygdala, the almond-shaped region in our midbrain, acts as a built-in alarm system. It triggers an automatic response when a threat occurs. When we feel disconnected, alone, and afraid, it can feel threatening. The amygdala responds and a sense of panic can set in.
Every relationship encounters disagreements or conflict at times. When we have a secure emotional connection with our loved one, this temporary feeling is experienced as nonthreatening. We realize there is no actual threat or long-term concern. For those who have a weaker emotional connection, the fear can feel devastating, leaving some with a sense of panic. These feelings often occur on an unconscious level. It is not until we bring them into our awareness that things can begin to change.
Attachment injuries are generally linked to family of origin and are a result of an insecure attachment. The way we were modeled love and experienced attachment in our early years created an internal imprint. If we experienced a secure attachment with our primary caregivers, the likelihood we will have secure attachments in future relationships is strong. If we didn’t have secure attachments growing up, it is more likely this will be problematic in our adult relationships.
When life gets full of things like growing careers, rearing children, balancing home life and work, and mounting stressors, our emotional connection can become compromised. This can rattle our attachment injuries, contributing to less emotional connection and more drifting.
In a new relationship, detecting how our attachment styles will impact our relationship is not always easy. Generally, in the beginning, we are happy and in love. Life tends to be more carefree. Emotional connection is generally strong. When life gets full of things like growing careers, rearing children, balancing home life and work, and mounting stressors, our emotional connection can become compromised. This can rattle our attachment injuries, contributing to less emotional connection and more drifting.
Over time, couples can begin to drift as the escalating responsibilities of life take over. The mounting pressures and duties of life can deplete our emotional reserves, leaving less for our partner. If left unchecked, emotional disconnection can establish negative patterns that take hold. Often, these negative patterns can go on for years.
Here are three steps to get you back on the track to emotional connection:
The first step is to recognize a problem exists. Becoming aware of the signs of emotional disconnect is beneficial. Here are some common ones:
- You and your partner are not spending as much time together as you used to.
- You are not communicating like you once did.
- You are not feeling safe when talking together.
- Your needs are not being met.
- You feel lonely in your relationship.
These are just some of the telltale signs that emotional disconnect may be an issue.
2. Communicate the Issue
When you detect a problem exists, make time to have a conversation with your partner. Start by asking if it’s a good time to talk. If not, ask when a good time would be.
Let your partner know that you have recognized you are both emotionally disconnecting. Express that you would like to begin the process of reconnecting on a deeper level. See if your partner feels the same way.
3. Be Intentional About Emotionally Connecting
Make a plan for being intentional about talking about your emotions and what you are feeling. Setting a time when you both feel safe to talk about your feelings is vital. Talk honestly about the state of your relationship.
Dr. Sue Johnson, psychologist and primary developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, describes three components and questions that are helpful in the process of emotionally connecting. She uses the acronym ARE, which stands for accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement.
- Accessibility: Can I reach you? This question asks if you are open to your partner, even if you have doubts or insecurities. Are you willing to investigate your own feelings to see how they are influencing your relationship? Are you willing to tune in to your partner to see what their feelings or attachment injuries may be revealing?
- Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally? This question implores you to make room for your partner’s emotions, attachment needs, and fears. Are you willing to examine how they may be affecting you and your behavior? Are you paying attention to your partner’s needs for comfort, all the while behaving with sensitivity and compassion?
- Engagement: Do I know you value me and stay close? This question asks that you be emotionally present for your partner. Are you paying attention to their emotions, thoughts, and needs in a deep and loving way? In like regard, your partner should also be present and engaged.
Awareness, communication, and intentionality are good places to begin if your relationship is lacking the emotional connection you yearn for. If you feel you are having difficulty with any of these steps, it could be advantageous to have a psychologist or therapist guide you in the process. Sometimes couples become so emotionally disconnected and stuck in negative patterns that it is difficult to have conversations about emotions. If this feels like you, then reaching out to a professional could be a great step toward getting your relationship back on course.
In conclusion, this beautiful quote by Thomas Merton conveys the richness found in a good relationship: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.” One of the most precious relationships we have is with our partner. When that relationship is healthy and thriving, it is like a treasure, comparable to none.
Johnson, S., & Sanderfer, K. (2016). Created for connection. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
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Originally published at www.goodtherapy.org