The Only Connection Skill You Are Likely to Need
Dear Neil: Can you help me repair my relationship? The lady in my life and I have lost the ability to be close with each other. Here’s how a typical conversation between us goes: Me: “How was your day?” Her: “I’m annoyed. I feel like I’m a verbal punching bag at work. I’m in a bad mood.” Me: “Well you’re not at work now. Let’s do something fun.” Her: “You do it. I don’t want to do anything tonight.”
I know she is disturbed by things not going well at work, but she won’t let me bring her out of her funk, and she’s almost always in a miserable frame of mind, so it’s very unpleasant to be around her for any length of time. Any suggestions as to what I can do?
Feeling Disconnected in Denver
Dear Feeling Disconnected: Perhaps the only real connection skill is to be able to “step inside the puddle” with someone else. “Stepping into the puddle” refers to conscious emotional attunement to another person, meaning you have to temporarily stop being so concerned about your own feelings, needs and desires, and instead tune into how your mate is feeling, and what it’s like emotionally to feel the feelings she’s going through.
This asks of you to temporarily let go of your critical judgments and emotions in order to be emotionally available to your intimate partner. Stepping into the puddle with someone else is about temporarily joining them with your presence, your response, your touch and your heartfelt participation: “I’m sorry to hear that.” “That must feel terrible.” “That sounds exciting.” “I’m so proud of you.” “You give so much, no wonder you’re exhausted.” “I can only imagine how I would have handled that.” “Did that make you anxious?”
Joining someone with your presence and your participation is not a bottomless pit of despair. It’s a puddle, not an ocean you’re stepping into, and it’s designed to help the two of you connect and feel close with each other. Your willingness to step into that puddle with her will also help her to feel safe around you, as if you are one of her close natural allies and friends. Granted, you have to be able to look past your resentments, your disappointments, your grievances and your urge to withdraw. But when you allow yourself to feel what she is feeling, you’ll likely find that your willingness to join in her emotions will not drag you down, but rather assist the two of you in walking out of the puddle together.
This idea comes from Patricia Love and Steven Stosny in their book How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (Broadway Books). This process is greatly aided by affectionate touch and direct eye to eye contact whenever possible: hugs, holding her hand, putting your arm around her and neck massages, to name a few.
Here’s how it might work if you were to step into the puddle with your lady:
You: “How was your day?”
Her: “I’m annoyed. I feel like I’m a verbal punching bag at work. I’m in a bad mood.”
You: “Would you like to talk about what happened at work today?”
Her: “I don’t feel respected at all. After three years I’m still treated as if I’m a beginner that needs to be told what to do. I feel insulted all day. It’s humiliating.”
You: “I’m so sorry, honey. That must really be painful to go through. I can’t imagine how that must feel. I’m sure that would offend me, also.”
Her: “Yeah, it put me in a bad mood.”
You: “No wonder you feel awful. What would ease your pain and help you to feel better?”
Her: “Would you give me a back rub?”
You: “I’d be happy to do that.”