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Emotional Engagement: Are You Missing It?

A couple who's good at emotional engagement, hugging and smiling at each other in the woods.

When we first start dating someone we really like, we’ll do anything to keep them close to us. We even reveal vulnerable parts of our inner selves. This kind of emotional engagement along with the prolonged eye gazing and gentle caresses of new relationships, make us feel special and safe. This attachment creates intimacy, but it also comes with its own challenges.

How long-term relationships can bring out our fears:
After a while,  a relationship progresses and settles into a more permanent status where our brains are less flooded with love chemicals. We’ve spent enough time together to have hurt each other a few times. We remember those times well. And because of that it starts to seem both unnecessary and risky to engage in emotional exchanges.

We know what topics of discussion push our partner’s buttons. To maintain our connection, we avoid potentially explosive topics and swallow our emotionally tinged words.

We may worry that our true feelings make us less attractive. We may fear our partner using our weaknesses against us. If we express a fear or even enthusiasm, there is a chance the person we count on most for support, laughs at us, disagrees, or worse, abandons us.

The relationship may become task focused or child focused or fun focused. These foci, although all important and valid, can keep our interactions on a superficial level—one without enriching and bonding emotions.

When feeling emotionally disconnected we say things like…
He’s always busy. He’s either on the computer or on his phone 
We are more roommates than lovers
I’m just trying to get a response from her, any response.
I feel alone most of the time. 

How to get back to a real connection:
When we feel disconnected from our loved ones we may protest by complaining or lashing out. Our primitive brain, trying to protect us, has us react quickly and often harshly. Below are several ways to get back to emotional security without causing more hurt:

– Create safety in the relationship by increasing your level of responsiveness. Increase eye contact and turn toward your partner when they address you. Answer texts. Listen to understand.

– Remember your partner wants emotional confirmation (I see you and how you’re feeling) and caring, not advice or problem solving.

– Get to know your partner’s “raw spots” as Dr. Sue Johnson calls them in her book Hold Me Tight. These are areas where your loved one has been hurt or neglected in previous relationships (including familial relationships). The raw spots cause quick self-preservation reactions in all of us. They are best soothed with empathy and understanding.

– If you find it hard to be emotionally attentive, think about how you act with a child when they’re scared or hurt or even when they’re happy. Respond the same way to your partner.

Often, we mask our need for emotional closeness to avoid being hurt. In conflict, we blame other things like money issues, not enough sex, or a lack of organization, but when it comes down to it, most things are a mask for our feelings of disconnection.

If we allow emotions to surface and work to understand how our feelings affect our partner and vice versa, we have a shot at closeness.

Brenda Knowles is the creator of, the website where sensitive people go to build emotional and relationship resilience. She is also the author of “The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World“.

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