what is emotional attunement in a relationship?

6 Tips for Practicing Emotional Attunement in Relationships

Emotional attunement is the state of recognizing, understanding and engaging with someone’s emotional state. Emotional attunement is an important part of all relationships, but is especially important in romantic partnerships. Many psychologists explain emotional attunement using analogies about infants and caregivers. Infants experience emotions such as hunger, sleepiness and discomfort, but are unable to express these needs because they do not have the language to do so. Caregivers must be emotionally attuned to their infants so that they can recognize what the baby needs and address the needs. People often say that mothers and fathers can distinguish between an “I’m hungry” cry and an “I’m tired” cry. This ability, and working to address the need of the infant whether its hunger or sleepiness, is emotional attunement

Though the infant/caregiver analogy is often used to describe emotional attunement, emotional attunement is extremely important in relationships between adults. Emotional attunement is about more than just empathy. While empathy, or the ability to understand and share a person’s feelings, is important, it is also important to take action and engage with a person’s emotional state. This is where emotional attunement comes into play, especially in romantic relationships.

In addition to empathizing with your partner, you need to act to help them deal with their emotions. Unlike the infant/caretaker dynamic, you do not need to make all of their needs go away - but you do need to approach things that are causing them to feel a certain way as a team.

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If you and your partner are emotionally attuned, you will be able to recognize each other’s emotions (both positive and negative) and work on ways to address these emotions as a team. If you and your partner are not emotionally attuned, you may misinterpret their emotions, which can lead to poor communication and conflict. Emotional attunement not only helps you understand your partner and avoid conflicts, it also helps you grow your relationship and your connection to one another. As noted, emotional attunement involves working towards addressing your emotions as a team. If you and your partner are able to approach negative emotions as a team, you will build trust and respect in your relationship which can improve your emotional connection.

Because emotional attunement is often established (or not established) in infancy, it can be hard to emotionally attune to your partner right off the bat - especially if you or your partner have developed an attachment disorder because of a lack of emotional attunement from a caregiver. That said, even in cases of attachment disorders in romantic partners, it is possible to practice emotional attunement in your relationship if you and your partner are willing to focus on empathy, communication and listening. It may not come naturally at first, but over time you can develop emotional attunement in your platonic and romantic relationships. Practicing emotional attunement is often easiest and the most important in romantic relationships where you are the main support system for a partner.

Here are a few tips on practicing attunement in a romantic relationship:

Listen before you speak

Have you ever caught yourself tuning out of a conversation because you are so focused on what YOU are going to say next? Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us are probably guilty of this. And at the same time, most of us have probably recognized when a person is not fully engaged in a conversation, so we know how hurtful this behavior can be. When you are working to practice emotional attunement with a partner, it’s important that you really listen to what they are saying before you try and speak. While this might seem like an obvious tip, it is often easier said than done if you are not in the practice of active listening!

Instead of thinking about a conversation as a way to voice your opinions, think about how you can act as a sounding board to a partner who wants to express something to you. Really focus on what your partner is trying to say, rather than what your response is going to be. When it comes time for you to respond, you can pause the conversation to really think about your answer. Listening to your partner in this way will help you understand what they are feeling and where they are coming from. Offering them your undivided attention will also encourage them to explore how they are feeling and open up to you more, which is an important part of emotional attunement.

Ask questions to understand

When you are listening to your partner, ask questions if you don’t understand what they are saying or where they are coming from. A huge part of active listening is engaging with your partner when they are sharing with you, which means asking questions to make sure that things are clear. If your partner is not sharing how they are feeling, it is also important to ask them questions to try and coax their emotions out of them. You are not a mind reader and it’s important that your partner understands that. If you are confused by their actions or can’t figure out what headspace they are in, ask them!

A huge part of emotional attunement is noticing when something is off with your partner and trying to understand what they are feeling. Asking questions to understand will not only help you understand your partner better, but it will make your partner feel seen. This will also encourage them to open up to you more, which can improve your emotional attunement even more.

Notice your partner's nonverbal cues

While emotional attunement has a lot to do with verbal communication, it is also very related to nonverbal cues. Like we mentioned before, sometimes your partner may not verbally communicate to you when they are feeling a certain way, but they may communicate it to you in a nonverbal way. It is important to be in tune with your partner’s nonverbal cues so that you can pick up when sometime is up, even if they don’t say anything to you.

Nonverbal cues are different for different people, but paying attention to posture, facial expressions, and energy levels can help you discern what your partner is feeling even if they don’t tell you verbally. Once you figure out that something is off, make sure to ask questions so that you understand what they are feeling. You can glean a lot from nonverbal cues, but you can’t totally understand where your partner is coming from if they don’t explain to you how they are feeling.

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Use validating statements

While your partner is explaining their feelings to you, it is super important to use validating statements so that they feel seen and heard. In addition to active listening, you need to encourage your partner! Sometimes listening to them is not enough. Often people share things when they are looking for verbal affirmations. Even if your partner isn’t intentionally looking to you for validation, it never hurts to offer words of encouragement. Even if you don’t think your partner is handling something in the right way, or even if you disagree with them, it is important to use validating statements and talk through the things you disagree with later.

Validating statements don’t have to validate how they are acting or behaving, especially if you don’t agree with it. Validating statements can be as simple as “I hear you, thank you for sharing that” or “I appreciate hearing your point of view”. Honesty is an extremely important part of emotional attunement, so don’t just tell your partner things that they want to hear!

Identify your triggers

When you are practicing emotional attunement in a relationship, it’s just as important to be in touch with your own feelings as it is to be in tune with your partner’s feelings. This means that you need to identify things that act as triggers for you. Triggers are a form of stimulus that set off our emotions. Triggers can be related to smell, sight, sound or touch that cause you to recall trauma and experience a trauma response. The clinical definition of trauma is normally used to describe the phenomenon in people who have post traumatic stress disorder, but recently, the term ‘trigger’ has been broadened to encompass these same feelings more generally. It is important to understand what your triggers are so that you can articulate these things to your partner.

Like we mentioned before, a huge part of emotional attunement is related to communication. Being able to identify your triggers and communicate them to a partner will help them understand you more, and it will allow them to help you find strategies to cope with these triggers or avoid them all together if need be. While you are focused on identifying your triggers, encourage your partner to do the same! In order to achieve emotional attunement as a couple, both you and your partner need to be as in tune with your own emotions as possible. Once you are in tune with your emotions, you can share them with a partner, empathize and work towards addressing them as a team.

Feel and own your feelings

Whether you understand your emotions or not, you may have a tendency to try and suppress these emotions or judge yourself for feeling a certain way. A huge part of emotional attunement is not just recognizing your feelings, but also giving yourself permission to have feelings even if they are not desirable. We cannot always control how we feel (remember what we just mentioned about triggers). We can, however, decide how we act when we have certain feelings (ie. choosing not to scream at someone when we are mad, taking time out if we’re feeling overwhelmed), but we cannot control our emotional response to things. And we should not try to! When you are feeling an emotion, whether it’s positive or negative, it’s important to take the space you need to really feel your feelings.

Sometimes this means withdrawing from social obligations for a while so that you can regroup. Other times it means journaling, practicing meditation, going on a run or exercising. Other times it can mean going to therapy to work through your emotions with a trained professional.

A huge tip for practicing emotional attunement is understanding that just because you are able to identify your emotions and explain them to a partner, does not mean that you can avoid having certain emotions. As challenging as it can be, it’s important to give in to the emotions that you are feeling so that you can work through them and get over them.

Emotional attunement in a partnership often means working through these difficult emotions with your partner at your side! Just as you are feeling and owning your emotions, it’s important to encourage your partner to do the same. Even if you are not able to own your emotions right away, it is important to give yourself space (and give your partner space) when you need time to process and feel your emotions. Feeling and owning your emotions will set you up to overcome challenging emotions with the help of your partner and become emotionally attuned as a couple.

While we have talked a lot about negative emotions, it’s also important to recognize that emotional attunement is also about identifying, mirroring and celebrating positive emotions. This means recognizing when your partner is having a good day and celebrating it. It means gassing your partner up when they have accomplished something and celebrating them when they are looking for approval. Emotional attunement in your romantic relationship is about seeing and supporting your partner through all of their emotions, whether they are good or bad! Being a rock through bad times will make you feel closer during the good times, in the same way that lifting each other higher during the good times will help you weather the bad times. Emotional attunement will improve every aspect of your relationship!

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