How to Stay Emotionally Connected in a Relationship

Clear communication is key in any relationship, but it’s hard to know what you actually need to communicate. As the years go by, expectations change, patience wavers, and we use fewer words to convey our needs and feelings. But our longest relationships need more thorough communication to survive.

Think about a parent and a child. I love my mother, but I expect more from our relationship than my acquaintances. I have little patience when she misunderstands me repetitively and I don’t always tell her what I need in clear language. When I perceive her as unhelpful or negative, I can feel like exploding!

Now think about a romantic partner. We choose our partners for the connection we share and times when we feel they understand us. Partners can know us better than some of our blood relatives. So what happens when we get into an argument with our partner?

Typically, all we really want is to know we’re connected to our partners, for them to say, “Yes, I’m still here for you. I still love you.” We want a hug, a kiss, a sign they’ll show up when we need them the most. But we’ve learned not to ask for those things because it makes us feel vulnerable. But if this is the person you love, someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, then they’re the perfect person to share your vulnerability with.

Phrasing and emphasis are also important to ensuring clear communication. Often we focus on demands and the negative aspects of disagreements in order to keep our vulnerabilities from showing. Instead of saying “You need to come home on time so we can eat dinner together. Why are you so careless?” try “I miss eating dinner and sharing my day with you. At times I’m hurt when you stay at work too long because it feels like you’re choosing work over me and our time together.” Finding and expressing the underlying emotional conflict can help partners understand how much they value their relationship and gives them a path toward reconciling disagreements through reestablishing connections and continued emotional investment in each other.

The next time you have a disagreement with your partner or just feel disconnected from them, ask yourself these questions:

What just happened?

Did your partner not text you goodnight? Did you argue over dinner plans? Is this a repeating argument? If so, you may have an unmet need (words of affirmation, quality time, etc.). This is an opportunity to explore your relationship expectations and how your relationship fits those expectations. Remember, sometimes our expectations are reasonable, and at other times they are not.

How am I feeling inside?

Anger and frustration can be secondary emotions (a reaction you have to another emotion). A primary emotion may be driving that anger and frustration. If you have trouble finding the right words, think about which emoji you would use if you wanted to text your best friend about your feelings. (Still having difficulty describing your emotion? Click [here] for an extensive list). Naming our emotions can help us understand what we might need from our partners.

How can I express this to my partner without using blaming or criticizing language?

This is an opportunity to share vulnerability accurately with your partner. Remember, it’s not about placing blame on them or yourself. Reconnecting and finding a solution together is the essence of reconciliation, and it takes clear and calm communication to succeed.

Additional Resources:

We’re constantly growing and changing as people, both physically and emotionally. Relationships are the same, and sometimes we need to find or create opportunities to reacquaint ourselves with lost or loose connections. For help, try exploring the questions in the Gottman Institute’s Love map.

A shared vocabulary and understanding of supplemental information can be a map for finding common ground. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a great start for ways to express and reciprocate needs and wants in any relationship.

Most fights are a protest over emotional disconnection. In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson shows how attachment styles play out in relationships as “demon dialogues,” as well as tips for being more accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner.

What’s love got to do with it? Arguments for the use of “love drugs” miss the point

“Oh what’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second hand emotion.”
Tina Turner, singer


That spark gone between you and your partner? No need for couples therapy. Struggling to find love? Forget Science hopes to bring you a new solution to all your love woes… “Love Drugs.” Could it be possible that we could just take a pill that would make us fall “in love” or fall “out of love” with someone? Maybe. To me that question misses the whole point.

This topic came to my attention a few weeks ago as I was listening to a radio program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The host was interviewing Brian Earp, MSc., an ethicist from Oxford who is writing a book on the “neuroenhancement” of love and marriage. In the interview, which you can listen to here, Earp cites research into the use of synthetic versions of various neurochemicals including oxytocin and dopamine which are purported to increase feelings of “love” and bonding in both human and non-human animals. The crux of Earp’s argument for the use of such drugs is essentially that we humans are not “naturally” monogamous animals and thus these drugs can help couples work against that “nature” in order to maintain monogamous relationships.

Earp’s colleagues at Oxford, Savulescu & Sandberg have written an interesting article in the journal Neuroethics in which they review what they think are the arguments for and against the use of such drugs.  While they ultimately come down on the side of supporting the use of such “love”-enhancing drugs, some of the arguments they cite against the use of such drugs include concerns about addiction and adaptation, the risk that they could be used in a non-consensual or coercive manner, and questions about whether or not the feelings produced by them could be considered “authentic.”

To me, these aren’t the most important questions. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to set aside the whole issue of whether or not we as a society should only value one form of relationships–monogamy. That’s for another post at another time. An even more basic question can be summed up by the wise philosopher known as Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Earp and his colleagues’ whole argument is based on the idea that “love” is a feeling. Furthermore, from their point of view, it’s the feeling of “love” that determines our behavior. However, contextual behavioral scientists (CBS) (a group which would include ACT therapists) suggest that it might be more useful to view “love” as a verb, as a series of behaviors in which we are free to engage at any point, without needing a particular feeling first. Coming from a CBS framework, since feelings are largely out of our control, assuming that a particular feeling must be present in order to engage in a valued behavior is simply an unworkable assumption.

If you’ve lost me in the science speak, hang in there with me. Here is the point… As both a scientist and a human, I truly don’t care if my partner feels like he loves me, especially since I would contend that his feelings are simply the result of various neurochemicals in his brain and thus he isn’t freely choosing to have or not have them. Rather I care that he IS loving to me. Love as a verb, not a feeling. And if I say I “love” my niece and nephew, what I mean is that I choose to be loving towards them, to treat them with kindness, protection, and patience, even when they are being difficult or mean and I don’t really FEEL loving towards them. Love often occurs during those times when we don’t necessarily feel loving, when we don’t feel an emotion that Earp and his colleagues would call “love”.

This is an age-old problem in the field of psychology. We are told that we need to work on feeling a particular way in order to behave in a particular way. You can see examples of this message all over our society. You need to feel good about yourself and then you’ll treat yourself well.  You need to feel less depressed or less anxious and then you can engage with life in a way that would be meaningful and vital for you. You need to feel “love” in order to be in a loving, committed relationship. I maintain that these are unworkable assumptions. Instead of having changeable feelings in the driver’s seat, I’m interested in helping people to live and love well and take the feelings along for the ride.

For me, rather than arguing whether the use of “love drugs” is ethical, I would say that it’s simply part of an unworkable assumption. I would rather help people explore whether, if they were completely free to choose (not based on what society says and not based on the particular feelings or urges they happen to have at this moment), would they choose to maintain a committed relationship? If this is a value that they would choose, then I want to work towards helping them live that value, regardless of passing feelings, feelings produced by synthetic chemicals or otherwise.

What’s good for your garden may also be good for your relationship

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” .

― Bill Mollison, Founder and director of the Permaculture Institute

The other day when I was out for my morning walk I saw the season’s first crocuses peaking their bright yellow heads out from the still muddy, cold ground. And so, spring is on my mind, even if it’s not exactly in the air yet. And in our household spring means tending to our garden that will nourish us well into the fall.

When planning our garden, we had to take one very important factor into account: We are both pretty lazy gardeners. We would much rather spend time at the table relishing in wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables that come from our garden than we would toiling away pulling weeds and watering. Fortunately, we took this into consideration as we planned our garden and we designed much of our garden around the principles of permaculture.

In permaculture, the idea is to design self-maintained and sustainable ecosystems which are modeled from the natural environment. In other words, keep it simple, tend to the basics, and follow the path that mother nature has charted for us.

And it turns out that works well in the garden, may also serve us well in our relationships.  I recently came across an article by Kim Millar, a relationship coach in the UK and an avid permaculturist, entitled “Do you mulch your relationships?” In it, she talks about how various permalture principles such as designing for cooperation rather than competition, and using the least effort to create the biggest effect, may be just as effective in producing abundant, sustainable relationships as they are at producing abundant, sustainable gardens.

One of the core ideas in permaculture is to start with identifying a long-term vision for what you eventually want your garden (or in this case your relationship) to yield. That vision then guides how you design the environment so that it will naturally nurture what you are wanting to produce.  Permaculturists are in it for the long haul. This is not the kind of gardening where you choose some pretty already-in-bloom annuals from Home Depot and watch them die in a few short months only to have to start all over again the next season. Creating a vision means being intentional about what you ultimately want to work towards; in ACT we would call that your “values”.

As you read this post, you might take a moment to consider the following questions: How sustainable are your relationships? Do you find you’re putting in more time “working on them” than you are relishing in their bounties? If so, you may want to take a few pages from the permaculture playbook. Yes, relationships take work. You do need to tend to them in order for them to thrive. However, when relationships are built on a solid foundation, when we are intentional about their design, and when they are regularly nourished and nurtured, they can be sustainable and can nourish us for years to come.

Gratitude – It does a relationship good!

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy;

they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ― Marcel Proust

“She never appreciates all the things I do”. “He just seems to take me for granted”. Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be alone if these sentiments ring true for you. One of the most common complaints I hear from clients about their relationships is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Relationship auto-pilot

It’s difficult right? We get into a routine and go into auto-pilot. And auto-pilot works very well to get all the competing demands of life met. Imagine if the Captain and Co-Pilot of an airplane had to discuss who is going to do every single task, every single time they flew? That probably wouldn’t work out so great.

But what can happen in our relationships when everything is running on auto-pilot is that we forget to stop and notice that there is a co-pilot on our journey with us. Often then only time we notice is when there is a glitch in the system and someone drops the ball. Many of us are much quicker to point out when our partner has failed in some expectation we have of them, than we are to stop and express appreciation for those ways that our partners contribute to our daily life.

Gratitude—good for them and good for you

And yet, according to a group of researchers from Florida State University, expressing appreciation, even for everyday things, can have a pretty big impact on your relationship. They conducted a series of studies investigating the link between expressions of gratitude and positive feelings (specifically “communal strength”) evidenced in couples. Not surprisingly, they found that individuals who felt more positively about their relationship expressed more gratitude towards their partners. That seems like a no-brainer—it’s pretty easy to tell our partners how much we appreciate them when we are feeling all lovey-dovey towards them. However, what was more interesting was that they also found that when partners expressed gratitude, that increased positive feelings about the relationship for the person who was expressing the gratitude. In other words, when we express gratitude it ends up making us feel more positively about our relationships. So it may be that when you’re feeling down on your relationship or frustrated with your partner, that may be the best time to express appreciation.  

And all this might also be relevant if you’re spending the coming holiday season with family. The positive impacts of expressing gratitude seem to extend beyond just partners/spouses. When we express gratitude for friends and family, that also results in us feeling more positively about those relationships. So, if you’re planning on making the big trip out to visit a family that can be “challenging” at times (not that I’m saying that ever happens to you of course!), maybe consider intentionally expressing appreciation to irritating Aunt Edna or grumpy Brother Bill. You may end up feeling more positively about those relationships as a result.

And in the midst of it all, see if you can disengage the autopilot for a bit and take some time to appreciate that cherished co-pilot you have there by your side. They will likely appreciate it and, if the researchers at Florida State are right, it may also do your heart some good. 

Things to Know Before You Say “Go”

In a previous post, I wrote a bit about the growing exploration among researchers in the use of psychotherapy-related smartphone apps for anxiety. In more local news, a Portland psychologist Elsbeth Martindale, PsyD, has developed her own smartphone app. The app is based on a collection of cards she developed called Things to Known before You SayGo.”

I had coffee with Dr. Martindale several months ago, and she talked about how the cards came out a conversation she was having with young woman about becoming involved with a man. Dr. Martindale had a moment of inspiration: she said she realized this woman had very little understanding of how to evaluate whether this guy could be a reasonable match for her or whether he was a person she should stay far, far away from! This woman simply didn’t know what to look for, and no one in her life had helped her learn how to make this kind of decision. Following this realization, Dr. Martindale began writing down questions she thought this person should consider. Her assortment of cards evolved from there.

The cards include items such as, “Is this person able and willing to listen to my feelings and desires?” (For a sample of items, click here.) They are handsomely packaged, and Dr. Martindale states they have been useful for her clients. Dr. Martindale has since developed an iPhone app version of the cards. It’s fair to note that there hasn’t been any research done on these cards, but people have had positive experiences with them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I find the potential in technology very exciting, and it’s fun to see enterprising professionals experiment with different forms of media.

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