By Peter Craig, MA
It seems as though we are witnessing a crisis of dis-connection. We have more relationships in this global digital age, but are they more meaningful? We may have many friends on Facebook, but perhaps barely feel like we can call anyone on a daily basis to share our struggle. This has led us to put even more pressure on our partner to satisfy all of our needs, possibly straining this most valuable relationship. Here are eight steps you can apply now to feel closer to your partner than ever and make it last.
- “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” – Bessel Van der Kolk, Pioneering Psychiatrist¹
Being able to feel safe with your partner is so important, yet we don’t hear people talk about it much. It’s usually “communication is the key,” but if you don’t feel safe, you probably won’t feel connected; consequently, you likely won’t be able to communicate as effectively. Connection always trumps communication. The good news? Skills of connection can be learned and practiced! Remember: safety fosters connection.
- Feelings of safety and trust come from a basic sense that you have your partner’s back and they have yours.
Do you feel like you’re the go-to person to help soothe your partner, lift them up, laugh, and work things out together? Share your stories of the day? If you don’t think that’s the case, perhaps you tend to withhold love or do subtle things to sabotage genuine connection. Did you know there are things rooted in neuroscience you can do with your partner to make them feel safe?
Look your partner in the eye and speak from your heart. Say something about how much your partner means to you, or how much you value them. This may seem rote or forced, but practicing it earnestly can result in profound changes for both of you. Our neuronal and psychological security systems look for direct, obvious signs of commitment, loyalty and support. We’re often too in our heads to fully convey the message to the nervous system, unless we follow the next step.
- Be in close proximity (ideally stomach-to-stomach or eye-to-eye), use touch, speak in a gentler tone of voice, and gaze into each other’s eyes for as long as possible.
All these things foster connection, which increases your ability to communicate and decreases the likelihood of wires getting crossed. Did you know that you have more neurons in your gut than your spinal cord? Being gut-to-gut with your partner communicates on a physiological level that they are there for you and you are there for them. Additionally, this intimate connection encourages you to be fully present with each other. So now that you’re hugging your partner and relaxing your whole body into their embrace, what’s next?
- Take responsibility to do your best to make your partner feel better.
In this age of hyper-individualism where we’re competing against everyone, can you take responsibility to take care of your partner? To always have their back? Acknowledging our interdependence requires maturity. We are born into the world completely dependent and may die dependent, but relying on others has been seen as weak in this culture of toxic masculinity.
To embrace our vulnerability, I invite everyone out there to be open to exploring and expressing emotions with your partner. Often, we get stuck inside our own heads and lose touch with our bodies and emotions, making it harder to connect in a more meaningful way. Brene Brown’s work shows that when we take risks to share ourselves vulnerably, we increase our likelihood of getting the connection we long for, even though we may not always get the response we want.3
- Accept your partner’s ‘bids for affection’ as much as possible and offer them ‘bids of affection’ in return.
If you were to tell your partner about a song you love on the radio, and they just continued scrolling on their phone, would you be upset? You could call their lack of response ‘turning away from the bid for affection.’ If they said, “that song sucks,” well yikes, that would certainly be turning against your bid. Research on couples show that you ideally turn towards your partner 5 times for every time that you turn away or against.4 That way your ‘supportive love bank’ stays positive even when you have conflicts, which are inevitable. Each bid gives your partner the opportunity to respond in a way that says I’m listening, I care, and I’m interested in understanding you. Each bid you give offers an opportunity for your partner to respond similarly. Look for these bids and respond with interest whenever you can.
- The most important thing that we have is our attention. Give your partner the presence that they deserve.
With all the complexities of modern living and electronic screens, can you be present with someone for more than 30 seconds? Can you care enough AND have the resources to respond in a spontaneous way to what’s in front of you? The more attention you access, the more you will be able to know when to move closer and when to give them space. When to ask them for something, when to not. Present attention gives us more information about what’s happening in real time. Otherwise, as animals, our brains automate who we think our partners are (and everything else).
Our brains automate our reality because it takes so much more energy to use our higher centers of reasoning (prefrontal cortex), so we make assumptions about it. We guess, and often we miss. Being present–being able to notice nonverbal and verbal cues moment by moment–opens the doors to greater connection. This authenticity opens us more fully to the good in our relationship as well as the inevitable challenges.
- It’s important to make up after a fight as soon as possible. The longer unresolved issues go, the more a lack of safety gets imprinted into long term memory.5
That being said, if you’re in a conflict and one of you becomes so overwhelmed that you can’t continue communicating reasonably, neuroscience research shows that it’s important to take a minimum of 20 minutes time to let the nervous system cool down. Oftentimes, one partner will want space – which the other partner may resent and perceive as abandonment – but with greater understanding of a time out practice, you will be able to navigate those dynamics more effectively to both not take the need for space personally AND repair the disconnection quickly. Now that we’re repairing disconnections, deepening our presence and attention to one another, and making bids for affection (and kindly receiving them!), it’s time for the last step.
- Get clear on shared values, goals, dreams, and lifestyle preferences together.
Not only are shared values one of the 6 principles of sexual health (the others being consent, non-exploitation, prevention of unintended pregnancy/STIs, honesty, and mutual pleasure6), they are essential to a long-term relationship. Why? Every day you need to reaffirm your connection (even through the seemingly mundane); if you don’t feel like you’re sharing the same direction, it’s easy to drift apart and silently let resentment and anger cultivate.
Take the time to be intentional about what you want to bring into your life – more specifically, what your partner can do to soothe, support, and challenge you in ways that help you grow to be the amazing person that your partner already knows you are! This can be as simple as a 10-minute conversation about the future every few months or could include writing down dreams and goals together through creative collaboration. This also includes having the difficult conversations about money, kids, sex, etc. (but now from a place of deeper connection, right? *Gazing into eyes*).
In the end, we all know relationships take effort. People can be annoying. Life can be better when we pair up, and even if it’s just a little bit better, isn’t that worth it? Consider pro-actively working on your relationship by being more deliberate about how you spend time together. Put a nice dinner date or outdoor adventure on the calendar.
Seeing a therapist trained in the latest neuroscience research can help you practice building a deeper connection with your loved ones (some techniques are mentioned in this article), and help you to overcome old patterns that no longer serve you. It takes courage, practice, and coaching to make positive changes and momentum towards a more fulfilling life.
– Article by Peter Craig, MA
Peter is a therapist in Austin, TX who is on a mission to awaken our deep need for connection by integrating the latest in science with age-old insights. You can find him at Austin Professional Counseling™ as a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern working with John Howard and supervised by Sunny Lansdale, PhD, LPC-S. Peter specializes in helping you deepen authenticity, connection, and relationships, with training in trauma healing, couples counseling, and mindfulness practices.
To schedule with Peter, click here to book your first session.
1 Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
2 Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love
3 Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
4 John Gottman, The Relationship Cure
5 Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love