“We are never so vulnerable as when we love.” — Sigmund Freud
There is something missing. You’re not quite sure what it is but you can tell that it’s not there. Perhaps you noticed after struggling through Valentine’s Day celebrations that it’s never really been there. Or maybe you once had it with your partner, but now it feels off somewhere far away…. in a time when you had more energy, more desire, more sex, more time together. Not having it is painful at times and uncomfortable at best. You’re in a serious relationship, yet you feel lonely and begin to question: “Do I feel connected? How did we get to this point? Will it ever happen? Do I even want it?”
We’ve all been here. It is normal to experience moments of closeness and moments of distance with your partner. However, it can feel different when those moments of disconnection turn into weeks, months, or even years. In a busy world where there aren’t enough hours in a day, how do successful couples stay connected? The answer is simple, the practice can be terrifying.
Humans, being mammals, share similar attributes to other social animals who live in community, rely upon one another for survival, and require a sense of cohesion among their herd. With a mammalian brain, you are neurobiologically hard-wired for connection; meaning that your psychological and physiological well-being are dependent upon your level of connection with those around you. When that bond with your partner is threatened by an argument or by perceived distance, your social body releases stress hormones and sends an internal alarm to warn you against potential danger.
Your threat response system kicks into high gear and tries to keep you emotionally safe. When the risk increases and fear gets activated, your mammalian brain screams “fight, flight, or freeze!” Some of us go into attack mode, some of us “head for the hills”, and some of us shut right down. We blame, pull back, or stay silent. These responses turn into regular patterns of relating with our partner where we use the behaviour that keeps us most safe. Instead of telling our partner that what they did just scared the hell out of us, we move away from fear and protect ourselves. We seek safety and ditch connection.
Dr. Brene Brown describes connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”. Connection requires excruciating vulnerability. When we let ourselves be seen by our partner and they understand us, we are changed. Our bond deepens and our alarm bells begin to shift. The reality is that we cannot adequately derive sustenance or strength from our relationship if we don’t emotionally show up.
In a world that expects us to look flawless, “man up”, and have an impressive career while being the perfect parent, showing up takes a whole lot of courage. We are literally reinforced not to be authentic; to play the role and pretend to be happy about it. It takes energy to rely solely upon ourselves and stay behind the wall. Our time and resources will run out. We need a place to turn to when we feel stressed, when things are falling apart, where we can give and receive without judgment. Dr. Sue Johnson, the author of the book “Hold Me Tight” and founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, suggests that the “most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them”. Rather than turning towards “fight, flight, or freeze”, we can reach for our partner and share; we can ask for what we need.
By this point in your relationship, I’m sure you’ve realized that there are several blocks which prevent us from going to that place. It is easier to get angry and yell at our partner for forgetting about that romantic date than it is to share the sadness you experience when they don’t make you feel like a priority. It is easier to avoid conflict by leaving the room, keeping your partner calm, and pretending like what they just said didn’t make you feel worthless or overwhelmed. These are all walls that keep you isolated; perhaps even lonely.
If vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, then we have to stop “walling up”. In my office, couples often question: “What if I show up and they don’t like it.. Or can’t handle it?”. This fear is completely normal. Showing up can feel dangerous and goes against our mammalian response to fear. Yet research suggests connection is built when we take emotional risks, when we own our failures, when we reach to initiate sex, when we attune to our partner’s needs, when we show weakness, and when we love with no guarantee. You can’t be walled and fully connected; you have to choose one.
Sometimes choosing the wall is the safest option when our situation feels abusive or complicated by the past. Many of us need support from a professional therapist to begin the construction process of demolishing the wall. For some, leaning into uncomfortable emotions like fear, sadness or past hurt with your partner may begin to dramatically shift your sense of connection. Learning a new language with your partner takes time and it’s important that you feel supported by someone throughout that journey.
What if that thing you are missing could come back? Or be discovered for the first time? The greatest gift we can receive is to feel understood; to feel known and be fully accepted. Imagine the connection between people who feel seen, heard, and valued. What if we could turn towards our partner, instead of away…
-Written by Caleb Gunning, MA, Counsellor