“It’s kind of unreal, honestly. They pay such close attention, they can always predict how I’m going to feel about something and then react accordingly. They’re just so considerate of my needs. I trust them more than I’ve ever trusted anyone.”
My therapist smiled — an actual twinkle appeared in her eye. “What you’re describing is called emotional attunement. It’s kind of necessary for a successful relationship.”
She had just asked me how things were going in my relationship with my partner Amber, and I couldn’t say enough good things about it. It’s not that Amber and I never disagree about anything or are perfectly aligned in our vision of the world — it’s that they make me feel more seen and heard than I ever have in my life. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so deeply seen. Amber says the same about me. We are emotionally attuned to each other.
What Is Emotional Attunement?
Emotional attunement is being able to sense a person’s emotional state and respond accordingly — and it’s not just for romantic relationships. With caregivers and babies, the caregiver’s ability to identify and respond to the baby’s emotional state is what creates a secure attachment. In friendships, being aware of one another’s needs and going out of your way to support one another is what creates strong friendship bonds. Therapists use emotional attunement to connect with and better assist their clients.
In romantic relationships, strong emotional attunement strengthens feelings of trust, security, and intimacy. Being emotionally attuned with your partner makes you feel more closely connected to them and enables you to support them in the way that is best for their specific needs.
But emotional attunement is about more than just feeling seen and heard. It’s an active force in a relationship, an ongoing awareness of one another’s energy and rhythms that allows two people to be able to sense one another’s feelings and needs and adjust their behavior accordingly. Not in a sixth sense kind of way, although it may seem like that at times — it’s about being consistently observant, connected, and present.
Emotional Attunement Takes Practice
Emotional attunement comes more naturally to some than to others. Amber’s emotional attunement is universal — they are hyper aware of everyone’s feelings, all the time, no matter whom they’re with. They pick up on energy and subtle emotional cues that most people miss, even in a crowded space. Amber attributes this to having grown up in an abusive household in which their physical safety often depended on being able to “read” the people in their environment, and to being queer and closeted for so many years in their youth, again because their physical safety at times depended on being extremely aware of the energy and intentions of those around them. For Amber, remaining safe required paying very close attention.
I have to work at being emotionally attuned. I am pretty good at tuning in to the moods and needs of loved ones, but I often fail at identifying how people feel when I’m not emotionally connected to them. Amber has helped me get better at this simply by modeling their own ability to attune emotionally. In situations where I’m struggling but insist that I’m fine, nothing’s wrong, Amber knows something is bothering me and will tell me as much. They’ll tell me that when I’m ready to talk about it, they’re here for me. They read me so well I literally can’t hide any emotion from them. There is no “pretending I’m fine” with Amber. On the flipside, I never have to “decode” Amber’s moods. They are self-aware and transparent enough that this is unnecessary.
I’m trying to follow Amber’s lead in being more aware of the moods and needs of others while also being more direct and transparent with my own.
Improving Emotional Attunement
Especially with regards to close relationships, the most important step in being able to emotionally attune to others is to first be aware of your own wants and needs. That may seem counterintuitive, but according to an article from the Gottman Institute’s website, understanding your own emotions and being able to communicate them effectively allows your partner to tune in and meet you where you are. This makes a lot of sense. If your loved one isn’t adept at reading moods, but you want to feel emotionally attuned to them, you’ll have to clearly communicate your feelings. If you can’t identify those feelings, you’re going to get stuck.
If your partner is the one struggling to label their feelings, try asking open-ended questions. The Gottman Institute recommends substituting yes or no questions with the kinds of questions that open the door to larger conversations. For example, instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you could ask, “It seems like something’s bothering you. What’s up?”
Especially in romantic relationships, it’s so important to feel emotionally attuned to one another. For couples who are dealing with busy work schedules, kids’ needs, and the general running of a household, it can be especially hard to connect on this level. It can feel impossible to focus much energy on your partner’s emotional needs when one kid is splashing buckets of water all over the bathroom floor and the cat just coughed up a hairball on the living room rug.
And yet, all of the busy hubbub and stresses of life can feel so much easier when you have someone by your side with whom you feel emotionally connected, and whom you trust to prioritize your feelings and needs. So, if you think your emotional attunement with your partner could use a little fine-tuning, set up a date night. And start by looking into each other’s eyes and asking some open-ended questions. You’ve got this.
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