Our Blog

By Sherry Breslin, MS

Humans were created for connection. Connection is what we long for. In the book of Genesis God said, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.” This truth is evidenced through countless stories of human experiences. Research also supports the impact of connection on physical health and well being.

As infants we look to our parents or caretakers to protect us, comfort us, and to respond to our cries. In the well known Still Face experiment by Dr. Tronick, we can observe the human need for connection through an infant’s attempts for reconnection, signals of distress, protest and eventual signals of despair and fear. When infants and children have secure attachments with parents or primary caregivers, they are more likely to have better relationships across the lifespan. The significance of connection also informs us of the implications of disconnection. When humans feel secure in their connections it registers in what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system and enables the “social engagement” system. This aspect of your nervous system you might recognize during the times when you feel calm, grounded, and present, where you can be compassionate and creative within your ability to relate and connect. This part of your nervous system is also referred to as the “rest and digest”. You can rest because you are calm, and you can digest because all of your blood isn’t flowing out to your extremities like it does when you are in a state of fight or flight.

The opposite of connection is disconnection. When humans experience disconnection with significant others like a spouse or a child this can be painful, stressful, and evoke feelings of anxiety, fear, rage, worry, concern, and frustration. This emotional disconnection in relationships is often a learned survival response that can be almost outside of conscious awareness. You might have heard “That is just the way I am…” or “That is just who I am…” which suggests that this is an unchangeable fact about oneself. In many ways, it is also a belief that you have no choice over your behavior. Oftentimes, this “thought” process can be limiting and can keep individuals closed off from the potential for growth. This type of thinking can also impact relationship connection because it is a type of cognitive rigidity which closes the mind to other options. It can interfere with one’s ability to tolerate other people’s point of view and emotions. Disconnection from oneself is also an aspect that can contribute to relational health. Some individuals learned to disconnect from their emotions because it was not safe to feel or have been shamed for having feelings. They may have often heard statements of “You better stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “You’re a cry baby” are examples of shaming the emotional state of sadness or distress. Over time these individuals learn that in order to be accepted in their family or in relationships they must disown an important aspect of the self.

Does any of this resonate with you or someone that you know? Are you in a relationship that is breaking down or deteriorating because of the lack of emotional connection and emotional safety? Repairing relationships is possible. One of the essential ingredients to a thriving relationship is emotional responsiveness. The acronym A.R.E. helps provide a “how to” process for building and implementing emotional responsiveness.

1. A = Accessibility

Can I reach you? In an era where humans are connected continuously via the myriad of devices and information outlets, it is surprising that these forms of connection now contribute simultaneously to disconnection. These portals of connection can lead to disconnection when they seemingly convey a desire for something more important than what is present. Being Accessible means that you are present and able to respond to one another with interest and curiosity.

Are you accessible? Are you present with your partner, children, and family or are you preoccupied, distracted, too tired, and perhaps too connected to screens?

2. R = Responsiveness

When your partner, children or family reach for you, are you able to respond by listening without trying to fix their problem, without telling them how they were wrong, or without defending yourself? Are you able to “be happy” for them or acknowledge their experience?

Are you open to hearing about their thoughts and feelings? Take time to notice what comes up for you when someone comes to you with feelings or when they want to share a challenge with you…what do you do? What do you wish that you could do? What is it like for you? (Take note of this to help you grow in your awareness about your ability to respond). Think of the distress of the infant in the Still Face experiment to the lack of responsiveness. This applies to adults as well. Responsiveness promotes emotional safety.

3. E = Engagement

Engagement means to be present or actively involved with something. Interestingly, “engagement experience” has become a well known metric for user experience. This metric enables software companies to know or adapt to user experience. It measures or records whether the user had a meaningful or productive experience. Why is this important? It is important because this meaningful experience brings consumers back to their brand. Humans need to work on their “relationship experience”. Are your relationships meaningful and are they communicating that you are interested? Are you communicating and listening like your partner, child or family member is valuable and worth your time? Healthy engagement is soothing to the nervous system and promotes emotional safety. Engagement communicates that you are not alone and that you matter.

What stops you from engaging? What do you experience when your partner fails to engage? What happens inside of you when you feel engaged?

Attachment theory explains that when our primary loved ones are emotionally unavailable or unresponsive we can feel overwhelmed with emotions of anger, sadness, and fear. Dr. Sue Johnson writes “Isolation and the potential for loss of a loving connection is coded by the human brain into a primal panic response…Distressed partners may use different words but they are always asking the same questions, Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I call?…This longing for emotional connection with those nearest to us is the emotional priority, overshadowing even the drive for food and sex”. (4)

Next Steps

Our knowledgeable and caring team at Lime Tree Counseling can help you if you are feeling disconnected from loved ones or have a desire to improve your relationships. We provide marriage counseling, Christian counseling, and anxiety therapy for those struggling with connection. Lime Tree Counseling also offers online counseling in Pennsylvania, online counseling in Colorado and online counseling in North Carolina. Please contact us for a free 15-minute phone consultation with a member of our staff today or schedule a 50-minute initial session. We look forward to working with you soon!