What is Attunement?
I love Psalm 13. It brings up all kinds of questions about responding to someone who is hurt and questioning God, themselves, or others. How do we respond when our spouse is angry or sad?
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2, NIV).
David, the writer of the Psalm, is wrestling with his thoughts. He feels abandoned and rejected. He wonders how long this is going to continue.
I can feel his depression and despair.
Somehow, I don’t think it would work to respond to David by saying, “Don’t worry about it. God will help.”
Saying “God will help” is true but not really very empathetic. That’s very dismissive of the emotions. I suspect that David would actually feel worse by being shut down.
That’s what I did to my wife for years. I would try to cheer her up by explaining why she shouldn’t feel that way. I shut her down and I see many couples make the same mistake. The better response is to attune because it demonstrates empathy. This works for spouses who want to communicate with each other as well as for marriage mentors who want to help couples.
What is Attunement?
Attunement creates a sense of connection and being with someone else. When someone attunes to us, we feel that they get us. We feel that they care for us.
Dr. John Gottman broke down the word ATTUNE into six bullet points that can make it easier to remember.
A = Awareness
T = Turning Toward
U = Understanding
N = Non-defensive listening
E = Empathy
A = Awareness of the Emotion
Awareness is all about being aware of your partner’s emotions. Your approach to your partner and your response will help to determine how the conversation will go. To attune, I might respond to the Psalmist with, “You sound desperate to hear from God.” If I responded with, “Why do you do this to yourself?” The Psalmist is not going to feel heard. They may even be triggered in some way. This will only increase the disconnection.
T = Turning Toward the Emotion
Turning toward emotion is about demonstrating connection and interest. When someone turns toward us, it communicates that they value our comments and perspectives. They want to understand more.
This becomes more difficult if our partner is expressing anger toward us. It can be tempting to respond with something that is not helpful. We can become defensive. When we teach these skills to couples, we ask them to be aware of how they speak. How can they communicate something negative without being critical of their partner? Criticism will only invite defensiveness, and connection will break down.
T = Tolerance
Tolerance can be of both your partner’s emotion and their perspective. Often, it’s tempting to shut down someone’s emotions because we feel uncomfortable. So, we jump to dismiss or fix the emotion instead of letting the person experience their feelings.
When we disagree with someone, it’s tempting to immediately move to argument or proving how they are wrong. It’s far more effective to acknowledge the other person’s perspective, even if you disagree.
With the Psalmist, I disagree that God is distant. However, that isn’t the Psalmist’s experience. It would be far more meaningful to respond with, “It feels like God is abandoning you.”
U = Understanding, Not Problem Solving
Understanding is what helps, not problem-solving. When our partner is emotional, we can be tempted to dismiss the emotion by saying something like, “It will be OK,” or “you’re making too big of a deal out of this.”
Emotions have their purpose. All feelings are acceptable (but not all behavior is acceptable). The best way to help is to say, “Help me understand what’s happening.”
I have noticed that many people feel responsible for their partner’s emotions. So, they try to cheer them or make them feel better. That usually comes across as dismissing. So, your partner is more likely to shut down.
N = Non-defensive listening
Non-defensive listening is one of the most challenging things, especially when the complaint is aimed at you. When our partner expresses their emotions, it’s easy to feel blamed. Then, our defensive mechanisms kick in.
The difficulty is soothing ourselves enough to continue to listen. Deep breathing can help. It might help to write down what your partner is saying. I find it helpful to know that I may have to take one or two on the chin. Knowing that I may become defensive helps me manage it when I feel it.
E = Empathy
Empathy is the ability to be “in it” with your partner. You work to understand your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences from their perspective. It helps to say, “I can see why you’d feel that way when….” Remember, this is understanding their perspective. You may disagree with their interpretation, but work to understand their reaction.
With the Psalmist, it may be understanding that they feel abandoned by God. From their perspective, God is taking too long to respond. You may have all kinds of wisdom about why God is silent, but empathy would be the first place to start. Something like, “You are feeling abandoned by God. You think that He should have responded by now.”
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Attune – First, attune to each of the partners. You, as a marriage mentor, can listen first. Since you are not emotionally involved with their disagreement, it may be easier to attune and listen. You can help them to soothe their emotions by acknowledging them.
- Teach Attunement – You can teach each partner how to get better at attuning with their spouse. You provide the coaching to help them to become more validating.
- Look for success – When a partner is able to listen and validate, ask the other partner how that felt. Point out when they do it well.
Other Posts You May be Interested In:
This post is the second in a 3-part series:
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.