Marriages, much like everything else, are all about listening. That much we know. If you’re asked to do the dishes enough times and still don’t, what happens next is all on you. Beyond that, the functionality of a marriage is still one of life’s great mysteries. Raising kids? Forget about it.
Now, keeping an open ear for what your partner and kids are looking for shouldn’t be a huge ask, but if it’s something you struggle with in your family, there’s another solution and it’s easier than you might think. In fact, it produces better results anyway — relieving you and your partner of the burden of putting what they want and need into words of pleading and, ultimately, frustration.
It’s called emotional synchrony, and no, it’s not the name of a prog rock supergroup, no matter how much it sounds like one. It’s what happens when two people — often, but not necessarily — bound by love, literally tune into each other’s wavelengths, feel what they’re feeling, and understand the reality they live in at any given moment.
If this sounds like science fiction, just take it from Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy and the author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. “We read people’s emotions in about 100 milliseconds,” says Johnson, “and then the muscles in our face imitate what we see in their face and give us a tangible sense of what they are feeling and what their intentions are. Our nervous systems naturally resonate with this – it’s a safety cue – another is with you and connected to you. It is a natural cue for joy.”
Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT, has been shown to be extremely effective in more than 20 outcome studies, helping people dial into the emotions of others by having a therapist guide them through difficult conversations. It’s a process that’s both physical and emotional.
“You see folks naturally leaning in and imitating each other’s movements when they are trying to connect,” says Johnson. “We help people craft change events, where partners and parents and kids can slow down their emotions, shape this synchrony, and share the fears and vulnerabilities they need help with as well as their emotional needs.” Johnson adds that these dialogues predict relationship satisfaction at the end of therapy and into the future.
Let’s take a look at an example. Jacob is eleven, acting out, and unable to share his feelings with his father Steve, who he feels is too distant to connect with. “[Using EFT,]” Johnson says, Steve is able to tune in and respond in a different way, not with rules and instructions, but with soft reassurance and openness.” There’s a sort of emotional dance the two of them do together, allowing for, in Johnson’s words “affection and play and reassurance.”
“Dad also gets his kids’ needs in a new way and understands the desperation that is fueling his kids anger,” says Johnson. “Emotional responsiveness is the key ingredient in a secure loving bond.”
Practically, this level of intimacy goes hand in hand with an impartial mediator. They will validate Steve’s good intentions and frustrations. The goal is to break Steve away from reciting and imposing rules on his son. These dictums, Johnson says, are out of touch with what Jacob needs. As the focus turns to Jacob, she does the same thing, asking questions and starting a dialogue that lets Steve know how Jacob’s needs can be met. “This new dance,” Johnson says, “changes Steve, Jacob, and their family as a whole.”
The benefits of this kind of work extend from the most serious emotional complications all the way down to the, perhaps, pettier “dish” arguments mentioned earlier. EFT’s aim is to teach techniques that will not discriminate between big interpersonal problems and small ones.
“Love,” Johnson says, “is an ancient, wired-in security code designed to keep those we can rely on close. This tuning in and responding with is the greatest gift a parent can give a child and the greatest gift romantic partners can give each other.”
Ultimately, the building blocks for this kind of connection already exist in any loving relationship. “The music and the orchestra are already there,” Johnson says. “Wired into our nervous system. The therapist, if you choose to use one, acts as a conductor and just directs attention – supports the players and brings out the emotion in the music.” After this, ideally, that connection will become intuitive, almost non-verbal. You’ll never be asked to wash another dish again as long as you live.