Creating healthy, sustainable relationships is about the art and skill of interacting. How you interact and how others respond to your invitations create the basis for secure attachment. If you want to learn more about how to create intimate and healthy relationships, then you will need to improve your awareness. With awareness we notice the beginning, middle, and ending of every interaction.
Begin to pay attention to how every moment of interacting begins with an invitation, and follows with a reciprocal acknowledgment of that invitation. The rest of the interaction is a repeat of this back-and-forth engagement of initiating and responding, then responding and initiating, then initiating and responding, etc. This is how we create the foundation for meaningful relating.
When we take this beyond an elementary level and approach the exchange with more sophistication, these interactions prove rather exciting, lively, and…well, engaging. We are breaking down the art of engagement into its component parts. We can begin to fine-tune our radar systems of perception and notice the subtle nuances that make interpersonal interactions possible. The goal here is to pay attention and stay curious about the endless possibilities of this back-and-forth exchange.
It’s easy to employ a sports metaphor here; let’s think of this as emotional, relational tennis. We are essentially participating in a game of emotional responsiveness. Responding can be verbal, nonverbal, physical, gestural, overt, or covert. It can be visual as in a glance of the eyes, aural as in the tone of voice, or even energetic as in sensing what your partner is feeling. Because it has this energetic component of sensing, I like to refer to this intimacy tennis as throwing “balls of light” back and forth.
Now, imagine that you had a pair of special infrared goggles that allows you to see the interactions taking place between you and your partner, or you and a parent, or you and a coworker, etc. Sometimes the “energy tennis balls” will be going fast and sometimes they will be moving slowly. With these goggles, you can also see when the “energy balls” are received with an open welcome, or when they are ignored by a closed-off dismissal.
The art and skill of emotional responsiveness is the skill we need in order to create healthy, sustainable intimate relationships.
Actually, we all can learn to fine-tune this skill. There is no need to wait for some futuristic science-fiction goggles. It turns out that our brains are already equipped to play “emotional tennis,” if we have someone who can teach us.
We can increase our abilities of perception and awareness to better understand, track, and respond to the emotional interactions going on around us every day. For the most part, we need to have had a few good “coaches” (parents or significant partners) if we are to learn these skills most effectively.
People who nurture these skills of perception and awareness are able to track relational cues as they unfold in real-time. People who choose to interact and respond to these relational cues in the moment, as they unfold, are the very people who make for good, attentive, and available partners.
When partners relate on this level, we feel seen, known, heard, and understood. When we do the same for our partners, family members, or friends, we affirm and validate them as people we care about. The quality of these back-and-forth interactions builds trust and creates healthy, secure attachments.
The sustained flow of these emotional interactions allows us to feel a shared experience of attunement. Emotional attunement is what we are striving for in healthy, intimate relating.
These relational interactions impact our body and nervous system positively. Hormones are released into the brain and bloodstream, allowing us to feel calm, safe, protected, comforted, trusting, and loved.
Experiencing these feelings on a regular basis helps us improve our overall mental health. Emotional attunement reinforces the feelings of belonging and being "okay” in this world. Another way of saying this is that we help each other regulate emotions. Consequently, emotional regulation brings us a sense of comfort and peace.
Let’s also acknowledge the opposite. We miss out on the hormone-induced bumps in our well-being when living a life of isolation or avoidance (limited interactions with others) or when we pick intimate partners and friends who lack the needed skills to play “emotional tennis.” If a partner does not pick up on relational cues, then our mental health can suffer. We might feel let down, disappointed, rejected, or even panicked.
Without consistent, reasonable, reliable, and on-going nourishment that results from these full-circle interpersonal interactions (let’s think in terms of complete “games of tennis” and not just hitting the ball around a couple of times), then we most likely will go through life feeling unsafe, disconnected, vulnerable to fears, and in a state of emotional imbalance (dysregulated). We will frequently feel lonely.
Now, here are a few ideas about those people who lack these skills. Most likely the people in our life who do not “play tennis” very well are not withholding connection out of selfishness, spite, or manipulation. They do not notice the nuances of emotional interactions because they never got to experience it for themselves. They have been deprived, and they cannot give what they never had.
To further make this point, let’s imagine witnessing a dance audition. At this audition, a non-dancer has just been shown some new, complicated choreography. After the choreography, the person is instructed to repeat what they just witnessed (five, six, seven, eight). Most likely, the non-dancer’s response will be driven by fear and panic and the belief, "I cannot do this.” In that moment, they will acutely be aware of their “two left feet.”
The brain has not previously mapped out in its neural networks the ability to integrate muscular movements with memory of the choreography, synchronization with the music, and overall flow between the movements. The body won’t be able to respond. This is not about whether the person does or doesn’t “want” to dance. It’s not about asserting intention. It’s about brain functioning.
The non-dancer (despite best intentions) will look disconnected, stilted, and awkward (maybe even clueless). They will not be able to “relate” to the dance. It’s the same thing when focusing on emotional interactions.
If a person has not experienced some form of consistent positive, emotional attunement in their past, then their brain is not wired to function at this level.
Their brain is not mapped with the neural networks that make it possible to integrate the subtle cues offered by a partner inviting connection. They will not be able to synchronize to a shared rhythm of relating.
So let’s mix our metaphors here. Attuned, harmonious, interpersonal, emotional relating is like dancing and playing tennis at the same time. There needs to be a willingness to learn new improvisational choreography when mirroring a partner’s dance steps, and there also needs to be a skillful awareness of tracking the back-and-forth connection between the “energetic balls of light.”
Relationships are a two-way street of give and take, initiating and receiving, also nourishing and being nourished. The way we do this is through presence, acceptance, and paying attention. Good relating happens when partners focus on the quality and equality of their interactions with each other.
If one partner does not know how to give and receive or identify the play-by-play moves within the choreography, then chances are the relationship will feel strained. To improve our relationships, we need to hone the ability to pick up on the emerging signals coming from another person and also simultaneously assess if the other person we are with is capable of doing the same for us.
Over the years, when working with clients in the area of relationship coaching, I have noticed one specific quality that dramatically impacts how quickly clients learn better skills of relating. People who lead from sincere curiosity pick up these skills quicker.
It takes curiosity to want to feel feelings; more importantly, it takes curiosity to want to feel the feelings from shared emotional interactions with a partner.
This requires a genuine effort and willingness to let in the influence, feedback, warmth, presence, and energy of the other person. This means using our “felt sense” of experience. It’s a kind of waking up. We practice waking up more fully to the dynamic nuances that reveal themselves during emotional exchange.
Also, we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to be honest that certain people don’t want to feel—period. They are closed-off and shut down. Some people do not value connecting at this level of intimacy. This does not make them bad or unloving people.
In order to create deeply loving and intimate relationships, we need to value and know the benefits of opening ourselves up to this level of vulnerability. If we are confused about the benefits, then chances are we will not allow ourselves to be vulnerable – not only with our partners, but with ourselves.
To return to the sports metaphor, at the heart of good relating are our interaction skills and how much we are willing to invest in the practice. It’s about mutual goals and striving to reach new levels, perhaps similar to the differences between someone who plays tennis on an intramural, community level versus a professional level. If we aspire to play “pro” but only practice with amateurs, then chances are our game will never significantly improve.