Recently, I purchased a set of walkie talkies for my nine-year-old son. Instantly, he wanted to try them out to see how far he could go before there was no connection. He would go to a different room in our home, press the button on his walkie talkie and say, “Hello, are you there, can you hear me?” Hearing this question on my end of the walkie talkie made me think about hundreds of calls I have answered as a volunteer suicide intervention call worker. While the people calling the hotline may not say it outright like my son did, I know that many callers are wondering, “Will she judge me for my pain? Will she be there for me? Will she understand me? Will she care for me? Will she hear me?”
As a graduate student in marriage, couple, and family therapy I have repeatedly heard the phrase, “We are hard-wired for human connection”. Human connection is just as vital to our well-being as food and water. We need human connection to thrive. This is just as true for adults as it is for children.
When my son went in the other room with his walkie talkie, he wanted to know if I could still hear him. Don’t we all want to know that we are heard, seen, accepted, and valued? Garry Landreth, noted play therapist, suggests that there are four healing messages play therapists must strive to communicate to a child. The healing messages are: “I am here, I hear you, I understand, and I care” (Landreth, 2012, p. 209-210). We don’t ever outgrow the need for these healing messages.
It fact, Sue Johnson, world renowned couple’s therapist and EFT pioneer, is saying something very similar about the needs of adults in relationship. She says that emotional connectivity has three main components:
- Accessibility: Can I reach you?
- Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?
- Engagement: Do I know you will value me and stay close? (Johnson, 2008, p. 49-50).
How do we create this kind of connection in our relationships? It comes from a deep respect for self and our partner. When we know, and accept, our own weaknesses and vulnerability we are more accepting of our partner’s vulnerability and weaknesses. As a result, we become more open to our partner’s experience as a human being. When we are open to our partner we are less judgmental and are not as threatened by perceived differences. Then we are able to enter our partner’s realm more fully. Once we have entered that realm, we show compassion and understanding for their world and experience. When we remain fully engaged, and show our acceptance, we let our partner’s know that we deeply value them.
While training to take suicide intervention calls, I was instructed to, “sit in the muck” with my callers. “Sitting in the muck” means that I “get” the caller by understanding the caller’s experience to the best of my ability and then I reflect that understanding back including the caller’s emotions. Just by understanding the caller’s experience I show that I can be reached by their story, and can respond to their emotions. I also let them know that I value them as a person and what they contribute to the world. Letting callers know that, “I am here, I hear you, I understand, and I care” helps them to heal.
Sounds fairly easy, right? It’s not always easy to create healthy connection in our relationships. Sometimes life gets busy, and there is too much distance between our walkie talkie and our partner’s walkie talkie for them to connect. The good news is that a temporary disconnect in the relationship doesn’t matter as much as what we do to repair the relationship when there is disconnect. As long as we acknowledge our mistakes and move toward connection, our relationships will grow and remain healthy. A lifetime of showing that you are available, emotionally responsive, and value the relationship, can cover a multitude of connection mistakes.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and company.
Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: the art of the relationship (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge .