Emotional connection is a phrase that is often used in therapy. We hear about it frequently. People say they want it. I’ve heard people say, “we met and had an instant emotional connection.” Others often say they don’t feel emotionally connected. But what is it? How do you know if you have it? How do you get it?
Many people I see as clients have trouble defining or even describing emotional connection. Some people talked about doing fun things together, laughing and sharing. Others feel it has nothing to do with activities or physical presence but rather how much you have the ability to affect someone else’s emotions and vice versa. Only a few people could say how they feel you become emotionally connected…many say “it just happens.”
I think part of the issue is that there are often different things being talked about. Yes, in less important relationships I do think it is about having fun together, having shared interests and truly enjoying each others company. But other times, in more important relationships, I think people are really talking about something else. I think what they are really seeking is emotional safety.
What I mean by emotional safety is this. It is knowing that the other person will treat our feelings and thoughts…good ones, bad ones, dark ones, happy ones, all of them…with care and respect and gentleness. The more emotionally safe you feel, the more the more you can share. And that creates a feeling of connectedness. And you can’t do it without the hard, difficult parts. Just sharing good stuff is easy. The real measure of safety is in the hard stuff. That’s right…feeling connected comes not just from fun things…it also comes from the hard stuff. You may get a warm fuzzy feeling as a result of how the interaction goes, but the path there goes right through difficult emotions like sadness, hurt, anger, vulnerability…you get the idea.
This is where people get themselves into trouble. They feel connected on the happy side of things. But they never want to test the hard side. They want to just believe that this person that supports the fun side so well will be just as caring and supportive in the difficult moments. Suddenly, when there is no avoiding going into the hard stuff this person doesn’t handle it so well. They aren’t gentle or caring. They aren’t emotionally safe. Feelings get hurt and relationships get damaged. The relationship was built on the assumption of emotional safety…without checking on it or building it.
There are ways to create emotional safety and create a sense of connection. But it takes some effort and a willingness to take risk. As you develop relationships don’t avoid the hard stuff. Instead work on emotional safety by using the small stuff. Share difficult feelings and thoughts. If you start small it can make it less risky. You may get hurt but only about a minor issue. And you may learn a lot. You’ll find how the other person deals with the difficult stuff. They may be wonderful. They may be terrible. Or, more likely, they’ll be somewhere in the middle. And this is where you can work on the process. You can share with them how their response felt, how it could have been done differently to feel better. You’ll give them the tools to be emotionally safe for you. And you can do the same thing for them.
If you practice this you can learn to create emotional safety you can trust. Then, when the big stuff happens, you won’t be surprised by the reaction. So think about your relationships. Which are the ones where you want a fun connection and which are the ones where you really want emotional safety?
Thank-you for writing this. I find your suggestion to take small steps towards building emotional safety very useful. It can be hard to remember to test out the small risks when you’re deep in your emotions and your executive functions are…functioning.
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