11. Emotional Reconnection - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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11. Emotional Reconnection

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy
(to counter emotional disconnection in stage 6)
by Ronald Mah

Emotional reconnection entails risking intimacy and being hurt again.  Partners in couples or family members, wanting change but unwilling to risk the pain of moving from poor interactions towards more constructive interactions cannot make the relationship grow healthier.  However, there is no guarantee that risking emotional vulnerability and connection will be reciprocated.  It has not been safe for the individuals in their relationships, yet they must be asked to be unsafe again.  Without both individuals in a dyad such as a couple (or all members of a larger group such as a family) taking reciprocal emotional risks to develop emotional skills to gain emotional intimacy, healing cannot occur in the relationship.  Wyatt says, "emotion skills play a critical role in the development and maintenance of marital health because of the role such skills play in sustaining the intimacy process" (page 999).  Wyatt also says  "emotion skills influence marital satisfaction through their influence on intimate safety" (page 1000) and "both wives' and husbands' emotion skills were positively associated both with their own marital satisfaction and with the marital satisfaction of their partners.  Further, we found that feelings of intimate safety at least partially mediated those associations using both observational and self–report measures of emotion skills" (page 1002).  "In addition, the results also suggest that emotion skills continue to have direct effects on marital satisfaction apart from feelings of intimate safety, suggesting that emotion skills influence marital satisfaction through additional mechanisms, including possibly attribution styles (e.g., Fincham & Bradbury, 1993), the general balance of positivity and negativity (Gottman, 1994), and general problem–solving and social support competence" (page 1002-1004).

The ability to risk intimacy varies from individual experience and cultural training.  Or, intimacy may be framed from different cultural perspectives other then American mainstream ideals.  An individual who has suffered emotional trauma may find taking this risk extremely difficult.  The therapist may need to help such an individual process historical emotional injuries for him or her to risk vulnerability with the current partner or important relationship.  The therapist should not promise or imply that the individual will not be hurt again.  In fact, it is almost certain that both partners or all members will be hurt again in the process of therapy and being a more emotionally involved couple, family, or community.  The therapist needs to more or less say, "Welcome to the room of pain!  All that you have been avoiding to bring up because your communication has been so poor has to be re-visited.  What you stopped talking about because it was too painful, you get to bring up in therapy.  And, even though I can as the therapist help with the process, feelings will be hurt… again.  I'm… no therapist is that good!  I cannot guarantee that the therapy will work.  I can guarantee that only by accepting pain can it work.  There is old pain and there will be new pain.  The only way to work through old pain is to bring up grievances here.  The only way to get better at communicating is to practice communicating here… which initially means doing it poorly… again!  Doing it poorly is necessary so that you can learn eventually do it better.  And doing it poorly means you'll cause each other new pain.  From being disconnected, the only way to move back towards intimacy is if you are willing to be hurt some more… with the hope that you both will get better eventually with help.  Are you willing to be hurt again?"

The couple, family, or community's potential for change and growth requires engagement and connection.  Engagement and connection requires emotional vulnerability.  Emotional vulnerability will inevitably re-ignite old pain and ignite new pain.  The therapist cannot require each individual to let him or her be hurt again.  However, the therapist can assert that unless each individual chooses to let him or herself be hurt again, they cannot possibly improve the relationship.  New experiences if they are reparative experiences are necessary for the relationship to evolve.  The individual or individuals need to experience emotional connections that are productive and mutually nurturing.  Such experiences will not appear magically without practice no matter how much psycho-education or communication training occurs.  Reparative emotionally satisfying experiences may increase in frequency, duration, and quality but will be inevitably interspersed with repetition of painful experiences.  Hopefully the painful experiences will be less frequent, be shorter in duration, and not as damaging.  The individual, partners, couple, and family must accept that they cannot go from horrible or bad to good or great interactions immediately or quickly.  Pain is mandatory for growth.  Some theoretical approaches focus on the here and now and do not examine historical experiences or old emotional injuries.  As a result, the therapist may not prompt bringing in and processing old pain.  However, if the relationship hopes to have any change, in the individuals' engagement they will experience current, ongoing, and further emotional distress and pain in therapy and at home.  The therapist should offer each person the choice to have pain again.  If both partners or all members choose to invest in the required pain, then the therapist will facilitate in therapy and at home reparative experiences and expressions of emotional connectivity, empathy, trust, and vulnerability.  Each therapist will choose interventions and processes from his or her favored theoretical orientations to facilitate emotional connection.

The therapist should once again keep in mind and consider differences in gender tendencies around emotions.  Wyatt says, "women expressed more nonhostile negative emotions and were more likely to mention feelings by name than men.  In addition, women were coded as showing a greater lack of defensiveness than men.  With regard to self–report measures, women reported more empathic concern, less discomfort with the personal distress of others, and less inhibition of their emotional responses than men" (page 995).  "Husbands' observed capacity to display positive emotions was related to their self–reported control of anger, ability to identify and communicate emotions, and comfort with emotional expression.  Husbands' observed ability to elicit positive emotions in the spouse was related to their self–reported comfort with emotional expression.  Husbands' observed ability to display nonhostile negative emotions was negatively related to their self–reported anger control (the greater the control, the less expression of negative emotions).  Finally, husbands' ability to use feeling words was positively related to their self–reported ability to identify and communicate their emotions and was positively related to their self–reported comfort with emotional expression.  Wives' observed ability to deliver criticism in a positive or neutral way was related to their self–reported anger control.  Wives' observed ability to respond to criticism in a positive or neutral way was positively associated with their self–reported control of nonhostile negative emotions, anger control, ability to identify and communicate emotions, and empathy.  Finally, wives' observed ability to display empathic concern was positively related to their self–reported control of nonhostile negative emotions and ability to identify and communicate emotions" (page 997-98-99).  "Husbands' observed ability to display positive emotions during problem–solving interactions was associated with their self–assessed ability to control their anger, their facility with identifying and communicating their own feelings, and their comfort with emotional expression.  Thus, the ability to stay positive during conflict may depend, for men, on a combination of emotional control, emotional knowledge, and emotional comfort, suggesting the potential complexity underlying what may appear to be a simple emotion skill.  Similarly, wives' observed ability to respond positively to criticism was associated with their own self–assessed ability to control anger and other, nonhostile, negative emotions, their ability to identify and communicate emotions, and their degree of empathy.  Thus, again, an observed emotion skill that may appear fairly simple on the surface (responding well to a spouse's criticism) may involve a complex set of underlying skills composed of emotion control, emotion knowledge, and empathy" (page 1004)  Since emotional connection is the goal of evolving from this stage, men versus women's tendencies to display and elicit different from partners may direct initial exploration and therapy.  As these tendencies prove relevant or not with respect to relationship dynamics, the therapist should adjust the therapy.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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