by Jami and Marla Keller
After nearly twenty-five years of working with couples, there are three things that we have found to make the biggest difference in connection and long-term happiness. It turns out that neuroscience backs up these tools which we, crazy as it sounds, have 100% success with when each person does the work we prescribe. And guess what research finds is the most important attribute to foster a deeply intimate coupleship (both emotionally and sexually)? Emotional safety. And the three things we address below are the skills to create and keep this attribute in your coupleship for a lifetime. According to The Gottman Institute current research in neurobiology “shows that emotional safety is one of the most important aspects of a satisfying connection in a loving relationship. We need to feel safe before we’re able to be vulnerable, and as Brené Brown reminds us, ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.’”
We all need to sharpen the tools we use to manage the tensions in our coupleships by connecting our hearts with our brains (and/or vice versa!). So what are the three things that you can do right now to train your brain and heart to turn towards your spouse, limit the negativity, and improve feelings of safety, connection, and undying love?
- Your Feelings Are Real and Only You Are Responsible for Taking Care of Them
It seems ridiculously simple (it is simple, it’s just not always easy!), and when it is humbly addressed and you each take turns letting your partner’s feelings be real, everything changes and the connection grows deeper and deeper. Agreements are mostly made silently and are often out of date. Updating your basic coupleship agreements revitalizes your coupleship, and yet most couples rarely update even one agreement. What does this look like? (Marla) For me one of the silent agreements I had with Jami was since I was a stay-at-home mom I would do all of the domestic chores and take care of the kids and Jami would bring home the money. It worked pretty well until I began to resent it, but I didn’t have the tools to share my resentment and it became passive-aggressive comments and control. And Jami’s response was to lash back at me with, “I go to work and pay our bills and being a mom is your job, not mine” and then he’d check-out, sometimes physically but mostly emotionally, leaving me feeling utterly abandoned. This left us both resentful, hurt, and confused. In our consulting practice, and in our relationship, we start with a fundamental agreement that my feelings are real and Jami’s feelings are real and although we care about each other we are not going to take care of our partner’s feelings. We need to take care of ours first, recognizing what we are actually feeling (see this blog) and humbly sharing what they are. In our two-hour online course on Sundays from 1-3 pm, Jami and I model ways of doing this in a loving way that generates healing and emotional safety instead of instigating more of the same argument.
- Have a Common Language for Your Feelings
(Jami) You might have seen our Feeling Wheel 5.0. Men (or anyone who tends to avoid feelings, particularly feeling words, like me) who take a few minutes to understand how to use the wheel love it and it changes everything! It gives a couple a quick and easy way to know where the other is at and this makes it much easier to ask for what you want. I used to be terrible about expressing my feelings because let’s face it, I didn’t have a clue about what emotion/s I was feeling. When you’re told “Shut-up or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “big boys don’t cry” you learn very early not to share what you’re really feeling unless it’s happy and easy for the people around you. The deepest hurts in our coupleship have come from both Marla and I growing up with this faulty thinking about feelings. Marla’s emotional shutdown looked more like “Just relax; you’re fine” but the emotional outcome was the same leaving her feeling responsible to make everyone happy all the while losing herself. Even with this faulty foundation, Marla and I have learned to address our feelings rather than go on and on with a story (usually with angry undertones and words) about how hurt we are. This tool is also expanded on in our short online course with specific skills to overcome your triggered response to conflict within your relationship. The outcome of practicing this skill daily is an emotional safe coupleship full of deeper intimacy.
- Know Your Partner’s Sensory Preference
There are three primary sensory preferences: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. These seem obvious but what often happens is that both you and your spouse have been using old strategies to meet these needs and you are both totally frustrated and don’t even realize why. (Marla) I am highly visual and Jami is highly kinesthetic which, you can imagine, led to a lot of frustration and even hostility. Jami would leave his socks or pants or whatever article of dirty clothing right next to the laundry basket and step right over it to leave the room. I would seethe and tell him to please put them into the basket. It happened often, and every time I would feel disrespected and unheard. I just thought he was being a jerk. We learned this concept in 1996 and it was eye-opening, to say the least! Jami wasn’t disrespecting me; he actually didn’t see the laundry on the floor. Mind blown. And when he understood the importance of my visual space being neat he stepped up his visual game and started dropping his dirty laundry into the basket. For Jami when I wouldn’t connect with him through touch he felt disrespected and unloved. You can imagine the painful conversations that ensued because of it… When I realized how important physical touch is to him I began to be intentional about it. All of our physical and emotional shifts made a huge difference in our emotional safety and connection!
Getting to what we call “together, together” on these three things will take a ho-hum relationship to a stellar connection for eternity. This is why we have developed a two-hour interactive course full of great tools and live coaching for all individuals (singles and couples) that puts these three foundational principles into clear and easy to talk about strategies so everyone is completely happy with each other. Classes are on Sunday afternoons from one to three so sign up today and find out how you can connect like never before! (If you aren’t on Facebook where the tickets to the course are sold please follow THIS LINK to pay directly–$49 for individuals and $79 for couples.)
Note: Often one person in a coupleship finds reasons not do start learning about these things… it is natural to resist change and if your partner is doing this there are two things to do: First, ask them why it is they “don’t want to,” and just listen, and when they are finished put what they said into a feeling; what do you hear? Frustration, skepticism, criticism, fear? And let them know that those feelings are real and you understand. You also have feelings and would really appreciate them joining you in making your relationship better, and having tools for these feelings might make a big difference in both your happiness. The second thing to do? If showing empathy for their resistance does not help them choose to join you simply come to class and learn the tools and slowly integrate them into your coupleship. You both will be happier than ever!