The Power of Emotional Presence in Relationships

Richard Nicastro, PhD deconstructs the skills of emotional presence and challenges couples to be self reflective around how they can be more attuned to each other, especially when it really counts.  Applicable to friendships, family and other important relationships.

I witnessed a magical conversation the other day between two women friends that I believe is relevant for couples. Yes, you could say that I was eavesdropping, but when I see this kind of effective communication happening, I can’t help myself. The setting was a coffee shop.

One of the women was upset about something and she clearly needed someone to talk to. What struck me is what this woman’s friend did. She didn’t offer any magical words, no grand wisdom, no packaged solutions or suggestions about what direction her distressed friend should take. In fact, from an outsider’s perspective, it might look like she did very little, but this simply isn’t the case.

Effective Couples Communication:  Being an Emotionally Attuned Listener

The power of what this woman offered her distressed friend had to do with emotional presence. It’s hard to actually put this into words without it sounding like what was offered could be reduced to good eye contact. It went way beyond this. From the next table I could feel this woman’s presence as she sat with her friend. Here is how I would describe the gift of this woman’s presence as a listener:

  • She was fully immersed and attuned to what her distressed friend was experiencing;
  • She remained emotionally open to her friend’s pain throughout the discussion;
  • Her subtle bodily reactions (tearing up at times, touching her friend’s arm, nodding, tilting her head to be in sync with the tilt of her friend’s head) offered powerful connecting moments for her friend;
  • The few words she did use reinforced the fact that she was totally with and present for her friend (“I’m here for you”;  “Yes, I can see that”; “Please let me know what else I can do for you”).

In short, this woman was emotionally attuned to her friend’s experience and this attunement unfolded and organically flowed. This is what parents naturally do for their children who are upset, and the research shows that this kind of emotional resonance (which in no way has to be perfect) leads to a sense of emotional security and the expectation that others are (or can be) available in ways that matter to you.

The truth is that it’s difficult to teach this type of emotional attunement, but what’s important for couples to hold onto is that we often stand in the way of being present for our spouse/partner in this way—it’s as if we block our innate ability for emotional presence by thinking we have to do something “more” for the person who is upset (take away his/her pain; offer sage advice on what decision to make)–this is a mistake because it keeps you outside of the other person’s emotional orbit and there can never be a strong emotional connection from this distant place.

If I had to sum up the one thing this woman offered her distressed friend, it’s this:

The friend felt less alone in her pain.

This is a powerful gift because emotional pain is an inherently lonely experience. We often feel most alone and lonely when we’re suffering in some way. And too often, couples compound each other’s emotional pain, adding layers of pain onto pain, by failing to join with one another through the power of presence.

Self-Reflection:

  • How will you be more emotionally present for your spouse/partner?
  • What are your blocks to deepening your emotional presence for your partner?
  • How do you need your partner to be emotionally present for you?