How Couples Lose Their Connection


When couples are in distress, it is usually because they don't feel emotionally safe with each other. Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Do you love me? Want me?" The anger, the criticism and the demands that couples often employ are really cries to their lovers, to draw their mates back in emotionally and establish a safe connection.
When that emotional bond or connection is lacking, we are swamped by what neuroscientists call "primal panic." That may sound dramatic, but it happens. We get anxious. Freud himself wrote: We are never so vulnerable as when we love. When we become anxious in our relationship, we generally do one of two things: we either become critical, judgmental and demanding or clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves.
Most of the time, when I work with couples who are struggling, I usually help them discover that their angry, blaming or distancing behavior toward one another is actually a protest over feeling disconnected or unsafe, impinged upon, or not loved or even wanted.
Our society emphasizes individuality and independence--important states of being, no doubt. Born to Be Free, as the song goes. The reality is that we also need to feel connected. Our brains are wired for connection and we are dependent on one another for that connection and staying engaged. The dictionary defines engaged as being absorbed, attracted, involved. Emotional engagement here means the very special kind of attention that we give only to a loved one. We gaze at them longer, touch them more. We are emotionally present.
So, if we love our partners, why do we not just hear each other's call for attention and connection and respond with caring? Because much of the time we are not tuned in to our partners. We are distracted or caught up in our own agendas. We do not give clear messages about what we need or how much we care. We speak tentatively. Or we send out calls for connection tinged with anger and frustration because we do not feel confident and safe in our relationship. We wind up demanding and criticizing rather than requesting, which only leads to power struggles, defensiveness and distancing.
The longer partners feel disconnected, the more negative their interactions become. When marriage fails, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness. Based on John Gottman's research, we now know that successful couples share five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Think about that! Indeed the lack of emotional responsiveness rather than the level of conflict is the best predictor of how solid a marriage will be five years into it. The demise of marriage begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. The conflicts come later.

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Check out Jim Covington, marriage counselor, at

Phone: (917) 656- 4363