Most issues that bring couples to therapy are familiar laments: “We don’t have sex anymore.” “I can’t take the dirty socks everywhere.” “All my partner does is work.” Some are earth-shattering, like experiencing a betrayal or coming face to face with a dealbreaker. But they all reveal the same underlying distress: People don’t feel connected to one another; they’re missing the essence of the relationship. Feeling disconnected is a significant loss, and couples come to therapy hurt, angry, and depleted, saying they have nothing left to give to foster the closeness they long for. They wonder how they can ever get that feeling back. It is possible. The key to feeling connected is first feeling safe. I collaborate with couples to find their “dance,” a new way to be with one another, which creates the foundation for a connected relationship — their secure base.
Of course, it starts with communication. Exploring unexpressed feelings, wants, and desires and addressing the details of interactions creates safety and connectedness. While we explore the hurts, we help shape new speaking and listening skills that cultivate care, empathy, and curiosity. As communication shifts from debates about winning to conversations that seek understanding, healing ensues, and trust grows.
The Power to Change the Dance
The most powerful way to create safety and ignite connection is with body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, and even how we move through space. It’s known as non-verbal communication. It’s the cornerstone of attachment. Neuroscientists contend that a person’s sense of safety mainly comes from non-verbal cues. Most of us are unaware we send powerful signals with our posture, gestures, and voices. Between 50 and 93 percent of what we take in from others is expressed without words. Non-verbal communication is what regulates relationships. It can work against us, or we can become aware of it and use it to change our lives.
How can this “Superpower” create a connection? We can intentionally shift posture, movements, eye contact, and tone as quickly as we shape verbal language. I begin collaborating with couples on their “new dance” by asking “choreography questions.” While exploring their words, we simultaneously consider the non-verbal components: Where were you in the room during this impasse? Describe your tone. Were you looking at one another or on your phone? Then, we expand this inquiry to learn the specific steps of their “dance .”Where do they sit at the dinner table? What does the greeting look like when someone returns home? How do you want to be received after a long day?
Of all the non-verbal expressions, touch is among the most effective. It is essential to learn how physical touch works in the couple’s relationship, what it means to them, and how it makes them feel. If the couple is responsive to touch, we may use an intervention like “noticing when your partner gets it right,” with a hand on the shoulder, eye contact, and a smile. It will raise the impact of the praise and catapult our couple’s connection. We practice this in the therapeutic space and encourage its continuation into their lives. If touch isn’t the couple’s preferred language, we explore the best way to signal positive messages.
Children are especially attuned to body language. Couples looking for parenting support are empowered by understanding the impact of their non-verbal messages. Children test boundaries and exert control by separating parents, leading to marital conflict– which then causes children to feel unsafe and act out more. We help parents present a united front with consistent limits to interrupt these dynamics. Having a united front sends a message of safety to children, gains their cooperation, and reduces acting out. But when parents stand next to one other while setting limits, they create a parenting coalition that conveys a sense of security far more powerfully than words. And they don’t have to agree about every aspect of child-rearing to have one another’s back stand next to one another.
I encourage parents to greet one another at the front door with a hug, sit next to one another at the dinner table, and call the other parent in front of the children to say, “I care about you.” I ask parents: “What else can you do? “How could you present yourself to your children to convey the message: “We are in this parenting thing together?” One client, whose partner was out of town, came up with the idea of going to their bedroom and making a quick phone call to their partner. It took five minutes, and it sent children the message that no amount of distance separates their parents. There was no begging for extra TV time that night. The client changed the “dance.” Strategies to send non-verbal messages can also support single parents and divorced parents engaged in co-parenting.
Couples with one or more members who have experienced developmental trauma or are experiencing current relational trauma like an affair are susceptible to non-verbal cues. Memories of traumatic events are stored differently than narrative memory. Overwhelming experiences are “remembered” in our bodies. This capability impacts our ability to read cues in the social landscape as safe or non-safe. Often, couples see danger and rejection when none is present or intended. For instance, a client who experienced abandoning parents may feel rejected and unworthy if their partner comes home from work and suddenly checks their email. This typical misstep may trigger a well of pain from the past that doesn’t fit with the present. The injured person may automatically “shut down” in a self-protection mode, responding with robotic answers and avoiding touch. The other couple members then feel confused rejected, and distances themselves, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. These unspoken misunderstandings cause significant relational injury, which raises the stakes and the need for interventions that target the couple’s “dance.” Attending to the couples’ non-verbal, automatic responses is the key to creating the security required to foster connection and healing. What we say matters, but how we say it means more.
Practicing Ethical Non-Monogamy and Polyamory
Supporting couples in creating the relationship they want is an exciting aspect of treatment. All connections are invited, and anything is possible when the mission collaborates to create a secure base of connectedness. Connecting entails exploring non-verbal, automatic reactions and engaging reflective responses to find the couple’s unique “dance.”
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