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Making Molehills Out of  Mountains/Reclaiming Your Personal
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Unmet Emotional Needs

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Howdy Neighbor!

Not what we give, but what we share, for the gift without the giver is bare.
-James Russell Lowell

Secure connections are created by inviting your partner into your world.

Volumes have been written about what I’m going to tackle in the next two chapters of this section. I don’t want to oversimplify what is truly a complex subject. However, if you gain a heightened sensitivity for the two emotional needs I’m about to discuss with you, you’ll soon discover that your relationships become considerably less conflictual, and more importantly, much more rewarding.

Secure connection. Emotional safety. I offer these two emotional needs as targets for you and your partner to stay focused on. When you feel things shifting in your relationship, bring your focus back to how safe and secure you feel with your partner. If you feel like the sand is moving beneath your feet, that something’s amiss in your relationship, it’s time to clarify for yourself how safe you’re feeling. Trust me, by consistently honoring your need for a secure connection and emotional safety, most of your other emotional needs will automatically get met along the way.

Let’s start with a secure connection. In my estimation, this is the most profound emotional need we have. Your relationships are the cornerstone of your emotional and spiritual well-being. They’re the source of much of the emotional sustenance you depend upon in your day to day life. The more stable your connections are with the people who matter most, the more grounded and secure you’ll feel.

So much of what we desire is derived from the nurturance we receive from other people. Tenderness. Caring. Affection. Belonging. We all know how good it feels to be loved and cared for. Afterall, that’s why we go to all this bother in the first place. These are but a few of the emotional needs that can only be met, in part or in whole, through our involvement with other people.

Therein lies the vulnerability you experience in your relationships. You know only too well how tentative your connection to anybody can be at any point in time. Relationships are dynamic, ever-changing. The strength of your connection with your partner shifts and changes. You come together and drift apart. An intense feeling of closeness exists at one point, yet somehow that closeness can transform into the precipitant for the two of you to retreat from each other.

Other times you may experience you and your partner drifting apart, incapable or unwilling to find your way back to each other. The retreat is shrouded in the ways you have of creating, maintaining, and sustaining conflict. Yet sadly, the pain created from feeling disconnected, from feeling too far away from your partner, can all too often go untalked about. Does any of this have a ring of familiarity for you? Are there times when your emotional need to feel securely connected to your partner goes unstated as you focus on everything else but the pain of feeling disconnected?

Let’s do a reality check. Are there times that you feel like your partner’s attentions, or their emotional presence has diminished or disappeared altogether? Do you recognize the feeling of trepidation, even distrust as your partner becomes  more emotionally unavailable? Do you have words for the emotional undertow that tugs at you as you attempt to get your partner to emotionally reenage with you? The connection that once was so consistent, so dependable is seemingly gone, vanished into thin air.

That’s what’s at the core of much of the discord that you and your partner create as it relates to your emotional need for a consistent connection. As your need for a stable connection gets frustrated, the pain derived from your insatiable desire to have your partner be close and your partner’s inability or unwillingness to do so bubbles beneath the surface.

How about the other side of the coin--your need to maintain a certain amount of distance and the fear that the amount of that distance stirs in your partner. Here’s the point. Lurking beneath the surface of much of your conflict is the unexpressed pain created by two people doing the dance of creating a connection that carries an incredible burden. The burden? How to keep things both safe enough and fulfilling enough for two people to create and sustain emotional intimacy in their relationship.

Think of all the words we have to describe that emotional disconnect. Abandonment. Withdrawal. Retreat. Betrayal. Unavailable. Non-committal. Think of all the reasons we create to justify that disconnect. Fear. Punishment. Ignorance. Indifference. Think of all the pain that is stirred up when you feel disconnected from your partner. Isolation. Loneliness. Alienation.

These are the corrosives that eat away at our emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s easy enough to see why. The emotional underbelly of feeling disconnected is discouragement, anger, resentment, and depression--an emotional state that takes on a life of its own, spiraling out of control.

But when we’re grounded by stable connections with people who honor and respect ourselves, our emotional world takes on a whole different hue. For instance... 

A few weeks ago a gentleman was completing the process of leaving one of my Relationship Bridge-Builders groups. When someone leaves the group, we take three weeks to say good-bye. It’s important to say good-bye in a way that brings honor to all the blood, sweat, and tears that each group member has invested in building caring, nurturing relationships with each other. This gentleman was no exception. He was truly loved by each group member.

As the time was winding down in his final session, our departing group member was asked what it was he would be taking from his experience in the group.

As he thought about the question for a moment, tears began to well up in his eyes. When he finally spoke, his voice quivered as he softly said, “Family. What I have gotten most from my experience here is a sense of family.

“I never had that before. I have never known what it’s like to be loved by so many good people. Learning how to get close and stay close to you guys has been the greatest gift to me.”

He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. The person sitting next to him offered a Kleenex. He wiped his eyes and continued. “Knowing how much you care about me, feeling free enough to be able to express it, that’s meant everything to me. I carry you guys around with me wherever I go. Your words of encouragement ring in my head everytime I try something new. Your loving glances calm me whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

He chuckled to himself as he saw the irony in what he was about to say. “Knowing how much you care about me has empowered me to care about me. I never realized before I joined this group just how little I cared about myself, but being here with you week after week, the kindest gift of all was you letting me into your world, accepting me no matter how awful I behaved, I was able to finally accept myself, even begin to love myself.”

Feeling connected means everything to us, yet sadly, we can be inept at creating and sustaining a meaningful connection. I’m going to suggest to you one simple skill. This skill will help you successfully negotiate the dance of coming together and drifting apart. This skill will cement those times when you’re safely connected. It will help you find each other when you’ve drifted apart.

You’ll scoff at me. You’ll think to yourself that there has to be more to it than what I’m about to suggest. You’ll accuse me of oversimplifying, underestimating the complexity of human interaction, overgeneralizing the influence of this one skill--but I promise you, in all my experience, the quality of any relationship bridge is predicated upon how well you do one thing and one thing only!

The one thing? I call it checking-in. Checking-in is a simple skill that enables the bond between you and your partner to grow and strengthen. It’s a skill that will enable you to make your connection more and more secure. By initiating the process of checking-in, you and your partner can create, maintain, and sustain a secure connection that will enable you to support rather than withdraw from each other.

Think of checking-in as the process of taking the temperature of yourself, your partner, and your relationship. You take the temperature by sharing something about yourself--your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Sharing about yourself in this very specific way creates a special bond between you and your partner--a bond that makes your connection more and more secure.

How to check-in? There’s a simple skill to use when you want to check-in with your partner. I wrote about it in another of my books, Building Better Bridges. The fancy term for this skill is self-disclosure. In more simplistic terms, I refer to it as the act of letting yourself be known to the world. Take it from me. I sit in groups all week long. I watch people go through every gyration known to mankind. The point of all the twisting and turning? To avoid. To avoid being seen. To avoid being exposed. To avoid being found out. To avoid the intensity of a close connection.

Day after day I watch people construct a wall between themselves and the rest of the world. I watch how adept they are at creating emotional and physical distance between themselves and the people in their lives. Sadly, I bear witness to the resultant chaos they create in their lives, the bitter pain that grows out of living in a self-protected world that keeps them safe, yet shuts out the rest of the world.

But I’m never discouraged. I’ve also had the privilege of watching a transformation take place when a person gives up the struggle--the struggle of wanting to have great relationships without taking any risks. And the biggest risk of all, the biggest risk that has the greatest return, that risk is sharing who you are with another human being.

I must tell you, my friend, there’s no avoiding this one immutable law. Your most important emotional need--feeling securely connected to your partner--is going to be fulfilled through both your willingness and know-how to open up and let your partner in.

You see we’re back to that willingness thing and that relationship skill thing--checking-in and self-disclosure. Notice how we’re back to that choice thing: shut people out or let them in.

Let’s look at what happens when Mandy tries to check-in with Sydney. Notice how the lack of self-disclosure keeps a connection distant and how the presence of self-disclosure can forge a bond of love and support.

Scenario #1

“How was your day?” Mandy asked.

“Pretty much the same as usual,” Sydney replied.

“That’s not saying much,” a frustrated Mandy said.

"There’s not much to say,” Sydney said.

“Well, something had to happen,” Mandy said.

“No, not really. I called a few clients. Took a few orders. Oh, yea. Now that you mention it, they let Alvin go. You remember Alvin, don’t you? Been there for at least fifteen years.”

“That must have been upsetting,” Mandy observed.

“Upsetting? Gee I don’t know. I didn’t give it much thought,” Sydney said. 

“Hey, by the way, did you want to rent a movie tonight?” Sydney asked Mandy.

“Syd, don’t shut me out like that. I want to know what’s going on with you. You must have been affected somehow, someway by Alvin being fired,” an exasperated Mandy replied.

Sydney was taken aback by Mandy’s insistent tone. All this did was serve to make him defensive and somewhat combative. “Shut you out, what are you talking about? You asked me how my day was. I told you. I went to work, did my thing, yada, yada, yada. Now I’m asking you, do you want to watch a video with me tonight?

          “Is there something else that I’m not getting here? If so, please tell me. Otherwise get off my back. What more do you want from me? How can you accuse me of shutting you out?” Sydney asked as he walked out of the room with both eyes glued to the TV guide.

Doesn’t this couple remind you of Jack Webb’s character, Sergeant Friday? You know what I mean--just the facts ma’am. You can see why, can’t you? Does this couple connect or merely exchange information?

Name, rank, and serial number. That’s Sydney’s modus operandi. Does that build bridges or walls between two people? Exchanging information is not an invitation to let your partner in, it’s an act of keeping your partner out. You give your partner a lot of information but very little of you. It’s really quite simple. Information is just the means used to put your partner off. 

Connecting through checking-in has a very specific purpose--to build an emotional bridge between two people. An emotional bridge can only be constructed by letting someone into your world--not shutting them out; self-disclosure’s sole role in this process is to enable you to talk with your partner, not at your partner.

But think about this for a moment. What was the purpose of Sydney’s conversation with Mandy in the above scenario? Was it to share something about himself with Mandy? Was it to invite Mandy into his world so that she could better understand him? Was it to reach out to Mandy for support? And how does all of that make Mandy feel?

Take a moment and write down some lessons that Sydney might learn about how Mandy is affected when he  shuts her out.

Now let’s see what things look like when Sydney does more self-disclosing when Mandy checks-in. Notice how the tone changes between them. Notice how the outcome ends in support, and physical and emotional connection rather than physical and emotional abandonment.


Scenario #2

“How was your day?” Mandy asked.

“You know, did the usual. But in the afternoon, boy, work was in an uproar,” Sydney replied.

“What happened?” Mandy asked

“They let Alvin go,” Sydney said.

“Alvin?” Mandy asked

“Yea, you remember Alvin. Whew, that blew me away. If they’ll do that to Alvin, they’ll do that to anybody.”

“You sound worried,” Mandy said kindly.

“Yea, you know how it is out there. I can ill afford to lose my job now, yet I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and I’m afraid it’s going to land right on me. Can you imagine what would happen to us if I lost my job?”

“Now Syd, I understand how worried you are, but you don’t have to let your imagination run wild. We’ll be all right,” Mandy said, trying to reassure Sydney.

“I don’t know. I feel like we’re both carrying such a big load as it is. I worry about the burden it will put on you. And where’s someone my age going to get a job like I have now?”

“Syd, how can I reassure you? We’ll both be all right.”

“Mandy, just your asking helps. You know how I get when things get all bottled up. I know you’d be there for me, but hearing you say what you said, keeps my mind from racing.”

“Oh yea, I know. But thanks for letting me know where you’re at. I promise you, though, everything is going to be all right,” Mandy said as they both hugged each other.

Do you see the difference between the second scenario and the first? Sydney was more willing to talk about himself rather than videos and television programs. In the first scenario, Sydney became defensive and walked away. In the second scenario, he willingly told Mandy how he was affected by Alvin being fired. Because he let Mandy in, she was able to be there for him rather than having to guess at what was going on with him.

Do you see how checking-in created a secure connection in scenario #2 whereas Sydney’s unwillingness to check-in in scenario #1 created a wall? In scenario #2, the connection was created out of Sydney’s willingness to be open by using the skill of self-disclosure. 

Let’s review for a moment. The skills are checking-in and self-disclosure. The act is letting someone into your world by sharing who you are with them. The means to letting someone into your world is sharing yourself. What you share about yourself with another person are your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

Checking-in as it relates to the sustaining of a secure connection between you and your partner has a very specific focus--you, your partner, the relationship, and the here-and-now. There’s a lot to chew on in that last sentence. Let me pick it apart so that you can better appreciate the enormity of what I’m suggesting.

The hoped for outcome of checking-in is to keep you and your partner connected. The purpose of checking-in with each other is to demonstrate an interest and concern with how each of you are doing.

There are several benefits to inviting your partner into your world. I have already talked about how important feeling understood is. Self-disclosure is the basis for which your partner will best be able to understand you. The more open you are, the less your partner will have to guess at what is going on with you.

Feeling better understood creates a bond between you and your partner. Each new bond that’s constructed between you and your partner makes your connection all that much more secure. The ultimate outcome of a more secure connection is a continued feeling of acceptance, feeling cared about, and every other goodie that we so desperately want from our relationships.

When you and your partner take the time to check-in with each other, treat it as the precious time that it is. Use it as an opportunity to focus on the state of yourselves as well as the relationship. If you’re problemsolving with your partner, spend as much time on the underlying relationship issue as you do on the circumstances that created the problem.

Finally, when focusing on the underlying relationship issue, use the following guidelines as a way of talking about yourself and the relationship. You’ll discover instantly what a difference the skill of checking-in will make in untangling the conflict you’re experiencing, thereby strengthening your connection with your partner. 

The do’s and don’ts for effectively checking-in

Talk with your partner rather than at your partner.

Talk about yourself or the relationship rather than irrelevant external circumstances.

Express what you need from your partner rather than relive a laundry list of past wrongs.

Express the feelings you’re experiencing in the moment rather than editorialize with your opinions and judgments.

Focus on the here-and-now rather than the distant past or the unpredictable future.

Share pieces about who you are rather than explain your partner to your partner.

Share pieces about who you are rather than exchange information.

Share pieces about who you are rather than defending or justifying who you are.

This is a skill that’s going to take a lot of practice. It will feel unnatural to you at first. You will feel self-conscious, in some ways, emotionally naked.

The only way this will begin to feel more comfortable for you is to do it over and over again. By undertaking the risk of checking-in with your partner, your partner has a responsibility to you. That responsibility is to honor your efforts at creating a stronger connection with you. You see, the cement that will hold this together for the two of you is trust. You’ll need to know that your partner is trustworthy--that no harm or embarrassment will come to you because of your efforts.

So take your time with this skill. You’ll backslide, I guarantee it. Just know that when you pull back, it’s okay to do so. But you need to understand that you’re pulling back to seek cover. Once it feels safe again, commit to coming back out again.

Do you see the paradox I’m suggesting? It’s a whole new way of defining what a safe relationship is. I’m suggesting a new way of creating safety for both of you. Emotional safety is no longer buried in the foxhole in which you’ve lived much of your life, but nestled in the safety that comes from two people being securely connected.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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