In my work with couples, I have learned the importance of attunement.
Attunement is that feeling that we get when we feel like someone else understands what we are going through. We’re no longer in it alone.
Dr. Stephen Porges, in his book, “The Polyvagal Theory”, points out the importance of early emotional attunement on our physical health and our ability to regulate our emotion.
One of my favorite examples of attunement in action is from the movie, “Inside Out.” This scene is reflective of what I see frequently happen between couples: one partner wants to make the other feel better, but is uncomfortable attuning to their partner’s negative emotions.
Rather than attuning, Joy is trying to comfort the sad Bing Bong (the pink elephant) by convincing him that “it will be okay!” and then offers the distraction of tickling. In Joy’s mind, she fears that acknowledging, and empathizing with his sadness would make things worse. Joy is doing what we would call “emotion dismissing.” She is well- intentioned—she wants Bing Bong to feel better, but she isn’t comfortable attuning to his negative emotions.
Then, Sadness steps in to comfort Bing Bong. Sadness attunes to Bing Bong’s feelings. She validates his emotional pain.
We even hear Joy express that she thinks Sadness will make him feel worse. But the connection is exactly what Bing Bong needs to meet his emotional needs in the moment.
Moments of negative emotion (sadness, grief, fear, etc.) provide the richest opportunity for connection. The comfort comes from feeling that we are connected, even when we are going through something difficult.
Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT