Making Sense of Closeness

Last night, I was watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  If you don’t know it, it is a show on Amazon Prime about a 1950s housewife turned stand-up comic and it’s fabulous.  It’s times like this when I hate being a marriage counselor. I wish I could just watch this show and appreciate the candid humor, amazing 50s fashion and sensational acting.  But I can’t help but be beside myself when Mrs. Maisel leaves her kids for what appears to be weeks at a time to pursue her comedy career.

I think about relationships and attachment all the time.  I can’t escape it. So instead of laughing at Mrs. Maisel’s clever jokes, I am biting my nails out of fear for the potential attachment issues her children will have later in life. Such is a therapist’s life.

What am I fearing? I’m fearing that her kids are going to have an insecure or avoidant attachment style, due to her lack of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement in their lives. And therefore, they are more likely to have relationship difficulties.  Is that not what you were thinking? Probably not. Be glad about that.

Now, we’ve come a long way since the “children are to be seen, not heard” days.  Why? Because we aren’t archaic. But more importantly, because we understand attachment.

In relationships, we tend to make things very complicated.  Being a good spouse isn’t complicated. Having a good marriage isn’t complicated.  It’s actually very simple. Actually, to be a good partner (and parent, by the way) you are simply A.R.E..

What Is A.R.E.*?

A.R.E. means that when your spouse needs you on an emotional level, you are Accessible, Responsive and Engaged.  You are A.R.E..

Let’s break these down further.

Accessible

When your spouse comes to you because they are having a hard time, they can reach you.  You are ACCESSIBLE. Even if you are performing life-saving surgery as a renowned physician, they know after the surgery, after you have changed out of your blood-soaked scrubs, they can reach you emotionally.  They know that when you come home after a heck of a day, and see the weary look in their eyes, you will be there.

Think about when you were growing up.  Was one or both of your parents accessible? Meaning, if you were sad, scared or worried, could you easily seek out one of your parents for comfort?  If they were struggling with severe depression, addiction, or they were on the road with their job for months at a time, they may not have been physically or emotionally accessible.  When a parent or spouse is not accessible, we figure out a way to meet our emotional needs on our own. This creates division, not connection.

Responsive

“Can I rely on you?” When your spouse shares the pain of their hard time, you are RESPONSIVE.  You respond to their pain by showing “I see you are having a hard time, I care that you are having a hard time, and I want to respond to you in a way that is helpful.”

Go back to growing up.  When you fell down and scraped your knee, was there someone who responded to you?  Did a parent hear your cry, come close to you and offer help? If so, you likely had a responsive parent.  When people close to us see our hard time and are unresponsive, we experience pain.

Engaged

Simply stated, when your partner is having a hard time, you stay close.  You lean in. You don’t pull away, make it about you, or leave. You say, “Let’s try and get through this hard time together.  I am here.” This is where a lot of couples need help. They are accessible to their spouse, they try to be responsive because they do want to be helpful.  If you feel like you are accessible and responsive but you and your partner still have a hard time feeling close during difficult times, consider that your methods of “helping” may not feel super helpful to your partner.  Check out this earlier post for some more effective ways to engage.

Final Thoughts

A.R.E..  That’s it!  That is the key ingredient to healthy relationships.  It can be applied to your spouse, your child or your best friend.  Of course, you could accomplish spouse-of-the-year status if you also throw in a home-cooked meal, a round of laundry or unloading the dishwasher without prompting.  But for emotional closeness, all you need is A.R.E.

Notice that these proven relationship strategies are not about finding solutions, fixing your spouse’s problems, or giving your opinions of what you think they should do.  It is just simply being accessible, responsive and engaged. We complicate something that is so simple. A.R.E.. That’s it.

ADD Version

  • For emotional closeness, all you need to know is A.R.E..
  • Are you Accessible? Your partner can reach you.
  • Are you Responsive? Your partner can rely on you.
  • Are you Engaged? You stay close to your partner when they are hurting.

*A.R.E. is a concept created by Dr. Sue Johnson, the innovator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.  You can read more about it in her ground-breaking book: Hold Me Tight:  Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

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