Attunement: the One Relational Need That is Often Unmet

For most of my life I’ve been craving for someone to just “get” me. I found I would spend so long justifying my feelings, reactions and behavior when all I really wanted was someone to be on my side; someone to be on the same wavelength. I would seek this closeness in my mother, in a best friend, a boyfriend, a counselor… but no one could seem to fulfill this high expectation for this closeness I so badly wanted. This quest for closeness turned into a quest for understanding why I craved this closeness so much. It wasn’t until a month ago when I heard the very word that would give me understanding to all of this, as well as deeper insight into my area of coaching practise.

This word is Attunement.

Attunement means to tune into whoever you are speaking with and truly hear them. To understand them by seeing through their perspective of the world. To listen with empathy and openness. To hear all that is being said and all that is not being said. To read between the lines. To notice what’s happening between the space of you and them as you communicate to one another, and to observe what is happening on an emotional level between their words. It means to connect deeply through non-judgement by simply observing.

We have come to know and understand that what needs haven’t been fulfilled in childhood, we unconsciously seek out in our adult relationships. But before we can look at what’s happening in our adult relationships, we must look at where attunement is most important in building the foundation of a healthy connection to our most intimate relationships and to ourselves.

Attunement in our early years

When you were just a baby your main source for everything (love, food, nurturing, caring, cleaning, learning, growing) came from your primary parent, usually your mother. We depended on our mother not only for survival, but for her to just “get” us. To get our every cry, our every coo, our every need.

Now imagine, it’s her first time in motherhood and she’s learning how to take care of you. She’s still adjusting to the big shifts in her life: caring for another human being, living off of broken sleep for weeks, and going through the change in her own identity from an independent woman to a dependable mother. Amongst all her inner chaos, you begin to cry. You cry hysterically because you’re needing something, but that something is not exactly clear. Are you thirsty? Or are you hungry? Maybe you’re tired? Or perhaps you are coming down with the flu? Could it be that your cries are alluding to something much deeper? Are you feeling lonely and in need of being held?

Your mother or father has mere minutes to figure out what exactly you need before disrupting the bond of a secure attachment with you. We are born with limited capacities for self-regulating and therefore we must learn how to self-regulate from our early attachment relationships (our mother and/or father). This learning to attune to our own needs lies on how well our caregivers can attune swiftly to ours. No parent is perfect at understanding each specific need according to how we cry or make noise– at least not in the beginning. And so with enough consistent delays in attuning to our needs, this can affect how we later self-regulate external arousal in our adulthood (Siegel:1999). In adulthood, this could look like not knowing how to deal with the arousal of stress or overwhelm appropriately because you haven’t been taught how to attune to your own needs. As a way of coping to the stress instead, you may resort to external means for comfort and self-soothing (food, sex, consumerism, drugs, alcohol) instead of truly feeding the underlying craving.

Attunement in adult relationships

In friendships:
A good friend of mine shared with me that she often doesn’t bother telling her family or close friends when she’s having a bad day, because their response to her outpour is of unmatching empathy and understanding to her pain. They respond to her half-heartedly, “awe…that sucks. I’m sorry to hear that.” This sort of response doesn’t communicate empathy, but rather pity. It makes the person on the other end who is already in a vulnerable state feel even more alone in their own pain. Unfortunately, most people have not learned how to respond in these sort of sensitive situations. They do the best they can and say something to offer some sympathetic words, not realizing that this can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.

In romantic relationships:
Emotional attunement nurtures a deeper bond between two people; it nurtures deep understanding and trust. We have been taught that often what breaks down a relationship is when the communication breaks down, but really it’s when two people are no longer communicating on the same channel. They’re not attuned to one another anymore because they’ve gotten into the mindset about “me, me, me” instead of “us, us, us” or “you, you, you”. When this happens in relationships, we feel like they just aren’t ‘getting’ us. This frustrates us and can feel hurtful because we have put so much trust in them to get us. When we feel emotionally out of alignment with our partners, we consciously or unconsciously take a step back; we withhold our love and affection for the lack of emotional connection in our relationship. Our partners then feel this distance between us and react in whatever way is their normal reaction: aloofness, cries for attention, or making themselves busy in other areas of their life (distraction), and creating further distance between the two of you.

Where is the line between expecting another to fulfill our needs of attunement and expecting another to fulfill our emotional needs in general?

There’s a fine line between relying on your partner or closest friends to fulfill your needs for happiness and holding a standard of how you want to feel support, understanding and acceptance from those you allow in your intimate relationships. It’s important to become aware of what your true intentions are within your relationships. Do you want this person in your life because they bring you added joy, laughter, and contentment to your life? Or is it because they bring you joy, laughter and contentment that you cannot seem to achieve on your own?  

We all are so unique in our emotional needs, and so we can see how unrealistic an expectation is for a parent, friend, or partner to attune to us perfectly. Aside from infant and childhood, we cannot rely solely on another to fulfill our emotional needs. Said plainly:

  • We cannot expect for them to say the right thing that will fix what we are feeling on the inside.
  • We cannot expect for them to heal us.
  • What we can expect is a listening ear, an empathetic response such as “I hear you and I understand that what you’re feeling right now is hard.”
  • We can expect to feel love and support to those we most trust such as our close friends and our partner.

You can see it becomes rather silly to expect another person to be perfect at fully getting us, because we are all very unique. The only person that can truly attune to your needs is you!

How to Re-attune to those we love and trust

Attunement is really your need to be understood. When having the tricky conversations with those important to us, we must bear in mind that they, too, want to feel heard and understood. Understanding is a basic need of all beings. People often won’t be open to hearing your side of the story (especially if it’s critical of them) until they feel truly heard and gotten. In the moment it may feel very uncomfortable to let go of your stance, because the ego is head-strong and doesn’t want to budge. Ego wants to win! For the sake of keeping your relationship intact, we must surrender our power to hear their story fully.

Practise true understanding of your partner. Imagine life through their situation and circumstance. Practise listening by observing what they are saying. Put your own critical thoughts to the side, just for a minute or two. You can come back to them later. Truly understand where they are coming from, and dicifier what need they are really craving. What are they saying between their words? When your partner can feel a genuineness, that you’re on their side, their defense-wall will slowly come down. This is when you can begin to have an honest heart-to-heart conversation together to resolve conflict and re-attune to one another.

Fulfilling our own needs: Tuning in

Attunement is what we yearn for in our most intimate relationships, and yet how often do we truly attune to our own needs? How often do you love yourself unconditionally? Hear yourself completely? Accept yourself for just the way you are in this moment without judgment or criticism? When we can emotionally attune to ourselves, we create an inner sense of trust, a way to self-nurture and begin the process of learning how to self-mother. Maybe you didn’t have the attunement from your parent(s) that you needed in childhood. We can send love to our parents from doing what they could do during that time. We are all on a journey through life. We are all trying to figure it out, including the beings that is our parents. It’s not useful to dwell on the past.  It is important to grieve over what you may have missed receiving in childhood, and heal from deep emotional traumas if you need to with a qualified therapist.

Attunement is such an important part of us feeling connected, but it’s not enough if relying on attunement from people outside of ourselves. This is truly when the work gets tough! Attuning to ourselves, our own needs and our own feelings is not easy, nor is it always comfortable. But if we’re really wanting to become the Fierce and Feminine leaders of our own life, this is a must. Tuning in to what’s going on internally takes patience, consistency and most of all…silence. Some things you can ask yourself on mornings when you’re feeling a bit off are:

  • What is it in me that feels off this morning?
  • What brought on this off feeling?
  • What am I really craving that I don’t have right now? (If you’re answer is something like food or a boyfriend, please dig deeper! Perhaps it’s comfort, security, or connection, intimacy)
  • What can I do right now for myself that will bring up my energy even just by a little bit?

I hope that this has given you some insight into your relationships with closest to you and the relationship you have with yourself. I’d love to hear what resonated by leaving a comment below 🙂