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  • Writer's pictureBy Rachel Anyika

How Emotional Attunement Can Transform Your Relationships

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Emotional attunement or mirroring is the ability to recognise, understand and engage with another's emotional state. In intimate relationships, a lack of emotional attunement leads to unhappiness, distrust, resentment and the loss of loving feelings. Our ability to attune to others is initially learned in childhood, from our primary caregiver (often our mother).

"Emotional attunement should begin in infancy, with a mother or primary caregiver following the baby's emotional cues. Babies are born feeling deep emotions but lack the ability to regulate or manage the intensity and duration of those emotions. Without the monitoring help of Mother, babies are engulfed by their emotional states, including those of fear, excitement and sadness. However, when Mother is able to tune in, pay attention to these emotions and respond accordingly (meet the baby’s need), she communicates to baby that she is in sync, understands what the baby is doing, feeling and thinking. This allows baby to feel safe and secure. This tuning in assists brain development and over time teaches the baby in how to self-regulate, make sense of their emotions and thus communicate his or her needs. It is a Mother’s gift to her child, an emotional road map to decipher what they are feeling. If a child’s feelings are continually discounted, ignored or reprimanded, they will not know how to soothe, respond, or express those emotions in adulthood." - Finding Emotional Connection/Attunement, All Relationship Matters

What Leads To Misattunement

The reasons why a mother (or primary caregiver) may struggle to attune to their baby, are varied. The mother may be depressed, overworked, dealing with their own unprocessed trauma or suffering from addictions, to name a few of the possibilities. Even a seemingly small belief can lead to misattunement.

"Sarah was twenty-five when she gave birth to twin boys, Mark and Fred. Mark, she felt, was more like herself; Fred was more like his father. That perception may have been the seed of a telling but subtle difference in how she treated each boy. When the boys were just three months old, Sarah would often try to catch Fred’s gaze, and when he would avert his face, she would try to catch his eye again; Fred would respond by turning away more emphatically. Once she would look away, Fred would look back at her, and the cycle of pursuit and aversion would begin again-often leaving Fred in tears. But with Mark, Sarah virtually never tried to impose eye contact as she did with Fred. Instead Mark could break off eye contact whenever he wanted, and she would not pursue. A small act, but telling. A year later, Fred was noticeably more fearful and dependent than Mark; one way he showed his fearfulness was by. breaking off eye contact with other people, as he had done with his mother at three months, turning his face down and away. Mark, on the other hand, looked people straight in the eye; when he wanted to break off contact, he’d turn his head slightly upward and to the side, with a winning smile. The twins and their mother were observed so minutely when they took part in research by Daniel Stem, a psychiatrist then at Cornell University School of Medicine. Daniel Stem is fascinated by the small, repeated exchanges that take place between parent and child; he believes that the most basic lessons of emotional life are laid down in these intimate moments. Of all such moments, the most critical are those that let the child know her emotions are met with empathy, accepted, and reciprocated, in a process Stem calls attunement. The twins’ mother was attuned with Mark, but out of emotional synch with Fred. Stem contends that the countlessly repeated moments of attunement or misattunement between parent and child shape the emotional expectations adults bring to their close relationships-perhaps far more than the more dramatic events of childhood." - Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

Effect On Adult Relationships

Emotional intelligence advice

Misattunement often leads to an insecure attachment style in adult relationships. I found the following example eye-opening in explaining why some people who appear to be very successful at forming social and business relationships, can have such difficulty in forming close intimate relationships. In the below example, Mark learned as a child how to monitor and regulate his mother's emotional state rather than his own. This results in emotional dysregulation, insecure attachment style and basing his own feelings on how other people are feeling.

"The love and admiration he hungered for from the world around him consumed his attention, leaving him bereft of empathy for his wife. He spent his waking hours trying to please others at the expense of his wife. Busy "getting" others, Mark didn't "get" Amanda. He couldn't begin to imagine why Amanda no longer loved him. She, in turn, felt frustration, anger, and pain. "I want you to understand me, to feel for me," was how she put it to him. "You have no idea what I feel, what I'm really about. It's all surface stuff that you do to get others to love you. It's so you can be the big shot. It's always been about you." Mark's failure of empathy and emotional attunement had simply eroded Amanda's love. He was great at superficial relationships, which he established with others here, there, and everywhere, but real intimacy escaped him, and he was unable to transcend his own emotional needs in order to empathize with Amanda's. His own emotional needs were substantial; Mark constantly needed approval, admiration, and love. Like an emotionally starved child, he went about getting them with frantic energy, selling himself in every interaction. Mark was expert at monitoring social cues so he could give people what they wanted. He spent enormous energy pleasing others so they would take care of his emotional needs. Why? The answer was simple: Mark was playing out an old family script, one written by his mother's interaction with him. Married to an alcoholic, Mark's mother had experienced persistent mental anguish. In her distressed state, she was unable to emotionally attune to little Mark. Rather than comfort him, she needed to be comforted. Rather than reflecting her son's needs, she required him to take care of hers. Rather than showing love to him, she needed him to show love to her. Her mirroring abilities misfired. From very early on, Mark learned how to please his mother so she would love him. And the old dynamic crept back into his adult behavior in his people-pleasing ways of relating. Mark's learned behavior left Amanda feeling invisible, unimportant, and taken for granted." - Loving Me Means Walking In My Shoes, Frances Cohen Paver

Learning Attunement & Mirroring

If we haven't experienced enough attunement in childhood, how can we learn and practice attunement in our adult relationships?

  • Start recognising, labelling and accepting your own emotions - When you feel an emotional reaction to something, stop and identify the emotion. For example, are you feeling happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment or something else. Now give yourself permission to feel the emotion. Every emotion you feel is valid, acceptable and real. Next, identify the trigger of the emotion. Try not to focus on someone else's actions, rather consider what belief their actions have arisen in you or your own perception of their actions. Being aware of your own emotions is the stepping stone for awareness of others emotions. Internalising your emotions in this way allows you to own your emotions. This means that no-one can control how you feel and that you can recognise other's emotions as separate from your own.

  • Shift your focus to understanding what your partner feels - A useful quote to remember is; seek to understand before seeking to be understood. Those with insecure attachment styles as a result of misattunement often first consider a partners behavior in terms of what it means for them, their needs and overall security in the relationship. Therefore, the aim is to consider emotional attunement first.

  • In interactions with your partner, try to identify the emotions they are feeling - Ask them clarifying questions to identify the trigger of their emotions and focus on empathising with their feelings. You may say things like I can understand why that would make you feel sad, I'm sorry that you had to experience that etc. Try not to invalidate their feelings, even if it makes you feel defensive as it relates to your behaviour. Remember your defensiveness is a result of your perception of the situation.

One result of better attunement is the ability to take more objective relationship decisions. You understand that a person cannot make you feel a certain way and vice versa. You are no longer seeing your relationship just through the lens of your own emotions and making your partner sole gatekeeper of those emotions. A man who has mastered himself has no desire to control anyone else.

"When you question your emotions, you ditch the habit of automatically assigning blame (or praise) to someone who may not in fact deserve it. You deserve the benefit of the doubt, and so does everybody else. You’ll be able to see people for what they actually are and do, and not just for how they made you feel. You’ll find that you pick the winners for your relationships because you are choosing based on a new scale. This scale factors in actual value, and not the inflationary feelings that end up expanding and bursting your relationship bubble. You’ll find that your relationships actually increase in value and intimacy, and that they never stop growing. It seems counterintuitive, but our happiness, intimacy, and longevity in relationships are only limited to our personal growth. And personal growth is only limited to your willingness to see your faults in relationships, and improve on them." -The Mirroring Effect: How to Own Your Emotions and Create Lasting Intimacy, Daniel Dowling

Improve relationships

A final comforting thought to consider on the matter comes in the form of mirror neurones. If we did not receive attunement in childhood it may seem difficult to imagine that we can learn and remember to attune in our adult relationships. However, neuroscience tells us that humans are wired in the brain to feel empathy for others, with the discovery of mirror neurons. Therefore, we can also view attunement as being able to bypass old defence and coping mechanisms from childhood, to access our true natural ability to empathise with others.

"Researchers in Parma Italy made a ground breaking discovery. Recent scientific findings show that we have what are called "mirror neurons" that link us to others' internal worlds in a meaningful relationship. In a romantic relationship, matching mirror neurons act like mirrors and reflect each partner's thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and desires to the other. And so partners walk in each other's shoes emotionally, which is what empathy and intimacy is all about." - Empathy: The Royal Road to Intimacy, Frances Cohen Paver


Finding Emotional Connection/Attunement, All Relationship Matters Blog -

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bantum Books - 15 November 1996

Frances Cohen Paver, Loving Me Means Walking In My Shoes, Psychology Today -

Daniel Dowling, The Mirroring Effect: How To Own Your Own Emotions And Create Lasting Intimacy, The Good Men Project -

Frances Cohen Paver, Empathy: The Royal Road To Intimacy, Psychology Today -


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