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Are You There?

Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


r. Sue Johnson, world-renowned author, therapist, and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, states that 90% of marital conflict stems from feelings of emotional disconnection, the sense that one is unseen, abandoned, or alone. The goal of a couple’s typical argument is to regain that connection so that the spouse feels cared about and loved.

Of course, arguing rarely results in the desired closeness, but it’s at least an attempt. When two parties no longer fight, it can mean they have simply given up trying to connect.

The same dynamic occurs between a child and her parent. At first a child reaches out to her parent, hoping to be emotionally acknowledged. After many failures, however, the child often stops trying. She no longer shares her feelings or her life, and the parent-child connection disintegrates into a superficial, artificial shadow of a relationship. Deep sharing and caring is replaced by discussions about the weather or best buys.


A.R.E. You There for Me?

What is true connection? Dr. Johnson uses the acronym A.R.E. to describe it.

“A” is for accessible. It’s the opposite of emotionally unavailable, physically absent, and mentally distracted. An accessible loved one makes herself available and present — not constantly, but regularly.

“R” is for responsive. A responsive person pays attention to all the cues that are presented in communication: words, facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. It’s the opposite of discounting, ignoring, or looking away.

“E” stands for engaged. Not only is the connected party present and responsive, but she’s fully engaged in the relationship. She contributes her own thoughts and feelings and participates in the dance of communication.

Throughout life, a person needs to know there is someone there for her, someone she can count on to come when called, to hold her when she needs support, to understand, see, and fully accept her. This is love. It gives a person strength to fight the battle of life.


Going it Alone

Unfortunately, many people grow up without such a person in their life.

“My mother was understandably busy. There were ten of us, including a set of twins. I don’t blame her for being distracted and overwhelmed. I knew I’d just have to fend for myself, so that’s what I did. I thought that being on my own was normal — until I married and became part of my husband’s family.

“Ironically, my mother-in-law has become more of a mother to me than my own mother ever was. She actually notices me — my feelings and accomplishments — and she comments on what she observes. I feel seen and embraced by both her and my husband. It’s been very healing for me.”


Learning to Connect

Those who went through childhood without true connection are not always so fortunate in adulthood. Many times, lacking the connecting skills to bond in a healthy way to their spouse and children, they continue to feel pangs of aloneness throughout their lives.

However, it’s possible to learn basic connecting strategies at any point in life. Here are some:

Create and maintain “date night” with your spouse; create and maintain “quality time” periods to play, talk, and otherwise engage with your children.

Look for and name emotions in loved ones: “You look happy today!” “You seem quiet.” “I know you’re disappointed.” “You look worried.” “You seem a little down.” “I can see you’re upset.”

Show interest and be involved. Ask questions, follow up, offer encouragement and positive feedback. Tell your own stories. Share your thoughts and feelings. Speak up.

Don’t be on your phone all day. If your phone takes up most of your time and headspace, your primary relationships will pay the price.

Show you notice what loved ones are doing, trying to do, and struggling with. “Wow, you’re really working hard on that project!” “I see you’re trying out new hairstyles.” “Some of those homework questions are really hard!”

Show up. When a loved one is in pain, is celebrating a milestone, or needs help, respond. You are the helper, cheerleader, and major support to precious souls on this planet; do your job well.

Practicing connecting strategies is good for us, our loved ones, and our relationships. Being there for each other is one of life’s most important endeavors.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 630)

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