Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Building Trust, Sexless Marriages

Young, happy couple laughing romantically while sitting the hot tub outside in the winter.
        There is a specific way that love creates trust that relates to “being there” for one’s partner when the partner is in need. 

        We call the act of "being there" for one's partner the process of emotional attunement. Attunement means that one partner listens non-defensively to the other partner’s negative emotions (even if they are about you), and tries to understand their feelings and make an effort to empathize with them. 

        Attunement also means that one partner’s pain is not ignored, dismissed, or overlooked. This means the listening partner is communicating something like, “If you hurt, baby, then the world stops until we figure out how to change things so you don’t hurt anymore. I will listen and try to understand, and help you figure out what you need, and try to meet that need.” 

        Dr. Gottman recently saw a couple in therapy who had not made love in over 15 years! Neither of them had ever talked about the pain that this caused caused until they got to his lab. After some encouragement, the wife was able to tell her partner how lonely she felt, and how much she wanted him to touch her, hold her, and make passionate love to her.

        He listened and heard her tell him about the enormous psychological pain she felt, that she felt unattractive and ugly, and that she thought this was all his fault. When he heard this, he made a vow that he would touch and hold her and make love to her. He told her that in actuality, he was very attracted to her, and he apologized for making her ever doubt her own beauty.

        Then when it was the husbands turn to talk the wife listened to him tell her how he felt disrespected by her, and that his ideas felt like they not important to their family’s decisions. He told her that as a result, he felt lonely and excluded from the family, from her and their two daughters. She was able to listen to his enormous pain, and make an effort to understand what she did that made him feel disrespected. 

        He also told her about times when he did feel included and respected by her, and that he missed those times. It turns out that he had withdrawn from her because he felt she didn’t want him anymore. He said he felt like a paycheck with a heartbeat, that she seemed totally self-sufficient, and he felt she that didn’t need him.

        After 15 years of silence and pain, this couple was able to finally reconnect. This was because they were able to hear one another - truly hear one another - and attune to one another’s pain. This enabled them to moved toward one another, both emotionally and physically. They then began the joyous pathway toward cherishing one another and building a culture of appreciation and respect in their relationship.

        Trust is built in very small moments in which one person turns toward their partner when they're in need. When our partner responds positively, by “being there” for us, that builds trust. 

        In many cases couples will periodically take one another’s “emotional temperature,” by just genuinely asking, “How are you doing baby?” This honest inquiry needs to be followed by a targeted, open-ended question if the answer is, “not so good.” This bid for emotional connection offers an opportunity for initiating an intimate conversation to explore these feelings and connect.

       This week, show your partner that you are truly thankful for having them in your life by taking time for intimate conversation.

Happy Thanksgiving!
The Gottman Institute


  1. Excellent article, but I can't help but wondering what to do in a case where two people's needs are at odds with each other.

    When you say:
    If you hurt, baby, then the world stops until we figure out how to change things so you don’t hurt anymore. I will listen and try to understand, and help you figure out what you need, and try to meet that need.

    Under most circumstances that's fine, but what if my partner needs more time with me and I need more time to myself? We are both VERY busy so ultimately the amount of time we can be together or alone is very limited.

    What do we do?

  2. @ Anonymous,

    Sorry about the delay, we have been extremely busy lately. I am so sorry to hear that you and your partner have this difference in the desired amount of time you spend together vs time you wish to spend alone. Due to the personal nature of your question and the public format of the blog, we cannot specifically address your question here. The blog is intended to be psycho-educational and cannot be used as therapy. That being said, we would love to give you some referrals for where to find help.

    The Gottman Referral Network - - is an excellent resource for finding a Gottman Trained Therapist in your area to help you and your spouse work on this issue. A Gottman Trained Therapist will be able to directly answer your questions in a safe and confidential way and give you advice on how to proceed with this specific issue. Based on your question we highly recommend this approach.

    If seeing a Gottman Trained Therapist however is not an option, we recommend you check out the The Art & Science of Love home workshop - - as this will hopefully help teach you skills to improve the intimacy and closeness of your relationship.

    Thanks again for your question! We wish you the best in your relationship.

    T. Kunovsky, TGI Staff


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