A.R.E. you there for me?
If you’ve been following my blog posts for a while, you’ll notice the emphasis I put on connection and vulnerability. While traditional “communication tools” can be useful, they all fall short unless there’s a close, secure foundation in which they’re being used within. This is because a lot of things we go through either individually or relationally are emotional, not necessarily logical. We are humans after all and, try as we may, we tend not to be able to separate ourselves from our emotions.
So how do we build or sustain this close, secure foundation in our marriage and what impact does this have on our conversations? Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, uses the acronym A.R.E. - Accessible, Responsive, Engaged. She explains the importance of being able to have A.R.E. conversations, especially when in distress or experiencing distance and disconnection in your intimate relationship. Let’s look at the difference when we have our regular conversation, often getting bogged down in the content (we’ll call this a “content conversation”), versus having an A.R.E. conversation, which focuses more on the connection and dynamic of the couple.
Jake and Katie have two young kids, both work full time, and have limited social support. The last few years they’ve been feeling more overwhelmed as the demands of life increase. As a result, they haven’t been able to nurture their relationship like they used to, rarely having time to give to one another. Katie starts to feel more and more alone in her marriage, and Jake feels more like a failure. Katie tries talking to Jake about how she’s feeling.
Katie: “Something has to change - I can’t keep being everything to everyone. I’m exhausted. I work all day and come home and work all night. Maybe if you helped out with dinner every so often, or watched the kids so I could tackle housework more efficiently…”
Jake: “I’m just as busy as you. I wake up early to get the kids to daycare. I go straight to work where my boss is unrelenting. Then I come home to more demands. I never get a break. At least you get to go to the gym in the morning.”
I won’t complete this scenario as we can see how the conversation will continue - through a series of defend and prove who has it harder. If this couple was able to eventually get to a place of talking about chore division and planning regular date nights, would it fix the feelings they’re both having about feeling alone and like a failure? The household may run more smoothly but the couple will still likely experience relationship conflict because the core of the issue don’t change. Now let’s look at how a different conversation might go.
Katie: Something has to change. I feel like I have to do it all. I really need to know I’m not alone in this. You seem far away.
Jake: I get it. We’re both so busy. This is a hard season. I wish I had more to give. I hate seeing how frazzled you are in the evenings and feeling like there’s nothing I can do to help.
Katie: I just want to know that you’re there with me.
Jake: Always. I’m not going anywhere.
How is this conversation different? It’s not just the words, although wording is important. It’s everything else. It’s tone of voice that coveys I’m available to talk, it’s nonverbals that convey engagement, it’s sharing more authentically and vulnerably, hitting those core emotions, it’s hearing the NEED (I.e., feeling alone, NOT “I need you to do more chores”) and RESPONDING to that need. A.R.E. conversations are for both partners - it takes one spouse being clear that they need reassurances of A.R.E. you there for me, and the other spouse being clear in offering that reassurance - “I’m not going anywhere”. In the end, the couple might do a chore list, they might plan more date nights, but this happens after they’ve addressed the core emotions and offered one another a sense of security and closeness in the relationship.
If we want to look at this logically, we can see that it doesn’t make sense to fix an emotional “problem” using our intellect, just like it certainly doesn’t make sense trying to solve a math problem using our emotions. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to fix feelings of being alone with a chore chart, but rather with reassurances and demonstrations of “being there” for one another. When we can chose the right “tools”, we can have a different ending, one in which both husband and wife feel safe, secure, and connected in their marriage. I encourage you to have an A.R.E. conversation with your spouse and let me know how it goes!