I just loved this article by Emily Nagasaki, a sex expert who brilliantly straddles the worlds of science and emotions. It outlines a simple tip for communicating in close relationships to build emotional engagement.
An important idea that didn’t fit into my next book.
I’ve been working on the trust section of my new book (the one about sex in long term relationships), and I wrote a big section on the relationship between individual differences in temperament and a person’s ability to be emotionally engaged—emotional engagement is the “E” in Sue Johnson’s language about trust. She says that trust is “A.R.E. you there for me?” where “A” is emotional accessibility, “R” is emotional responsiveness, and “E” is emotional engagement. Questions like “Am I there for my partner?” and “Are you there for me?” are excellent starting places for assessing the trust in your relationship.
And the section just doesn’t fit in the book.
So here! Y’all have it! I think it’s interesting and helpful—or at least it was for me, when I learned this stuff!
Maybe you have a serious temperament. You’re someone who, ahem, notices what can be improved before you notice what’s already working. People might think of you as a pessimist, because your ability to notice things that can be improved can come across as if all you see is what doesn’t work.
Let’s go way, way back to my early days of being in romantic relationships. I was in college. My certain special someone had just redecorated their dorm room. When I came into the refreshed space, they asked, “What do you think?”
And I said…
Well, what would you want someone to say to you, in these circumstances?
You’d want them to say, “It’s great!” or “I love it!” or even “It feels so you!”
The first thing I said was, “The rug is crooked.”
And look, when my college dating partner asked me what I thought of their new room, it’s just not true that “The rug is crooked” is what I thought of the room. I thought it looked nice. I thought it gave me some ideas about what to do with my room. Above all, I thought they looked really happy with the change, and I was glad they were happy. And all of those thoughts mattered more than rug. But I noticed the rug first, so I mentioned the rug first, thus missing a moment of emotional engagement.
My temperament is serious and analytical; I am excellent at identifying problems. I could give a lot of embarrassing examples here about times when I explained to people how they could solve their problem, and they surprised me by being angry with me for solving their problem. If that sounds familiar to you, your necessary skill is:
Say the nice thing first.
Saying the nice thing first is a crucial part of how to build and reinforce trust through emotional engagement. My partner needs and deserves praise, to know that I love and admire him, before I ask for a change, and that’s normal. It’s normal to want or even need to hear good things before we’re ready to accept critical things. Praise, admiration, and acceptance are how people build that tender, vulnerable emotional connection that characterizes so few of our relationships. That connection is emotional engagement.
So even though I still notice what can be improved before I notice what’s working, I’ve learned to say what’s working before I say what can be improved. I’ve even learned that most of the time, people don’t want or need to hear what I think can be improved, they really only want and need to hear encouragement and support. And if they trust you, they’ll come to you when they encounter a problem.
Criticism like “The rug is crooked” is just one of many flavors of non-engagement by a serious temperament. Other non-engaged first responses might sound like:
Partner A: How about we try keeping the plates in a different cabinet?
Partner B: Here’s the history of why the plates have always been where they are.
Not malign, not even saying no, just… not emotionally engaged. Partner B is engaged with the history of their kitchen storage, rather than with Partner A’s interest in changing it. All Partner B has to do is engage with the idea of moving the plates beforethey reminisce about the origin story of the plate storage. Because it is actually true, isn’t it, that your partner’s feelings matter more to you than where you keep the plates.
This can be as simple as:
Partner A: How about we try keeping the plates in a different cabinet?
Partner B: (with curiosity) You’d like to move the plates?
Partner B: (with affection) Remember when we found those plates at that second-hand shop? I love those plates.
Partner B: Sure. Which cabinet would be better?
Sometimes “the nice thing” means you talk about the feelings people have before you talk about anything else. Does your partner want to tell you all about their success at work today? Start with, “Look how excited you are! I’m excited, too! Tell me all about it.” That’s emotional engagement.
Does your partner want to tell you how they want to rearrange the furniture in the bedroom, because they keep bumping into things? Start with, “Definitely, I don’t want you getting hurt!” Emotional engagement. And then you help them move the furniture however they like and they will soon recognize what you already knew—that there was no better arrangement possible and actually you need to remove some stuff.
These engaged responses are never insincere. Just because you have a critical, analytical awareness of things doesn’t mean you don’t also have a kind, affectionate awareness of those same things. You’re just choosing to say the kind, affectionate things first, so that your partner feels the warm glow of emotional engagement and your relationship is strengthened. Once the emotional engagement is reinforced, your partner is much more likely to be ready and willing to hear your important ideas about solutions, because they feel more trusting.
Even when the stakes are far higher than moving furniture, I keep a rein on my critical analysis. If I’m worried about money, I start with honest praise and gratitude for the ways we have stayed on budget together. Only then do I say that I wonder aloud if the budget we decided on was too ambitious, or that I notice that our timeline for certain expenses has changed and I’m worried, but here’s a potential solution. (A secondary necessary skill for serious people: When you do present a problem, always accompany it with a potential solution.)
Saying the nice thing first can be effortful, I’m not going to lie, and it is definitely not efficient. But efficiency isn’t the “e” that will keep trust strong in your relationship. Engagement is. Take the time to engage warmly with your partner before you try to problem solve, explain a situation, or contradict a person with whom you hope to sustain a satisfying long-term sexual connection. Emotional engagement prevents disagreements from escalating into fights, which ultimately both saves time and preserves and even reinforces trust.
That way, you can use entirely efficient language when the building is on fire or someone broke a bone, when it’s an actual emergency. The well-established trust between you makes abrupt communication acceptable when it’s necessary.
Say the nice thing first, because it’s honestly true that your partner matters more than any problem that pops into your head or any reluctance you feel about novelty or transitions. Build emotional engagement, to have trust that lasts.
And use your knowledge of each other’s traits to increase your admiration for each other. Never use temperament as a weapon, never criticize or judge someone for their temperament, and never judge yourself harshly for having the temperament you were born with. And also, never use your temperament as an excuse for hurting someone or for letting trust break down in your relationship. Living with temperamental differences is just a matter of developing your communication skills, which all of us are capable of learning with practice. None of us are doing it wrong, all of us are doing it differently; none of us are perfect, we are all doing our best. When we turn toward our differences with kindness, compassion, and, yes, admiration, temperamental differences can enhance emotional engagement and trust.