How We Are Wired for Connection and What Gets in the Way

Shoshona Pascoe, MFT

I recently attended a conference with Dr. Sue Johnson on Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples ( This model of couples work gets to the heart of the distress many, many couples find themselves experiencing. Natural longings and needs for connection are covered over by secondary emotions; anger and blame are two common ones. In a society that values individuation and independence, the wired-in need for connection is often underestimated if not pathologized. In working with couples I see the more vulnerable core needs, and the way hurt and disappointment create walls of protection over them. How to uncover these more primary emotions is the task, but the protective covering that has been built over time has its own agenda.

The cycle of interaction between a couple forms a behavior pattern or habit between them. Shifting the focus from the other person "over there" who is the cause of the trouble in the relationship, to the stuck cycle between the two people, is the goal. Once we are curious about the cycle we can begin uncovering missing pieces of the puzzle and find more choice. It takes courage to soften the hardened protective stances such as distancing or an angry harshness. What can come as a surprise in relationship is to learn that a partner is so angry because you mean that much to them, and there is tremendous distress at the lack of intimacy and emotional closeness. And fear is a normal expression of the alarm that is evoked when our primary relationship withdraws from us or strikes out against us. We may feel deeply touched when the person who has been criticizing us is able to feel their loneliness and fear and let the attack soften into sadness.

There is a huge weight on our romantic relationships to satisfy this wired in the genes need for connection. Community, family, extended family and friends are other ways to feel the bonds of attachment that are as needed now as when we were tribal people. But the reality of modern life has transferred the greatest responsibility upon our primary mate. And the pressure to provide this needed ground, in the midst of the stresses of modern life, has many couples struggling. Sue Johnson used the image of being hungry, seeing the food that would satisfy, but there is a glass wall separating you from feasting. Your needs get turned on in relationship but when the stuck cycle is operating we feel denied. Many people share that the loneliness when you are alone is nothing compared to the loneliness one feels in a relationship, when needs for closeness and safety are not satisfied.

People reach out to connect in the bones. Dependency needs are operating with or without our consent. Current brain research talks of mirror neurons; we are constantly attuning to and affecting others and being changed and affected by them. As a therapist I want to work with that natural inclination to bond, to touch and be touched. To know that beneath the stories, and the difficulties are universal urges to be deeply connected. We are all looking for connection and a dependable place to rest our tender hearts.


©2005-2015 Shoshona Pascoe, Chinn Street Counseling Center; all rights reserved.