Attunement in relationships: What is it and how do we achieve it?

Many of us show up in our relationships in the same way that our early caregivers or parents showed up for us... or didn’t, as it goes.


This is a harder ask for those of us who are insecurely attached.

The pathway to how we might become more attuned to others allows us to become truly intimate in all our relationships without operating instead from our known biases, that were developed way before our verbal exchanges, because they were “felt” and subsequently used by us to survive. This is not something we consciously chose. Often pre-verbal, it has a somatic origin.

Survival is our first instinct and, as humans, ensuring we are attached is pivotal. We are born helpless without it. So choice doesn’t come into it. We adapt through somatic response to our environment it is entirely instinctual, although l personally believe our innate character and temperament do have a part to play in it. This, l bring in as an observation from watching my own children, and how they were from the get-go with their unique ways of naturally being.

What is attunement?

In our infancy, if we have a parent who is attuned to our needs and the various differences in our cries and distress and facial expressions, without words what we need will be contained, as the parent is tuned into us. Soothing ensues and becomes “known”. Someone is present with us and aware of what is going on with us in our inner world, even without words. We can also do this with our pets. They can’t talk to us but if we are tuned into them, we know what they need, and we get them - we understand when they are distressed.

Within this exchange of attunement, what is learnt and understood on a very fundamental level is that our real authentic self, and our real shown emotions, how we show up without having to alter anything and our needs, will be met and reflected back to us. They are deemed OK and acceptable. Through this, we then learn to do the same with others. We can show up as our true selves. 

This is how a secure person behaves in their relationships from the beginning. There is nothing assumed, no corrupt bias to defer to. There is no projection, new exchanges with others can be present and curious. Nothing is remembered somatically as loss or thread kicks in.

However, if you develop an insecure attachment style of relating, the potential of exchange in relationships is anxious, fearful, or avoidant (please refer to other articles l have written on these attachment styles and their causation). This is because your parent/s or early caregivers were not in tune with you and your needs. This is when it becomes necessary to lean on an adaptive strategy of relating that basically allows you to survive. These vary and are individual and are also influenced by our character and temperament. 

Please note here that, sadly, there are many reasons why a parent or caregiver may not be attuned to an infant or small child, like their work commitments, or health or another child who is poorly, and many many more. This may well not be because of a lack of love on their part, but more like a lack of focus. Their own issues, influences attachment styles and circumstances also play a part in this. 

The ill effect, however, is still the same whatever the reason upon the future attachment style and associated skills of the child that are taken into adulthood.

So largely, if your parent missed the mark and was only able to be intermittently present, or they were with you but kind of not really “present”, being with another person and being connected to them and their needs will not be easy, because what it is like to “be” them - the other person outside of your own know experience of “being” - will likely be heavily encumbered by your own bias and understanding and more likely felt mostly in relation to who you are and how you feel. There is no known barometer of equal exchange.

What happens here is that what becomes learnt is another developed form of strategy to get your needs met.

If as an infant needing and having emotions was unapproved of or not allowed, you will then learn independence and find it difficult to show up emotionally, both for yourself and others. Emotions expressed will feel unsafe and will show vulnerability both of your own and others, unbearable running a million miles from stuff if there was no room for them in your own childhood and so an avoidant style in relationships becomes your coping adopted strategy. 

This is not thought out by you as a small child or chosen but it is developed inside our body. Natural repression will set in as distress or extreme emotions come up for you. Early on these emotions needed not to be shown to remain in connection. This strategy is somatic and part of a survival response as l wrote earlier. 

On the other hand, if you needed to show extreme emotion to ensure connection, then you are going to somatically ramp up the emotion to survive and that will become not your chosen, but your historically “felt” strategy for survival. 

So the difference here is that the securely attached of us show up completely as themselves with all their emotions, without fear or worry about adapting or strategising to please the other. Whereas, those of us who are anxious or avoidant default to strategies that were tried and true in childhood and then these are brought into adult relationships.

Allowing others to just be themselves is problematic and what happens is that it is believed that only a changed or altered version of the real self will be possible to show.

So analysing alongside strategising will be what is mostly going on, to either prevent vulnerability or to garner love rather than things happening in a relaxed natural way. 

How should l present myself? Who or what kind of person would they like, rather than perish the thought of who l actually am? 

Sounds exhausting, because it is and often because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of doubt or lack because attunement is therefore unlikely and impaired.

So if you are avoidant it will look like, 'how to appear to be totally self-sufficient so that appearing to need anything will not be present.'

If you err on the anxious side it will look like, 'how can l make myself someone they will need and like to ensure belonging and attachment?'

Also exhausting. And both are more likely to be drivers that prevent intimacy from taking place because insecure attachment is so conditional.

How can we deepen our connections? 

So what can be done to deepen our connections? How can we or do we show up “real”, most especially when we never have or did because it simply was not possible?

There are lots of avenues of thought around this. 

Often l found that l would “choose” someone avoidant who l could save or fix. All this ever did was perpetuate this role, that in all honestly, l was absolutely tired of anyway.

To actually show up without relying on the safety of, or, going down the old beaten path of historical strategy, l found being honest from the beginning was far better. This is way harder to do if this isn’t how you originally showed up, but at least then, when the truth of how you really are comes out in “the wash”, it really provokes deeper connection, and also such relief.

Remember, your body holds onto not being real because internally it is so felt, it’s like taking off of a pair of shoes that are uncomfortable and feeling the joy of walking barefoot. They might have looked wonderful, but appearances are not what truly sustains us, and they can only be upheld for a while, long term.

Anxious attachment and intimacy

Mostly the problem that comes up a lot for this attachment type is that boundaries are perceived as barriers. Intimacy requires boundaries and these feel threatening for those anxiously attached. 

There is a saviour fantasy involved here, based on a belief that one day someone will come along who meets all of their needs and they will live happily ever after in their version of Shangri-La, boom, pain gone. Often attracted to avoidant types, heaven helps both parties here because they appear so sorted and without problems. The truth though here is that the avoidant is just as good at hiding all of their needs, and it is not because they don’t have needs, they just conceal them.

In between and before l move onto to the avoidant and intimacy, the truth is that any healthy relationship that is attuned is not just about one person doing all the saving and caretaking - it is about sharing and exchange, so the saving and fixing is not what keeps the relationship propped up when both are self-regulated emotionally. It is more about parallel support. This is far healthier for insecurity.

Avoidant attachment and intimacy

There is a huge focus on keeping themselves emotionally stable at all costs and taking care of their own problems themselves. They self-soothe often with routines so that they can know what they expect to feel. So from within this predicted environment, they can know more or less what they can manage. They often feel like they have to keep wraps on their own resources because they feel like they have just about enough in their “well” for themselves,  and are not keen on expectations from others in their relationships, it makes them run, feel overwhelmed and opt for closing down to safeguard themselves. Their plans and the comfort from them do not depend on anyone else to fulfil them. They are immensely self-reliant.

Intimacy threatens to disrupt their ordered life and their emotional balance. Intimacy opens their plans and routines up for disruption. Intimacy can potentially lead to compromise and compromise lets too much about somebody else in. They can do it for a while, but odds are it won’t be for long.

You will rarely see this type emotionally undone or openly expressing their emotions because their feelings are kept at bay and under wraps. And often not even felt by them.

So what is their wound? Well, it is not obvious. But in their early years, their experience of showing emotion and their needs will have been met with rejection or felt by them as inconvenient and not favoured enough to ensure survival. Or maybe their parent or caregiver had so much going on, that there was no room for their emotions or vulnerability. Sadness and helplessness of theirs had to be put away because it either wasn’t or couldn’t be held or received. 

The act of actually sharing their needs feels really uncomfortable for them coupled with shame. They will minimise like mad.

So here we have two different attachment types. One longing to be saved, living with the myth that the more avoidant type has it all sorted, which they don’t - it is just that their respective types of the “oxygen” needed are polar opposites. The other running for the hills and avoiding.

Attunement to each other to wherein they can share true intimacy with one another will mean they each must be curious and interested about the other more than constantly trying to either keep away or enmesh. This involves coming out beyond their own limited and engrained perceptions.

It takes time and genuine work and therapy. But it absolutely is possible, but living in the continuum of the limitations that their independent strategies provide them with only in fact upholds keeping their fears running their lives.

There is much to learn here. Fundamentally, the wound each one has is the same, but they cope in different ways.

How is this achieved?

Being open to considering change is very important. When you are just employing coping strategies to live your life every day it is not very fulfilling for either one. Learning to look outside of self and “try on” another’s feelings can also be very helpful because a somatic experience goes much further than words or hearsay.

Also it no longer has to be imagined if it is felt. 

This also lowers the sense of threat and once this is lowered, it becomes much easier to lessen the sense of danger.

Mostly, this is done with a therapist. 

To be attuned to others is the goal, basically because it is so much nicer, to give and also receive, than be either too dependent or too independent.

This lets in the light. This lets in belonging. This lets in love, and as it is also said, love is all you need.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N8
Written by Gail Berry, Emotional and Relationship Coach
London, N8

Written by Gail Berry Emotional Coach - both a therapist and an alternative medical practitioner who works with healing people’s core wounds and uses Bach Flower Remedies alongside talking and behavioural therapy to make real change and transformation possible.
07771 715072
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