My first car was a beige 1985 Ford tempo. Yeah…I know. Pretty bold choice, right? Well, my grandparents gave it to me and it was the best (and only) free car I’ve ever had. For a teenage driver with a job making 4 bucks an hour, that was exactly the kind of car I needed! The clutch was mostly burned out, and the brakes ended up going out one day, and it didn’t have a digital radio until I bought one at Best buy with the money I made from my job at The Disney Store (where we wore long sleeve denim uniform shirts…and yes, we knew how cool we looked). But it had everything I needed.
The original radio in my beige tempo had a tape deck and dial that you would to turn to tune into the particular station you wanted to listen to. It’s the knob on the right in the picture above. For any millennials and beyond reading this, the way that radios used to work was that there was not a button to tune to a very particular frequency a specific frequency, but rather there were knobs that you would turn that would approximate a signal. They didn’t click with each station you passed like the knobs in our cars today. If you wanted to listen to 102.7 you would to turn the knob until you got close and then use your ear to find the best signal possible. To get the best listening experience you had to pay close attention to the sound coming from your radio and finely-tune your actions to best attune to the station.
Radios and Relationships
In my work with couples over the past 14 years I’ve found that relationships are a lot like the radio in my old Tempo. If we don’t listen closely, and finely tune our actions according to what we hear, we tend to experience a lot of unpleasant static. Attunement is the term for this concept that social scientists use when they study relationships. Attunement essentially is your ability to “tune in” to your partner’s feelings, thoughts, and experience of a situation. Our partners have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that, if we pay attention, can give us helpful information about what they need and how we can respond.
How Can I Get Better At Tuning In?
If you tune in closely to your partner’s signal you’ll see those helpful hints they provide. If, however, you don’t tune in to the station, or at least get close, there’s going to be a lot of static. You won’t clearly hear the music that they’re playing for you. Some couples therapists talk about relationships as being a dance, with feelings often being considered the music of the dance. Your job as a partner in a relationship is to tune in to the music of the dance, the feelings. You need to get your radio dial tuned as finely as possible to the music coming from your partner’s station so that you can best respond.
If you are tuned to a different station, distracted by your phone, or thinking about work, your kids, or a “to-do” list, you can’t be paying close attention to the signal that your partner is sending you. You’re going to miss what they’re trying to tell you. You might hear the unpleasant corrective words, and miss the good intention behind them.
Do I Have To Be Tuned In Perfectly?
Sometimes you might tune in to the station but you might be a little off. You might not have gotten your dial perfectly fixed on their signal. And that’s okay. Sometimes you might misinterpret something. Your job in those moments is not necessarily to fix what was wrong but just to tune in more closely. Be curious about what led them to send out the signal you heard. Recalibrate your radio by humbly asking questions before making statements. The next time your partner speaks strongly about something, commit to tuning in to their signal so that you can respond in a more helpful way, even if they trigger an upset feeling in you.
Partners in successful relationships are not about brute force, blunt communication. Successful partners communicate with nuance, and are willing to recalibrate their attunement to meet their partner’s needs.
But My Partner Is Such A Terrible Communicator!
If you find yourself hearing only static in a relationship, try not to blame your partner too much. The static is not what was meant to be heard, at least not initially. Some people learn to send out static, instead of a clear signal, because it’s scary for them to be truly known. It can feel vulnerable or scary for them to be seen, heard and understood by others. They have often been hurt by others. It can be hard for them to send out a clear signal without someone first being closely attuned to them and accepting them as they are. Sometimes their partner is able to help them work through this; other times, it can be helpful to involve someone with training and experience with relationship attunement.
What Should I Do Next?
Attunement isn’t everything in relationships, but it is vitally important. If you feel like your radio dial isn’t quite tuned to your partner’s station, or if you feel like there’s a lot of static in your relationships, it might be time to talk to someone about it. The best person to talk to about the static in any relationship is often the other person in that relationship. Make sure to engage them with humility and curiosity so as not to put them on defense right away. If you’re not sure how to do that, it might help to talk with someone else first.
A good friend can often lend perspective on tough relationships. Or you might want to talk with a therapist trained to “listen between the lines” and see the nuanced processes impacting your relationships. Or, if your partner is willing, it’s often even more helpful to talk to someone together, so you both can tune in more closely to each other. Whatever you choose to do, do something. The music won’t change in it’s own. Someone has to turn the dial.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.