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Being attuned, the greatest challenge (and gift) for couples


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Mathilde De Robien - published on 03/29/24

Communicating facts and information is all very well, but expressing emotions, or harder still, understanding your partner's emotions, is a major challenge!

Marriage counselors are unanimous: communication is one of the pillars of a couple’s relationship. But what exactly do we mean by communication? We’re not talking about agreeing on dinner menus or weekend plans. Rather, it’s about the sincere, true, and reciprocal expression of your emotions, desires and needs, and the other spouse giving them an attentive and benevolent reception.

This in-depth dialogue can help avoid many marital misunderstandings, with their attendant arguments and frustrations. “The first thing to build within a couple is mutual understanding of emotions,” stresses psychologist and couple therapist Marc d’Anselme.

Understanding your partner’s emotions requires empathy. But given the different histories and personalities of each spouse, this is far from easy.

A tiring vacation

Marc d’Anselme gives a good example of a misunderstanding caused by a husband’s misunderstanding of his wife’s emotions during a rather tiring vacation. (This is just one of many examples, and “any resemblance to facts or persons that exist or have existed would be purely coincidental.”)

The wife tells her husband that she’s exhausted, needs a rest, and that it’s up to him to take over, especially with the children. Generally speaking, women are more forthcoming than men about their emotions.


The husband reflects and looks for a solution. Finally, he proposes that his wife leave for four days, alone, to rest at her mother’s house… The wife looks at him in dismay. His proposal, generous and effective as it is, has fallen flat on its face.

Empathy, not solutions

Surprising as it may seem to men, by expressing her exhaustion, the wife is not expecting her husband to find a solution to her problem. No, she simply expects him to understand her, to hear her difficulties, to empathize, and to feel gratitude for the things she does, the very things that have exhausted her.

She doesn’t want to go to her mother’s, but to spend her vacation with her husband and children. Quality time with the people she loves is her deepest desire. “The woman talks to her husband to share her emotions and activate the relationship. The man, on the other hand, is looking for a problem to solve; hence the misunderstandings,” explains Marc d’Anselme.

The wife expects empathy from her husband, and vice versa. Empathy doesn’t require long thought or big decisions, just the expression of emotional understanding. “Empathy is not solving a practical problem. It involves no interpretation, no explanation, no solution, no sentimentality, just the expression of understanding!” It’s important to express this understanding in words or gestures; otherwise, it’s sadly useless.

Attunement: The Holy Grail of a married couple

Empathy is the key to understanding the other’s emotions and, if it’s reciprocal, to the couple being in tune with each other. In physics, electrical circuits are in tune when they oscillate at the same frequency, when they are tuned to the same wavelength. In marital psychology, when spouses understand each other, this is also called attunement. 

When a couple is attuned, then they experience moments of “perfect unity.” Although attunement is not a lasting state—which is fortunate, because it’s good for everyone to experience their own emotions first—it does have many benefits.

Empathy allows a person to feel accompanied in what they are experiencing. This has the fascinating, almost magical effect of freeing them from negative emotions, linked to the burden they were carrying alone until then.


This often leads to a positive change of attitude on the part of the spouse who is listened to and understood. What’s more, in the face of life’s difficulties or trials, attunement is an important support for the couple. “An event experienced by each in communion with the other is overcome much more easily,” explains Marc d’Anselme.

Encouraging emotional sharing

“Marital difficulties stem primarily from the fact that, instead of understanding our partner’s emotions, we interpret his or her behavior in terms of our own,” says the therapist. Hence the line that’s often heard in marital arguments: “You really don’t understand at all!”

Empathy requires us to move away from an individualistic stance and take an interest in the other person, opening ourselves up to their emotions. And the other person has to do his or her bit too, and try to express the feelings he or she is experiencing.

“Emotional sharing is the best remedy for marital individualism.” It’s an excellent tool for promoting harmony. What does this mean in concrete terms? It’s a good idea for each spouse in turn to express emotions with which the other can empathize. “To get beyond facts and into emotions, spouses help each other by naming emotions.” For example: “If I were you, that would have made me angry!” or “Were you surprised?”

This enables the person experiencing the emotion to clarify it, refine it, and entrust it to the other. For what purpose? To love better. Because loving, Marc d’Anselme reminds us, means “opening our hearts to our partner, to allow him or her to live a little within us,” and to live a little within him or her.

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