When we’re together, dropped deeply into our bodies, we fall into a subtle dance of call-and-response.
I look into his eyes, acknowledging the tiny flicker of fear that wants me to break his gaze. I see the flicker of something in his eyes – connection, desire, want, vulnerability. That flicker sets off a microexpression of wanting in my eyes, and it bounces back and forth across the invisible net that is the short distance between us. He touches me, the lightest of touches on my arm, but deliberately – he is watching, and waiting carefully but lightly for a response. There’s a shiver, and the tiniest wordless moan. That moan sends a shiver back up his spine, and his face flashes with pleasure. Neither of us break eye contact. Seeing his face makes me moan, harder.
If someone wanted to prevent me from ever being productive, they could just stick me in a room with this man in this feedback loop where my pleasure makes his eyes flash with pleasure, which makes my eyes flash with pleasure, which makes his eyes flash with…
There’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about that seems to be at the core of a lot of the interpersonal problems bouncing around in my life lately. It’s the idea that the depth of your relationship with someone can be approximated by the frequency and sensitivity of what I’ll refer to as ‘attunement’. To attune to something is to listen for its pitch, its expression, and match it, to drop into a vibration that has exactly the same rhythm. Co-attunement could be seen as the process by which two individuals, with their own rhythms and moods, drop into listening to and responding to one another, with at times such subtle sensitivity that it might seem like they become one organism.
Ever heard a woman complain that her partner never listens to her, or heard a man complain that his partner wants him to read her mind? What they’re reflecting, respectively, is a desire for more, and a frustration with the demands of, co-attunement.
Attunement goes hand in hand with vulnerability. You could even go so far as to say attunement plus vulnerability is what intimacy IS, what it at its core is made from. When we talk about getting ‘quality time’ with someone what we are referring to is time and space for co-attunement – to renew the process of becoming one organism intertwined by feedback loops. This is why someone can give you their time, yet not be paying close attention, and it isn’t enough. It doesn’t feel like enough, on a gut level. You aren’t getting into their pores, and they aren’t seeing into your soul. You end the time as separate as when you started.
How does attuning expose vulnerability? Expert attunement requires deep, comprehensive honesty with yourself about the experience of being you, even before you try to attune with another person. If someone asks you ‘how was your day?’ (often a code-phrase for ‘please attune with me’ in intimate partnerships) how can you give an answer, in a way that lets your partner react authentically and spontaneously to the expression of you-ness in it, if you can’t feel into the answer yourself?
With many such questions there is a fork in the road – one way is marked by upbeat generalisations, platitudes, and leaves both parties feeling vaguely like the question was a waste of time. The other is often marked by a pause, a moment to experience being you,so that you can funnel that feeling into sounds and gestures – into embodiment. It comes with a risk – a risk that when you open yourself to them they will not have the compassion to receive it. When people experience blankness, generalisations, or automatic gestures – anything that indicates a lack of open attention and responsiveness – in response, they learn not to give such vulnerable answers next time.
Habitual interactions become smalltalk through fear and closed-heartedness, and can be rescued from that forlorn state by a stubborn, courageous willingness to accept the other in front of you as is, and offer yourself openly in return.
This little model has allowed me to pinpoint why certain types of people make me feel so uncomfortable, or tired, or smothered. For some people (often those we’d describe as pushy or manipulative) the process of attunement is more like a race, where at best, you convince the other person to attune completely to your wants, and at worst, you have to force them to.
The most common mismatch I see looks like this:
One person makes bids, or requests for interaction. In the back of their minds, they are afraid of getting a negative response, which is a real possibility if they were to actually leave space for the other person to meet them in responsiveness. (The other person could decide not to! That’s scary!). In order to avoid this feared rejection, they, alone, do all of the work; they cover all of the ground between themselves and the other person in order to establish the intimacy they’re seeking. That way they know it will happen!
The result, though, is that this poor pushy person has no idea whether or not the other person actually wants to escalate things with them. And how would they? They just did the physical equivalent of never letting the other person get a word in edgewise! Regardless of how interested you are in what someone is saying, if someone never lets you get a word in you might feel quite frustrated with their lack of tact; in part because you don’t get a chance to play. You have moved from being a co-creator to being acted upon.
This pushy person might want to try to notice whether he is really, truly and openly leaving enough space for the other person to react at whatever pace she feels comfortable. It might be the case that, by ‘taking the lead’, or ‘setting the pace’, he is denying her the chance to drop in to her body and let it attune to him, because of fear that that would lead away from an outcome he is attached to.
Attaching to future outcomes seems to be much of where failures of attunement come from. The other part seems to come from either beliefs, a mismatch in relationship desires, or occasionally, social or sensory processing issues that stop someone from either seeing or interpreting the sense data in front of them.
When you expect something, your brain will scramble to rearrange the information in front of you so that you only see certain things. Things that help you get a yes/no answer to the question of ‘Will the event I anticipate happen?’.
Will you kiss her? If that’s what you’re thinking about, then you’re more likely to miss the signals that she’s cold, or tired, or wants to be held first, or wants someone to listen to her talk about her day. When both people are failing to attune because they’re worried about what the other person thinks of them, it becomes like that parable about the gift of the Magi. Because they are trying to force how they present themselves in reality to match what their head thinks the other person wants, each person’s attention misses the subtle, present-moment signals that are telling them exactly what they want.
There are other ways failures of attunement can happen – when someone is afraid of intimacy rather than rejection, or when they’re afraid of neither but aren’t good enough at sensing emotions, body language, and subtext to react accordingly in the moment. When I was younger, the thing blocking my ability to attune was knee-jerk attachment avoidance; a habit of protecting my intimate, vulnerable self from being exposed to others at the expense of building mutual loving connections with people I cared deeply about. This manifested as:
- Feeling like everyone in the world was boring, feeling intellectually superior to everyone and losing interest in people quickly
- Only falling for people who were emotionally, romantically or geographically unavailable
- Falling out of love when someone showed intense feelings for me
- Trying to resolve conflicts with others in my head instead of, you know, out in the world with them, to avoid expressing how hurt I was
- Retreating emotionally and physically when I felt hurt by someone, rather than expressing my feelings to them (particularly when angry)
- Using fantasy to substitute for connections with people in real life
Trying to attune with real life people while having these kinds of habits feels like playing whack-a-mole with constant subconscious attempts to dodge intimacy. Emotional blindspots everywhere! I have seen myself and other avoidant people literally get hit with an irrepressible urge to fall asleep when the need to open up arises. Having lived in this mode, I now often pick it up in others, even subtly. Learning about avoidant attachment styles helped, as did processing old traumas and introspecting on patterns as and when they showed up. Slowly, as I did this work, some of the walls started to fall down. Some are probably still up, and I rely on those closest to me to point them out.
I don’t have much to say right now on the failures that arise from a lack of sensing ability, other than – GO. TRY. MEDITATION. Pretty much everyone could benefit from improving their ability to notice and experience reality as it is.
How can we learn to attune better?
The Tolstoy quote ‘happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way’ has continually come up when I’ve been thinking about personal and societal development. Expert attuners all probably have a similar set of foundational beliefs – they believe that they are deserving of love, that love is abundant; that it is okay to both assert your identity, your separateness, and connect deeply and wholly with another. They also probably have a similar set of skills – an ability to feel, whether consciously or subconsciously, the feelings and physical sensations that are going on in their bodies, and accept them as they are; an ability to slow down, and pay exquisite attention to the intricacies of social reality; an ability to find and get to know the kinds of people they feel good about attuning with.
What you need to do to grow is entirely dependent on what is blocking your growth. Someone skilled at untangling knots of human emotions, with a varied toolbox of techniques and processes, would be able to help you pinpoint the right strategies and fix it. But in basically every case, the cliche ‘first you must admit you have a problem’ applies. Very few ways of approaching attunement practice will work without an attitude of openness, even to fear.
My hope is that by framing intimacy and interpersonal power through the lens of attunement, we can start to shift conversations about relationships (like the ones playing out in Bay Area communities around consent, and in poly communities around relationship anarchy) from something that is defined by ideology and rulesets, to something different – something that recognises individual relationships as unique living things, and focuses on what they need to flourish.