When ignoring our partner may actually be okay! - according to attachment theory


When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked about the secret to her long and happy marriage, she shared this story:  “On the day I was married, my mother-in-law …told me ‘It helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”  As a therapist, this advice gave me pause.  Could ignoring one’s partner really be helpful? 

Attachment theory states that open communication is key to having a secure attachment.  With this, we are able to freely share our innermost thoughts and trust that we’ll be heard.  Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally-focused therapy for couples, divides emotional responsiveness into three components: Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement (Hold me tight by Dr. Sue Johnson).

Accessibility.  This means we are able to stay open to hearing our partner even when we aren’t feeling secure ourselves.  It sometimes requires us to understand and deal with our own emotions so that we can be more available to what someone else is experiencing. 

Responsivity.  We must demonstrate that we accept and value what our partner feels and that we will be supportive and provide them with care. 

Engagement.  When we are fully engaged, we focus all of our attention on our partner.  We remain emotionally present when they need us.  We are there for our partner. 

How then does ignoring our partner fit in with being emotionally responsive to our partner? 

To understand this better, we can look to research in infant-caregiver development.  Tiffany Field (1981) studied the gazing that occurs between babies and parents.  She noticed that each gaze was interrupted.  It was not continuous.  Babies seemed to need a break from looking at their caregiver and this break was a good thing.  The babies’ heart rates decelerated during these moments of separation, something that was necessary to self-regulation.  In fact, if the gaze happened for too long, it was overstimulating.  Ed Tronick, another infant researcher, watched mother-infant interactions and examined how much of the time mothers and infant matched each others' states.  In other words, how much of the time did they act in the same way at the same time.  To his surprise, he found that securely attached mothers and babies were not in matching states 70% of the time.  That means that 70% of the time, they were doing their own thing! (The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children by Ed Tronick).

So when our partner picks on us for packing the dishwasher incorrectly, our stress levels may rise.  But to truly connect with them, we may need to disengage from them, to not join with them in that moment.  To remain accessible, we may need to ignore our partner's bad behavior.  And to be able to be responsive, we must shift focus to what the underlying cause of our partner's lashing out may be.  If we know that they’ve had a bad day at work and that the dishwasher is not really the issue, it may be more adaptive to simply ignore the criticism, rather than engaging in an argument about the quality of packing.  And once we’ve avoided a fight, we can refocus and engage in what our partner may truly be feeling.  Ignoring some things can paradoxically allow us to have better open communication.      

So, maybe it is okay to not always be attuned with our partner.  In fact, maybe it is beneficial to have breaks from one another.  Taking a break may restore our energy.  It may allow us to be more invested in fully engaging with our partner.  Maybe we can learn from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother-in-law.  Sometimes it’s okay to be a little deaf in a relationship!