Peter Fox

coaching emotional responsiveness

Couples, intimacy and connection

"I notice I get really snarky when what I really want is a hug but I don't ask for that straight up."

"And I know I withdraw, which makes it worse when all I really want is to know that I matter to you."

The pre-requisite of a close, happy relationship is responding well to our partner even when they disappoint us. Responding well calls on friendship, mindfulness and clear boundaries. These are the inner and outer workings of love.

It is a myth that lasting love is easy, and that you shouldn't have to work at it.

Go to the
FAQ page for when, where and how I work and my fees.

Core stuff

friendship is the key and emotional responsiveness is the engine of healthy relating. This is connection first - better communication follows. You can't do it the other way round. Too often we put the cart before the horse.

Are you there for me? Will you respond to me? Will you engage with me emotionally?

When the answers are resoundingly yes, you are in a healthy relationship built on trust!

There is a profound and "primal hope in all of us that someone, my loved one, will respond. That they will come to me in the dark and find me, hold me, accept me, care about me."

When that is uncertain, when you can't trust it to be there when you need it, trouble will take its place. It may take months even years to know the truth of our situation. We postpone the day by fudging the fact that we are its co-creators. Relationship change begins with mutual ownership and true

Trouble builds up in everyday small disconnects like an absence of eye contact; turning away from each other rather than toward; forgetting chores or bills to pay. And in hurtful times, like rolling the eyes, painful withdrawal, in harsh criticism or rejection.

By being mindful of these moments rather than reacting to them, a relationship can grow. Big, generous spaces can form that make a safe harbour for conversation, attachment and connection.

Or they can grow to be spaces filled with the unspoken and with unfinished business.


We need a secure attachment in our primary relationships, one we can depend on and trust.

Secure attachment soothes the brain and the body. For example, those who undergo heart surgery recover faster when they are allowed visitors. People with congestive heart disease live two to three times longer if they have a happy relationship. Holding a partner's hand when they are in pain reduces their experience of pain. The happier the couple is, the greater is the pain relief. The same occurs in the speed of wound healing.

"Trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner." Gottman

Disconnection, disruption or insecure bonding occurs when you are unsure if you matter to your partner; unsure if you can rely on them; unsure if they will catch you if you fall, hold when you hurt, and celebrate your triumphs with you.


The majority of couple fights are about conversations that didn't happen and needed to.

Troubled relationships can talk about everything else but what really matters. Healthy relationships bounce back from troubles relatively quickly. They are not without troubles, they just work better as a team, with mutual responsibility and a no-fault view of conflict.

They focus on helping each other become experts on one another; they share responsibility for the emotional regulation of the other; they rely on experience of each other to build expertise on who they are.

Each are more likely to feel contented in relationship as they become expert at identifying dysregulation in the partner and successfully attend to them, and aid them back to self-regulation and calm, centred, emotional balance. This is a two way street!

It is not sustainable over the long term if it is one-way only.

Successful couples describe solidarity in the face of crisis. They find a common voice in their interactions with money, work, leisure, with boomerang children and extended family. They experience conflicts around these issues, but they resolve their differences privately. These couples avoid the temptation to negotiate “side deals” with family members, friends or co-workers. They support each other in conversations with family and friends.

In short, they stick together.

THE demon dance

The most common pattern of couple distress is a negative interaction cycle. One gets stuck in criticising, pursuing and attacking, and the other responds by placating, defending, fighting back or opting out emotionally.

This is a reciprocal dance of
pursue and withdraw or demand and placate, taking turns getting up close and withdrawing to a safe distance. The dance is recursive , it can go on and on. Yet, the pattern unearthed, it can become a dance of illumination in the darkness.

Underneath the noise, hurt and disappointment there are mature adult needs for secure attachment, for responsiveness, availability and engagement.

The average couple waits six years before they seek help with their negative interaction cycle. It can usually be undressed and re-directed within 3 sessions of effective couple therapy. After 8 to 12 evidence based couple therapy sessions, most are likely to report: 'Even when we fight or disagree I know I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together.'

Individual vs couple therapy

Whilst individualistic approaches to couple problems can inadvertently maintain the pursue & withdraw dance, most relationships problems are explored in one to one therapy sessions without the other half of the story witnessed, acknowledged or validated.

This is expensive and inefficient when the pattern is the problem.

Insist that you come as a couple to a couple's therapist and not to a therapist or counsellor whose primary focus is the individual.

If you are already in individual therapy, ask your therapist how to actively involve your partner in managing mental health issues.

Read my
how to choose a therapist page.

The divorce or separation last resort

'Divorces with the greatest potential to harm children occur in marriages that have the greatest potential for reconciliation.'

Evidence based couple therapies, with decades of research behind them, have upward of 70% success rate irrespective of how distressed the couple or how severe the problems are at the time of entering couple therapy!

If not therapy then first consider a controlled separation rather than divorce. This book is a good one on that subject: "Should I Stay Or Go? : How Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage" by Lee Raffel. Here is a
handout from Smart Marriages with a sample controlled separation contract and here the controlled separation website.

For more information and self-help tools visit my national website
The material provided on this site is for educational purposes only. No therapeutic relationship is established by use of the site: Consult a qualified health care professional.