Staying ATTUNEd: Creating Emotional Trust in Marriage

Staying ATTUNEd: Creating Emotional Trust in Marriage

By Spencer Hinckley, CSW

What is trust? Longtime relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman believes trust in a relationship requires two things: 1) Transparency, or a belief that one sees the true reality of their partner, and 2) The feeling that one’s partner is there for them in time of need.* In other words, partners must be able to answer yes when asked “Are you truthful?” and “Are you there for me?”

How we experience our relationships emotionally is key to trust, and Dr. Gottman provides a road map for building emotional trust with the acronym ATTUNE.

Awareness of the emotion

Turning toward the emotion

Tolerance of the emotion

Understanding the emotion

Nondefensive Listening to the emotion

Empathy toward the emotion

The ATTUNE conversation allows partners to begin to trust each other with their emotions.

AWARENESS of the Emotion

Partners must acknowledge each other’s emotions. They must consciously look for them. To do so, one can take an “emotional temperature” by asking, “How are you doing, honey?” or even a simple, “What’s up?” Such questions allow a person to “see” their partner’s emotional state. This seeking to “see” is imperative, for without recognizing the emotion, partners won’t be able to turn toward it, which is the next step.

TURNING toward the emotion

One must decide to address their partner and their emotion. In other words, “talk about it”! This shows not only that one recognizes the emotion, but that he/she cares about it.

TOLERANCE of emotion

Tolerance of emotion means accepting the reality of a partner’s emotions. While it may be tempting to say, “just look at the bright side,” or “just let it go- it’s no big deal,” doing so dismisses their very real disappointments or concerns. This does not mean that one must necessarily adopt the partner’s perspective, only that he/she recognizes and respects it.


In order to understand a partner’s perspective, one must momentarily put aside one’s own opinions, thoughts and conclusions to walk in their shoes. In essence, this means saying, “Talk to me, baby. Help me understand.” It is not a time to correct, give advice, or interject one’s own perceptions. But don’t worry- if an “attuned” conversation is happening, each partner will get the chance to describe their own thoughts and feelings.

NONDEFENSIVE listening to the emotion

 In simple terms, this means biting one’s tongue instead of lashing out, correcting, or defending a position. It requires pausing a moment and asking, “Is what I want to say right now going to clarify my position or my partner’s?” As the listener, only responses that help the partner clarify their perceptions will lead to an “attuned” conversation. Remember, each side will have a chance to describe their own perceptions and ideas. So make sure to listen to them, also.


Empathy involves understanding what another’s experience is like, a true seeking to understand what it’s like to be that person. Empathy means tenderness and kindness for a partner’s emotions, just as one would want them to treat their own emotions . If knowledge is “mental understanding,” then empathy is “heart understanding.” Empathy allows a partner to begin to know what it feels like to be that person.

Couples who have lost trust in each other can use Dr. Gottman’s ATTUNE model to begin to rebuild the emotional intimacy they lack. As emotional intimacy increases, so does trust. Approaching a conversation with a loved one in an ATTUNE’d way will allow both to grow closer, trust each other more, and know that they are there for each other.

*The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, John Gottman, Ph.D., W.W. Norton & Company, 2011

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