What is good emotional contact

By Anxiety, differentiation, emotional system, togetherness

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Kerr have written about the value of having good emotional contact with family members. But what is “good emotional contact”? How is this different from an emotional connection? How does it relate to one’s level of differentiation? Is this something a person can intentionally work at increasing the quality or amount of emotional contact with others? And importantly, what would the benefit be to oneself and others of having good emotional contact?

What is emotional contact?

Neither Bowen nor Kerr clearly defines the phrase “emotional contact.” Bowen used the term thirty-three times, and Kerr more than that. Dr. Bowen also used “viable” and “meaningful” as part of the term. I will do my best to reverse engineer what I think the meaning is.

Put on your systems hat, as we must think of systems to find meaning. I believe Dr. Bowen intentionally chose the term because it is descriptive and accurate for the idea he wanted to convey.

Emotional connection is different.

Emotional Contact is not an emotional connection. Connection means “connected,” as A and B are connected. This implies that when A moves, B moves. Contact means they are touching, so A and B can move independently of each other.

Bowen was very specific in his definition of emotion, which stems from biology. Emotion relates to our physiological and biological functioning. Having low blood sugar is an emotional level state. Feeling hungry, consciously, is what Bowen called “feeling.” Strictly speaking, an emotional connection is when my emotional state changes in response to your emotional state. I’m automatically getting reactive. The “connection” is strong enough that the reactive behaviour actually gets in the way. I’m not autonomous in my feelings and thinking. This is fusion. You get anxious, and this leads to me getting more anxious. (I’m simplifying things as always.)

Emotional contact – I’m next to you, not stuck to you.

So, with good emotional contact, I’m in contact with you but not “stuck” or reactive to you. I’m at least not so reactive that it impedes my functioning. The topic of discussion is “emotional” in that one could physiologically measure changes that occur. We experience these topics as important and meaningful. They might be very impactful or scary. They could be very positive or negative. But, because I’m only in contact and not connected, I’m better able to manage my level of reactivity. I’m able to listen closely because I am genuinely interested. I don’t have an urge to fix anything or change your mind. I’m thoughtful about what I share, but not so worried about you I do not share my thinking. We have a meaningful exchange of our opinions. We learn about what is important to each other and how we think on that topic.

Emotions are sticky.

It’s easy to get “connected” and lose “contact.” Poor emotional contact can show up in several ways. There is distancing or avoiding on one end of a continuum and being too active and preoccupied on the other end. Avoiding contact or having shallow conversations without any significance falls under the distant side. This distancing is a form of reactivity, actually. But then getting reactive while in contact can show up as avoiding a topic, changing the topic, giving advice, being bored, frustrated or impatient. Trying to fix the other person’s problem trying to get them to change their mind or opinion is also reactivity. All of these mechanisms about trying to manage the anxiety or tension that comes up. All of these things get in the way of managing the tension and just listening with a curious, non judgemental attitude. This doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinions or that you agree with everything.

Thinking systems can help

One thing I try to do is maintain a systems point of view. This gets me more curious about the *process* of how things came to be the way they are. It helps me avoid the blaming of cause and effect thinking and the urge to get I’m not sure that anyone wants to only talk about important and meaningful things all the time. Just getting know a person, staying informed about their life is also part of a good emotional contact. So don’t go overboard or you’ll stop getting invited to parties! Talk about the weather, sports, food, hobbies. Be open to where it might go. If weather leads to very meaningful and important discussion let it happen.

As with other aspects of working on self, I do this for my growth. I work on this because it’s important and meaningful to me. I also know that having good emotional contact is good for my emotional and physical health. Good emotional contact is an antidote to loneliness. Who will you work to have good emotional contact with? Like any fitness program, too much too soon is not recommended. Consistency is more important than intensity. Slow and steady wins the race.