Understanding your partner’s inner world: How attunement relates to the health of adult relationships

By Frieda Friedmann

Feeling understood 

The desire to be and feel understood is at the heart of every human relationship. When this need is fulfilled, we can thrive in our relationships and confide in our partners. When it is not fulfilled, this “failure to attune” can be a source of considerable distress in relationships and can be the reason why relationships fail. In this second blog in the series on Dr. John Gottman’s research on what makes love last, how to build trust and avoid betrayal, we will look at what happens when couples have a deficit in their ability to understand each other. Dr. John Gottman is one of the, if not the leading scientist in the field of the art of relationships and couples therapy. He has identified a “five step trajectory” that follows, when a relationship lacks attunement.

Defining “attunement” 

But first of all, let’s define what we mean by “attunement”. Dr. Gottman describes it as “the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world”. According to him, “attunement offers a blueprint for building and reviving trust in a long-term committed relationship. When this element is in short supply, partners don’t demonstrate understanding of each other’s inner life or communicate that awareness in a supportive manner.” (Gottman, 2013).

The five steps of a “failure to attune” are:

  1. A sliding door moment

In a committed relationship, partners frequently seek support and understanding through subtle bids for connection. These bids create what Gottman calls “sliding door moments.” These moments occur when one partner expresses a need, and the other’s response can either open a door to connection or close it, leading to potential misunderstandings. Long-term relationships are filled with such moments, where partners may overlook each other’s emotional cues. While individual instances of turning away may seem insignificant, cumulated sliding door moments can impact the trust between partners and the overall relationship in general. Examples include responding “I know you do” to your partner’s “I love you” or getting the same present for your partner as you had last year.

  1. A regrettable incident

Turning away during a sliding door moment can be the cause for conflict. If the “offending partner” recognizes this and takes responsibility this can be resolved. However, if he or she avoids taking responsibility and continues to turn away the resulting hurt and anger can escalate into what Gottman calls a “regrettable incident,” eroding the mutual trust in the relationship. These incidents are often messy and unclear, causing both partners to feel injured. An example includes a simple misunderstanding that results in a heated argument, leaving issues unresolved. While occasional events like this won’t ruin a relationship, a recurring pattern of turning away without repair will threaten a relationship.

  1. The Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that we remember incomplete events better than those we’ve finished. In romantic relationships, conflicts concluding with confessions, amends, and understanding are often forgotten, contributing to a stronger relationship. However, when a sliding door moment leads to an unaddressed regrettable incident, the Zeigarnik effect keeps the hurt accessible in our active memory, leading to lingering pain.

  1. Negative Sentiment Override

Repeated breaches of trust can lead partners to interpret neutral or positive events as negative. This is known as Negative Sentiment Override (NSO). An example for NSO is suspecting hidden motives behind your partner’s neutral or positive behaviour. If NSO dominates it reinforces a negative view of the relationship. Persistent negative interpretations can be a serious harm to a relationship as overcoming NSO is difficult due to unclear circumstances. The constant anticipation of negativity can make a relationship feel like a prison and is a strong indicator for a troubled relationship.

  1. The Four Horsemen

Lastly, the Four Horsemen Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, which will be discussed in detail in blog number three of this series.

Seeking help

If your relationship impacts your mental health take the first step towards healing today and call us at the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne on 03 9077 0122 to book your appointment. We can help you develop the skills and strategies you need to manage your emotions and improve your mental health. Remember: You’re not alone!


John Mordechai Gottman, & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last?: how to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.