How much does 'presence' matter in your relationships?
Can you feel it when someone isn't present with you?
Can you feel it when you're not present to another person or to yourself?
Does lack of presence weaken, or even break, intimate connection?

What I mean by 'presence' in this instance is simply focus & attention, that quality of being paid attention to & paying attention instead of being distracted by something else, either inside our own mind or externally by something we see or hear, for example. 

We can be present both to ourselves & others mentally, emotionally & physically, and we can be present to varying degrees & depths. It's possible to be just present 'enough' or to be fully & wholly present with all of our mind, our 'heart' & our body, so present that it's as if nothing else in the world exists other than this interaction at this time - this takes practice & isn't what everyone wants as it can feel uncomfortable for some people to be on the receiving end of. 

Being present to ourselves is what is most commonly referred to as 'self awareness' & being present with others is an essential ingredient to both intimacy & connection which are both essential to satisfying relationships.


I'm sure you've noticed when in the company of someone who really isn't present - maybe they're using their phone, their eyes have glazed over & seem fixed or staring, or they're looking at other things & people while, supposedly, listening to or talking with you. They aren't fully paying attention to you in that instance & perhaps also not paying attention to themselves if they aren't aware of what they are & are not doing. They aren't present.

Maybe you've also noticed it in yourself? that feeling of drifting off, not really hearing or remembering what someone is saying, feeling distracted & maybe composing a shopping list in your mind while looking like you're listening!

How does it feel?

I know when it happens to me, when I realise that the person I'm with isn't present or as present as I would like them to be, that I feel it in my body. It depends on the relationship, obviously, but if it's someone close to me then it feels like a slight vacuum, as if someone's opened a fridge door near me & I can feel the air being sucked out of the space around me, the vacuum is cold.

I don't like it, it's not pleasant, though I do understand that it's not something most people are consciously aware they're doing & it's not something most people will challenge in another person, especially if they really like the person or are in an intimate relationship with them. The only question, for me, is what level of presence is required by both people &, perhaps more importantly, what's the minimum level of presence a person will tolerate in their relationships?
We each have our own boundary here.

I notice when I do it in the company of someone else I can't fully remember what they've just said, it's like my mind has tuned into a different radio station than the one I want to be listening to, I've checked out - I'm not present. I also don't like this because it feels disrespectful to the other person & I have to ask myself why I've tuned out, why has my own presence lessened? what am I not aware of in myself and/or communicating to the other person by my lack of presence? What am I avoiding?


What are your boundaries in relation to presence? How much presence do you need in the people you have relationships with? Does it vary according to the nature of the relationship, ie: whether it's a friend, neighbour, family member, lover? For example, is it OK with you for another adult to play with their phone while having a conversation with you? Is it acceptable for your partner to be looking at something or someone else while you're talking with them about something important? How do you feel when you notice the person you're with isn't present with you or you with them?

For me, as a relationship therapist, what concerns me most is what happens to 
a) our relationship with ourselves & 
b) our relationships with others
when there isn't enough presence in the relating?

A crucial ingredient in presence is self awareness, when we're not self aware we become & stay distracted more easily, we are also less likely to consider how our distraction may affect others & our relationship with them.
When we're not aware of our own actions, inactions & behaviours our relationship with ourselves, as well as our relationships with others, suffers from that disconnection.

A lack of self awareness can cause us to:

- be unwilling to admit mistakes which can then cause and/or maintain unnecessary conflict in relationships

- be critical of other people, again causing unnecessary conflict & distance in relationships leading, also, to feelings of resentment which can result in damaged or limited trust & intimacy

- be vague about our emotions; with self awareness comes awareness of what we're feeling and why, as well as an ability to communicate that to others. Not knowing what someone is feeling can be a barrier to trust & intimacy, regardless of the nature of the relationship

When we are cultivating self awareness we can:

- more easily communicate with others, we can relate with others in ways that feel more meaningful & satisfying & are less likely to be in conflict with others

- more easily receive feedback from others without getting defensive, this is a crucial skill when it comes to satisfying relationships as well as resolving & repairing conflict

- more easily identify & change negative patterns of thought & behaviour as well as maximise & build on our strengths

What are the effects of an absence of presence in interactions & relationships?

How do you feel when you realise someone isn't actually paying attention to you when you're having a conversation with them? How do you imagine someone else feels when they realise they're not being paid attention to in a conversation, when someone's distracted by their phone or another person, noise etc? How do you feel when you realise you've zoned out & are no longer present with someone? 

Fundamentally, we feel disconnection, a fracture in intimacy in the relationship that can result in feelings of anger, resentment & mistrust as well as loneliness, rejection & abandonment.

One of the most concerning side effects of a lack of connection & intimacy, particularly in close relationships, is that, over time, confidence & self esteem begins to be eroded. If this persists for years then self esteem can get to rock bottom & the person may accept any level of attention they are given, or they think they're being given, because it seems to feel better than nothing - this is a false 'economy' of relationship, though, as accepting less than we deserve actually ends up harming us in the long term. I often refer to it as 'accepting the crumbs under the table because we can't see what's in the kitchen'.

Over time, we can then become apathetic both about ourselves & the relationship because we're not experiencing the level of connection we need & want. We can project this onto the other person, blaming them for how we feel, when, fundamentally, it is us who is choosing to accept less than we desire & deserve.

Of course, if this happens in a romantic/intimate/sexual relationship then the 'risk' of infidelity grows increasingly higher with time.

So, how can we cultivate greater presence, both with ourselves & others? Try these simple tips...

* Cultivate deeper self awareness; mentally, emotionally & physically. Notice where thoughts go, notice where attention goes, notice how the body feels - is there a disconnect? a distraction? Notice it & bring mental awareness back to the present moment, to the emotions & physical sensations that are being experienced.

Sometimes what we feel & notice is uncomfortable, maybe we feel bored & don't want to offend someone, but there are better strategies for boredom, ones that don't compromise the quality of our relationships, than simply checking out of connection. If feeling bored, consider staying with the boredom & allowing yourself feel it - relationships aren't supposed to be an endless stream of entertainment - feeling bored sometimes is natural.

Consider trying to be curious for the sake of the other person - ask questions to remain engaged. Consider moving your body - standing up or sitting down, as a method of distraction without disconnection.

Consider being honest & telling the other person that you're having a hard time concentrating - this may open up the opportunity for some really honest sharing thereby deepening intimacy rather than shutting it down.

Consider journaling your thoughts, feelings & observations about yourself or perhaps seeking out a suitably qualified & experienced therapist to support you to learn about yourself in order to develop deeper intimacy & presence in your relationships.

* Remove distractions. If prone to distraction, for example, ensure your mobile phone is put away, switched off or on silent (if you're not expecting an urgent communication) when in the company of other people with whom you want to feel present. It will be one less distraction to tempt your attention away from the person or people you're with. Try turning off music or a TV if it's on 'in the background' - maybe the less distractions there are the easier it will be to focus & remain focused. Consider changing or meeting in locations to somewhere there are fewer distractions.

* Position your body so that you are facing the person or people you are interacting with - make sure your body is present & as engaged as possible - putting both feet on the ground can sometimes help. If we are turned away from someone it can be harder to keep attention in their direction & easy to get distracted by what we are seeing instead of paying attention to the person we are interacting with. If appropriate, simply placing a hand on each other can help us feel more connected & present too - a hand on a shoulder, arm or leg reminds both bodies, the autonomic nervous systems particularly, that they are connected.

* Try to maintain eye contact - one of the easiest ways to maintain connection with someone is to look them in the eye. This can feel challenging to some people for different reasons, & indeed in some cultures between some people it's not appropriate, but if it is appropriate try to maintain it as it really helps to maintain connection & presence.

* Take some deep breaths. One of my favourite practices to do myself & to share with clients is box breathing, this very simple technique helps lower heart rate, decrease anxiety & help us feel more grounded & present - it can be practiced anywhere at almost any time, even without other people knowing you're doing it. Click here for a very accessible & simple video that describes how to do 'box breathing'.

What can I do if someone else isn't present with me?

Different people will respond differently to someone not being present, ultimately, only you can decide what's 'present enough' for you & what isn't. For example, your partner looking at their phone while you're talking with them might be OK for you & for someone else that might not be acceptable. Where are your boundaries?

If you're not sure where your boundary is then I would invite you to take into account how you feel when someone else isn't present with you - notice your emotions, notice any differences in your bodily sensations. Do you feel valued & respected? Do you feel connected to the person? Do you feel connected to yourself? What's changed & why?

Of course the entirety of how we feel is not someone else's fault or responsibility & so some self reflection here may help. Thinking about how much of how we feel belongs to us & our triggers or is something we're choosing not to tolerate in someone else's behaviour because we, & the relationship between us, deserves better may also be useful.

Of course, we can't change other people; to want someone else to change is to say that we don't accept them how they are or worse, to be in a fantasy relationship with how we think they could be in the future, a future that may never materialise. However, knowing what our own boundaries are & clearly communicating those to another person, as well as acting on it if those boundaries are not respected, is a very different matter.

Published 20/07/21