A few weeks ago, my partner and I went through a challenging time in our relationship.
Our moments of fun and connection gave way to complaints and barely contained tears. Our morning walks together, once a source of laughter and connection, became dangerous minefields of mutual triggers. Every day we had emotionally charged conversations that’d be reason enough for many couples to break up.
We thought about possible causes. Maybe it was because we worked and lived together and needed more time apart. Maybe it was because I had been feeling unusually anxious lately, and he was tired and overworked. Or maybe it was simply a natural process, some old trauma coming to the surface in order to be healed, or some sort of cosmic test for us to prove ourselves as a couple.
And, to be honest, I think we did quite well getting through it.
Over the past six years, we’ve been building strong foundations for communication and safety in our relationship, and that helped us to weather this. We embraced the challenge and the lessons that came with it. Despite often feeling drained and disheartened, we kept on trying, and we stayed put.
But the truth is that after a while we just started feeling like crap, and we longed for our usual state of joy and connectedness. We wanted our happy relationship back, but nothing seemed to help us break this sad state of disconnection.
And then one day, something happened: An online authentic-relating workshop brought us an unexpected solution.
Authentic Relating: A Secret Weapon for Human Connection
Authentic relating, a movement born in San Francisco in the late 1990s, consists of a set of practices and games that build skills, such as empathy and curiosity, with the goal of creating meaningful human connection.
According to Sara Ness, the unofficial organizer of the movement, authentic relating plays around with changing the structure of traditional social interactions in order to create more space for authenticity, freedom, and trust.
I had practiced authentic relating before, and several times I was blown away by its power to facilitate deep connection with anyone, even strangers. But this time, attending a workshop with my partner made me realize something different: the potential of this practice to change our relationship with each other.
There was one specific game from the workshop I felt particularly inspired to play with my partner. He took my suggestion, and we played it right after the workshop. It ended up lasting for over three hours, and let me tell you that I wasn’t ready for the outcome.
The game started with some nervous unease, which eventually descended into us visiting some of our deepest emotional wounds as a couple. I cried, then I sobbed, and then we hugged. It then guided us all the way through painful vulnerability — to a new way of listening, to deep understanding — and we ended up in a playful state of closeness and arousal (we literally had to cancel previous plans just so we could jump into bed with each other).
Since then, we’ve been using this game as a tool for building closeness, whether it’s after a long day at work, when we feel distant and distracted, or when we simply want to have fun together while maintaining a feeling of intimacy.
So how do you play this game?
The Noticing Game: How to Play
The Noticing Game is one of the simplest games in all of authentic relating, but it’s incredibly powerful.
It’s played in pairs, either sitting or standing in front of each other, and then taking turns to complete either of the following sentence stems:
“Being here with you, I notice ________________.”
“Hearing that, I notice ________________.”
What you “notice” can include your own emotions and thoughts, as well as observations about the other person or the context of the situation itself.
Below is an example that I put together based on a few times I played this game with my partner (it’s not word by word, as I can’t possibly remember exact sentences, but I tried to make it as truthful as possible to give you a real sense of why it felt so powerful for us):
• “Being here with you, I notice I feel tense about suggesting this game, afraid you won’t like it.”
• “Hearing that, I notice that I’m confused, not really knowing how to play it.”
• “Hearing that, I notice that I feel love and sympathy for you.”
• “Being here with you, I notice that I’m really tired and my mind is wandering to some distant thoughts, and I notice that I feel ashamed telling you this.”
• “Hearing that, I notice a desire to tell you that it’s OK to be distracted, that I’m not upset. I also notice a familiar pattern coming up: When you tell me you’re tired, a part of me feels guilty, as if I want to fix it for you, as if it’s my responsibility to help you, and your lack of energy is my fault.”
• “Hearing that, I notice some annoyance and the thought that I can’t share my worries with you because they will make you feel guilty and I’ll trigger sadness in you.”
• “Hearing that, I notice the need to reassure you that it’s OK, as well as some anger … because I don’t need to be protected from my emotions. I can handle them myself.”
• “Hearing that, I notice that I feel proud of you, and also closer to you. I notice a desire to be physically close to you.”
• “Hearing that, I notice a feeling of warmth growing in my chest, like it’s opening up, and a smile growing on my face. I also notice a desire to be close to you and cuddle — and to tell you that I really love you.”
Despite its simplicity, The Noticing Game is very powerful due to one special feature: It brings our attention to the most intimate level of conversation — the relational level.
The Three Levels of Conversation
According to Authentic Relating Training International, there are three levels of conversation: informational, personal, and relational.
The informational level is the most superficial and least intimate one; it’s where we exchange facts and discuss external events (think small talk with the postman, reminding your partner about errands, discussing the latest political news, etc.).
The personal level talks about how we feel about the content at the informational level, and therefore it goes a bit deeper (telling your partner you feel relieved and grateful that he did the shopping or expressing your feelings about the current government).
Finally, there’s the relational level. This is the most intimate one because it “applies the identifying and naming of emotions from the personal level to the present moment and space.” How am I feeling being here with you? What are we doing right now? What’s in your mind at this moment?
When we’re in the present moment, the conversation becomes much more exciting, alive, and engaging. Using “I notice …” as a sentence stem is a great way to bring our attention to the relational level.
When I asked my partner about how he experiences this game, he used a beautiful metaphor: If we compare our thoughts and emotions to cars, then a regular everyday conversation is like watching a highway at night from afar — all you see are blurred yellow and red lights speeding in the distance. However, when playing The Noticing Game, we slow down our conversation so we can finally catch up with our thoughts and feelings, and they become clearer and much more manageable.
How This Game Has Impacted Our Relationship
Ever since we attended this workshop, we’ve been playing this game regularly, and every time we play it, the results are completely different.
Sometimes we end up feeling like lovebirds in the honeymoon phase. Sometimes, it helps regain perspective so we can work more effectively through challenging emotions. Other times, it makes us feel brave enough to venture into raw delicate topics, and then it leaves the wound open, without closure of any kind.
Regardless of how we feel after we play this game, we’re always left with a sense that we’ve uncovered something important, that another layer of our connection has been healed, and that we got better at important relationship skills.
Here are a few examples:
1. We can say things we couldn’t say before
“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat. It’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.” — Brené Brown
Research shows that one of the key elements for successful relationships is affection. And a key component of affection is our ability to be vulnerable with each other — to share our true feelings and to let the other person see us in our worst and best moments.
By increasing my emotional awareness in the present moment, The Noticing Game made it obvious to me that I often refrain from saying certain things to my partner out of pride or out of a desire to maintain a certain image of myself.
For example, I noticed that I usually struggle with being the first one to say sorry or show love after a disagreement (it hurts to admit, but I have a tendency to sulk occasionally).
Not only has The Noticing Game allowed me to identify the moments when I avoid vulnerability, but it also gave me the tools to open up and be more authentic. Here’s an example:
“I notice that there is ego behind what I just said. I didn’t really mean it, and now I also notice that my tendency is to sulk and be mad at you. I’m too proud to be nice. But there is also a part of me that wants to connect and wishes to say that I love you.”
By opening up about the vulnerable spots in ourselves, not only do we feel a huge relief and much more lightness in our conversations (and more capacity, therefore, to hold space for the other person), but we also expose a tenderness that inspires love in others.
2. We feel safer sharing with each other
Clinical psychologist and developer of emotionally focused couples and family therapy (EFT) Dr. Sue Johnson says that adult romantic relationships are “(…) emotional bonds. They’re about the innate need for safe emotional connection. Just like [British psychiatrist] John Bowlby talks about in his attachment theory concerning mothers and kids. The same thing is going on with adults.”
My partner and I noticed we often avoid complete authenticity out of fear of hurting each other and endangering the security of our attachment. The Noticing Game makes us notice those moments and encourages us to speak anyway by creating a safe space where we can not only share openly but also listen to the other person with more empathy.
• “Being here with you, I notice that I feel angry and disconnected from you.”
• “Hearing that, I notice an impulse to shut down, to stay away, to protect myself. I notice aversion. I notice some pain in my chest.”
• “Hearing that, I notice some tears wanting to come out, but it’s hard to let them out. I notice my jaw starts to hurt. I notice some shame coming up because of what I just said, and I feel lost and helpless.”
• “Hearing that, I notice that I don’t feel so guarded anymore, and I feel compassion toward you.”
Building this safety to share has allowed us more space to address topics that usually feel scary. We’re much less likely to digress into made-up stories about the current situation, as the present moment feels much safer and appealing than ever before.
3. We can see harmful patterns we couldn’t see before
One day we were playing this game and we noticed that we just went on and on repeating the same thing:
• “Being here with you, I notice I feel anxiety and fear; some thoughts about financial insecurity are coming up.”
• “Hearing that I notice some annoyance coming up for me, and I’m afraid we’ll go into a familiar pattern of complaining.”
• “Hearing that I notice some tension building up inside my chest; I feel even more anxious, and I feel guarded too. I notice I don’t want to share with you anymore.”
• “Hearing that, I notice some frustration, and I notice some guilt in sharing this because I don’t want to trigger your anxiety even more.”
• “Hearing that, I notice that I feel even more guarded and stuck because I notice we’re going into some sort of self-inducing loop.”
• “Hearing that, I still notice frustration and annoyance at the direction this conversation is taking.”
However, because the game keeps pulling our attention toward the honesty of the present moment, we have no choice but to keep repeating ourselves … until finally we start understanding each other.
• “Hearing you express how you feel, I notice how repetitive this is becoming, and I suddenly notice how stuck I have been feeling inside my own head; I notice something inside me opening up, as well as empathy for how you are feeling right now.”
Very often, playing this game reminds us that the only way out is through; sometimes, we need our unhealthy patterns to be played in repeat so we can finally see the other side and move on.
You Can See, but You Can Also Change
So have we solved our relationship problems for good?
I don’t think so. Relationships are as alive, as complex, and as ever-changing as the people who make them, and therefore there will always be challenges to face.
But I do think this game allowed us to go one level deeper in our connection with each other — and also with ourselves.
There is, however, one last thing I didn’t mention. As I played the game and described my every mood and emotion and thought in as much detail as possible, I noticed something interesting: how my words can directly influence how I feel.
At any given point in time, there’s always an infinite amount of things happening inside of me: a thought about a book I read, the sensation of a full stomach, a background anxiety about work and laughter at the joke my partner is telling me — all existing within the same three-second interval. When playing The Noticing Game, I can choose which of those to mention, and what I choose to mention influences how my emotional state develops. No matter how sad I feel, if I look for the tiniest bit of happiness inside of me, my attention will naturally shift to a happy state.
There is power in pure awareness and noticing the present moment, but true power comes when you realize that whatever you choose to notice becomes your reality. And when you do that with someone else, your relationship can change tremendously.