Understanding Emotions in Your Relationship - Talk About Marriage
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Understanding Emotions in Your Relationship

Understanding Emotions in Your Relationship
By Marlon Familton, MA
Collaborative Couples & Family Counseling, LLC


Mary waited at the table dressed for Yoga as her two children played at her feet. Looking at her watch again, she clenched her jaw at seeing 6:05 PM. Mary reflected on Bob saying he’d be home by 5:30 PM; in time to watch the girls so she could get to her six o’clock class. He has let me down again, she thought. When the front door finally opened, she flashed him a look and felt a powerful urge to let him have it. Can you share her anger?

Mike finished buttoning his shirt and found himself starring into the photo of Debbie. His stomach churned as he replayed Debbie’s words in his head again. “I just don’t want to be with you anymore.” He picked up her picture and remembered what it was like to hold her in his arms. Mike reached for a tissue as the tear streamed down his cheek. Can you sense his sadness?

Alice felt a sting surge through her body as she processed the caller’s words. “There’s been an accident. Your husband is at the ER; please come to the hospital right away.” Alice slammed the phone down and felt her heart pounding in her chest as she raced for the car. Can you imagine her fear?

As humans, we pretty much spend all our lives in pursuit of happiness. When things are good, we smile, laugh and feel good inside; we are happy. When something happens and we are no longer happy, our brains process what is happening around us, calculate the impact that event has on us and generates an emotion.

The word emotion comes from the Latin emovere which basically means to move. Emotions are designed to generate an impulse and motivate us into action; an action that will get us moving back toward a happy state.

I could break emotions down into pages of possibilities, but at the core there are only really four we need to deal with here. Happy is one; the goal. The other three are mad, sad, and scared.

When Emotional Needs are Clear
In the three opening scenarios, you can probably imagine which emotion each person is experiencing. As Mary sits at her table waiting for her husband, she has a sense of feeling unfairly treated. In response she gets mad. Her body is telling her that she needs to create a boundary in order to feel better. That night Mary and Bob talk. Mary lets him know that she is mad that he is not keeping his word, not sharing responsibility for their children and that change must occur. Ideally he will be engaged in the conversation and responsive to her request for him to keep his word. If this happens, Mary will feel better.

Mike, having just broken up with his girlfriend, is quite sad. He feels empty and alone, longing for a chance to be with her again. If she were to come and connect with him; to hold him and help him feel as though everything will be okay, he will feel better.

Alice, after receiving a phone call that her husband is in the hospital, is gripped with fear. As soon as she gets to the hospital and can learn what has happened she will start to feel better. Hopefully he is alright and if so, she will feel much better quickly.

Each of the three key emotions, mad, sad, and scared, has an action impulse that is generated by our body in an effort to move us into action. That action is designed to help us get back to a happy state of being. Of course we do not go from mad to happy in a short moment; however matching the impulse to our actions starts us down that path.

When we feel Mad, we sense something is unfair and we need boundaries.

When we feel Sad, we sense that we are alone and need someone to hold us.

When we feel scared, we sense our world is threatened in some way and we need to get safe.

When the emotional needs are clear this is easy. Yet what happens when our emotional response does not match the action impulse generated by the emotion?

Flipping into a Coping Reaction
Hopefully expressing emotions in our primary relationship is easy because our partner is the one person outside of our family that views us as important, accepted, appreciates and who understands us. When things are not going well, or if incidents over time have caused us to doubt these things, expressing our emotions will make us feel vulnerable to them. Our capacity to express ourselves is also related to how emotions were managed and modeled in our family of origin. If expressing emotion was not acceptable or managed poorly you probably will have trouble doing this with your partner and this is a problem needing attention, perhaps with counseling to learn to do this.

When Bob finally came home, Alice was quite angry at him for treating her in a way that she sensed was unfair. She managed it well and spoke to him later, expressing that she was angry, treated unfairly and worked to adjust their relationship so she can get her needs met. Great. Yet, for many of us, talking with our partner that way would either be too vulnerable.

Perhaps she has tried to get Bob to respond before and he has dismissed her. Now feeling unimportant to him, she holds the belief that expressing an emotion would make herself vulnerable to him. If this were true, Alice will instead most likely flip into a reaction that is designed to cope with her sense of vulnerability. Now when Bob comes home, she might go on the attack and yell at him or if that is not how she manages emotional distress, she might walk right past him without a word and slam the door on the way out. She wants him to notice her distress and move towards her, but that will not happen. Instead he decides to ignore her upon her return.

Mike, feeling alone, sad and vulnerable for being dumped, might have called or wrote Debbie and gone on the attack. He might have called her names and diagnosed her with a mental illness, not in a nice way. He’s hurt, so instead of asking someone appropriate for comfort, he goes on the attack to make Debbie feel badly too. He wants her to know he is hurting, but you can see that would not happen here. Instead Debbie gets her decision confirmed and decides never to talk with him again.

When Alice got the phone call from the hospital her world felt threatened. When she gets to the hospital and the nurses cannot answer questions, she becomes loud and demanding. Alice is actually terrified and wants to know her husband is safe so she can feel her world is also safe, but instead expresses reactionary anger. You can imagine the nurses are less likely to help her. Instead of more help and compassion, she is avoided.

In each case the person has not stayed with the primary emotion and instead flipped into a coping reaction that inadvertently pushed people away. It is these coping reactions that create negative cycles of interaction in our relationship that grow and fester into break ups. When we feel scared, believing we do not matter to our partner, and instead either go on the attack in some way or distance and withdraw, they will become defensive, critical or even contemptuous in response. This pushes us to continue escalating the negative cycle that is occurring, and so on and so forth. The question then is what will stop this negative cycle from happening?

Expressing Primary Emotions versus Coping Reactions
Primary emotions, when expressed, will typically draw our partner towards us. What would happen if during an argument when tempers are flaring, you said this to your partner? “Right now I am feeling as though I am not important to you and that makes me scared for our relationship.” Would they wham you with name calling? Doubtful. Yet if we fear this might happen, if we fear them going on the attack or leaving, we basically fear being rejected or abandoned. Since this is intolerable, instead we express a coping reaction that is typically reactionary anger or withdrawal. As the argument escalates, we participate in the volatility or we leave emotionally or physically.

Here is the decision point in our relationships. Expressing a coping reaction does not seem risky and in the moment feels as though it will soothe our emotional fear or vulnerability. It feels great to yell back or stomp out the door. However; this does not address the deeper issue and perpetuates the negative cycle in our relationship. The deeper issue is not the content of the argument or situation; it is that you are feeling vulnerable because you are not feeling important, accepted, appreciated, understood or close to your partner. These attachment needs are driving the show and our fear of not getting them met. The related fear is the block to expressing our primary emotions. This is the real conversation that needs to happen.

One more time, expressing a coping reaction instead of the primary emotion pulls out of our partner more fuel for our own discomfort. It becomes self defeating and gets us the opposite of what we want in that moment. Separating primary anger from an angry coping reaction and expressing the true primary emotions we are feeling is critical for strengthening our relationship.

Now you can see that it is not the emotions themselves that are the problem; rather it is what we do with those emotions; it is how we react to them. When emotions are expressed through behavior that is viewed as problematic, things do not go well for us. The silver bullet is insight and self awareness to become mindful of our emotions, to learn where they come from and recognize what they are telling us our body wants. Once we do that, it is still a choice and still may feel risky and that is an important conversation to have with our partner. We have to decide to be vulnerable with our partner and they have to be accessible to us, responsive and engaged.

Helping couples who cannot get to this place and coaching them to respond effectively is what I do as marriage and couples counselor. Another great way to get started on working through these issues is to pick up a copy of Dr. Sue Johnson’s book, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.” Dr. Johnson was a key developer in an evidenced based model of couples and family therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy. Visit www.eft.ca for a directory of EFT trained therapists in your area.

Marlon Familton is a marriage counselor trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy and runs Collaborative Couples & Family Counseling, LLC in Bellevue Washington. He is also married to a wonderful parent coach and child therapist who often reminds him that he has to work on all this stuff too, and that the hard work of relationships and being loved is the meaning of life.

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