Ten tips for talking with your partner about your emotions.
The role of emotions is quite often misunderstood in relationships. I have heard many clients state with frustration “Why do we have to talk about how I feel about things. My partner just needs to forget the past and be happy now. I’ve said I’m sorry and that I don’t know why I do certain things, why can’t she/he just get over it? Why can’t we just move on?”
When we feel that our connection with a loved one is threatened an internal alarm goes off. We respond using the unconscious survival tools that we have developed in our primary childhood relationships. Fear that the person that we love the most, with whom we are the most vulnerable, will not be there for us when we are in crisis triggers a primary survival code within our brain and we either Fight/Protest or Flee/Withdraw. Our partner sees this action and they too experience an alarm bell in their brain and they react based on their own survival code.
Couples get caught in a tragic and often destructive cycle of action/reaction, based on old patterns of primitive survival. They find themselves replaying the same sequence repeatedly and are then confused that the same fight seems to keep presenting itself. Whether the trigger is someone forgetting to take out the trash, an affair or someone forgetting to call when they are running late, couples can become trapped in an infinite, negative feedback loop. Emotions are the gasoline that drives the engine of these destructive patterns. Each partner must understand what he or she is feeling as well as what his or her partner is feeling to truly stop the negative cycle.
Couples need to learn to slow down the cycle so that they can begin to understand the parts of the dynamic, to understand that the fights are really protests of disconnection. We go into a panic when we feel that our safe haven with a loved one is threatened. We can become overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, sadness and shame, feelings of inadequacy or failure, fear of rejection, loss, and abandonment. We mask these feeling by fighting or withdrawing and our partner is left wondering what is really happening.
The basic emotions that we all feel are anger, sadness, joy, surprise, shame and fear. But we also need to understand what lies below these basic emotions—what the underlying attachment needs are. How do these emotions drive us to react to our sense of disconnection from our partner and what the internal panic alarm is revealing about our need for safety and love?
Tips for beginning a discussion about emotions:
- Establish a sense of safety in the relationship. Trust needs to be strengthened for each of you to be willing to be vulnerable with your partner
- Take some time to sit quietly to come to understand exactly what you are feeling
- Calm yourself to keep your emotional balance so that you can trust your internal experience
- Identify the cue that triggers your reaction
- Determine what you feel in your body when you are triggered
- Reflect on what the cue and bodily sensations mean to you
- Explore your primary action tendency Fight/Protest or Flee/Freeze
- Order your emotional experience into a coherent whole (cue, bodily sensations, perception, action)
- Go slowly so that you can begin to formulate clear signals about what you are feeling and what your emotional needs are
- Practice with your partner. Ask clarifying questions so that you are both understanding what the other is saying. Take turns so that you each develop the ability to express emotions and needs and to respond with compassion and love
With practice you and your partner will be able to have calm, constructive conversations about the pattern of behavior and emotions that has been causing difficulty in your relationship. In time you will grow and find loving ways to reconnect. You can have the happy, loving relationship you both desire with some patience and practice.