How do you manage your feelings? Are emotions helpful or unnecessary? Are there some emotions that are okay to express while other emotions are not? How did the family you were raised handle emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, joy, disgust, and worry)? These are typical questions I ask my clients when we start working together – I want to know how emotions either bring a couple together or create distance.
For some couples, having different ways of managing emotions can lead to feelings of disconnect. Imagine this couple, Alisha and Reggie, they’ve been together for 9 months and enjoy each other’s company; you can find them on nature hikes, riding their bikes on trails, and spending the weekends in the mountains. Recently, Reggie learned that his workplace just got acquired by a large organization, which leaves his current position unstable. When he shares this news with Alisha, rather than being able to vent about his uncertainty and worry, they end up in an argument and spend the rest of their night in silence both retreating to a different room in the house. This is one of many similar scenarios – Reggie shares his stress and ends up frustrated with Alisha because he doesn’t feel like she listens, but rather wants to fix the situation. They’ve noticed that when it comes to sharing emotions, they are on “different pages” and don’t like their silent treatment pattern. They want to figure out how to handle these scenarios differently or if they don’t they fear that their relationship will get worse over time.
Reggie values emotions – he sees them as a guide to life. Emotions are a way of expressing a need or longing. And even emotions such as depression or sadness signal some need is not getting met (e.g., experiencing loss, disconnection, loneliness). He likes talking about his feelings and he wants his partner to be emotionally expressive and responsive back.
Alisha comes from a family who didn’t see emotions as valuable or necessary. She isn’t certain that emotions are productive or helpful, especially emotions that are perceived as negative (e.g., anger, depression). She tends to “look at the bright side” and because as long as she can remember, “there is no use in being sad.”
Since this couple experiences emotions very differently it’s no surprise that Reggie and Alisha feel misunderstood and disconnected.
The Change Triangle
There are seven core emotions that humans share that inform us about our environment and help us navigate the world: joy, fear, anger, grief, excitement, and sexual excitement (according to The Change Triangle). Emotions are signals — they communicate our longings and our needs. Emotions in and of themselves are not bad; however, how you behave or act from those feelings could be maladaptive and hurtful. In addition to our core emotions, we also have a variety of emotions that inhibit us from feeling core emotions (e.g., shame, guilt, anxiety) and we typically exhibit defensive behaviors to cope with the shame, guilt, and anxiety. Ideally, couples would be open and stay in an authentic state, such as being curious or feeling calm and compassionate during their conversations to allow connection around the core emotions to happen. In Reggie and Alisha’s relationship, it would be helpful to understand how emotions are necessary and what emotions are trying to tell us.
Reggie feels sadness and fear of instability about news from his workplace. His way of managing those feelings is to share with his partner Alisha. Alisha is not used to feeling core emotions so she responds with a “fix-it” reply (defensive behavior), which is a response to feeling anxiety (inhibitory emotion), rather than feeling the fear (core emotion) with Reggie and staying curious and compassionate to his needs (ideal open or authentic response). How do they get out of this stuck place?
Can you name and feel emotions without judgement?
Reggie and Alisha would benefit from talking about how emotions were expressed while they were growing up. It would also be helpful for them to be able to share their values around emotions – what good comes from expressing emotions? What fears do they have around expressing emotions? For instance, if I share that I’m feeling sad, what might that mean? It could benefit them to explore ways they avoid the core emotions to help foster awareness – instead of feeling sad, I feel anxious because growing up in my family, it was expected to “put on a happy face.” To help me feel happy, I go to “fix-it mode” because if you can make it better, you can be happy.
Being curious about emotions and bringing awareness of what you do when you feel certain emotions is a game changer when it comes to creating a healthy and connected relationship.
Helpful resources to explore emotional health
If you find that your relationship has an emotional mismatch like that of e Reggie and Alisha, there are ways to foster your emotional connection. If you want to explore your own emotional health and take a pulse on what your emotions are signaling to you, we have a couple recommendations.
When therapy can help
It’s common for couples to place different emphasis on emotions. Understandably, each member of the couple comes from a different household, has a different career, and thus emotions can be very helpful or drive disconnection. We know that disconnection left untreated can feel unbearably lonely.
If you could use help naming and feeling emotions without judgement in your relationship, therapy can help.
If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We offer virtual sessions and in-person appointments.