Couples Therapy Session – Scenario
Suzanne and Eddie* came to couples counseling seeking support to work through a painful event that occurred a year ago with the arrival of their first child. The event has caused a lot of fighting between them, and they have not been able to work through it. As we begin to discuss this distressing experience, Suzanne’s anger becomes more intense. She tells me about how Eddie was at his office when her water broke and labor began two weeks ahead of her due date. She recalls being shocked and worried at how soon the pre-labor began. She immediately phoned Eddie to let him know, and to tell him that her mother was with her. Suzanne told Eddie to meet them at the hospital as soon as he could. He calmly told her that he had an important meeting in twenty minutes, and that he would join them once it was finished. Several hours later, Eddie arrived at the hospital room to find Suzanne in the throes of labor, with her mother supporting her. She delivered a healthy baby, and remained in the hospital for extra monitoring after a difficult delivery. Although they were delighted to welcome their child, and were soon able to return home without complication, Suzanne was cold towards Eddie throughout the process. She has remained distant and upset with him since the event.
Suzanne turns to Eddie and angrily says: “How dare you carry on with your meeting when you knew I was going into labor! You acted like nothing was more important than that stupid meeting, not even your wife and child. You should be ashamed of yourself,” she fumes.
Eddie responds defensively: “I was in the middle of the most important meeting of the year! I would’ve risked losing a major deal, and anyway, the labor was just starting. I knew there was enough time to get it done and then join you at the hospital. It’s not like the baby was born without me! I helped you through that labor just like we planned, and it all worked out just fine. I don’t know why you keep screaming at me for taking care of everything!”
Suzanne is red-faced and silent, seething with anger. As she looks away from Eddie, I ask her to tell me more about the anger. I listen and try to understand her perspective, intentionally validating the logic behind her anger. Encouraged, she tells me more, and her tone begins to slowly change. She moves from raging blame into something more vulnerable–fear and sadness.
Suzanne: “When my water broke, I thought, “This can’t be right…we still have two weeks until the due date…” I thought something must be wrong with me, or with the baby…I was terrified,” she says. “I knew I had to move quickly…I thought about calling an ambulance, but got my mom on the line instead. She lives close by, so it was easy for her to come right over. Then I called Eddie…I needed his help…” Suzanne whispers, tears beginning to spill out of her eyes. “I needed to know he understood the gravity of the moment, and that he was going to be there for me. I needed him there in case the worst were to happen.”
Suzanne is crying hard now, with visible pain on her face. Eddie sits in solemn silence, clearly surprised at hearing this part of the story. Thus far he has only seen Suzanne’s anger, and he is stunned to learn that she had been flooded with fear when her water broke. I gently validate Suzanne’s fear and sadness, and help Eddie to respond to her in a constructive way.
Eddie: “Oh Suzanne…I never knew how frightened you were. You sounded so calm on the phone that day…I thought we were on the same page, I had no idea you needed me like that in the moment. I can now understand why you’ve been so angry with me this entire time.”
Now that Eddie can see that fear was driving his wife’s anger, he is able to express his remorse. With tears in his eyes, he tells her how sorry he is, and he holds her as she cries. It is a beautiful repair moment, and the beginning of healing between them.
This is an example that showcases how secondary emotions can “mask” primary emotions. In this case, Suzanne’s anger can be seen as a secondary emotion, which “covered up” the primary emotions of fear and sadness underneath.
Secondary emotions are just the tip of the iceberg
A great way to conceptualize primary and secondary emotions is the classic iceberg metaphor. The visible part of the iceberg represents the secondary reactivity (i.e. anger, numbness), and the invisible part that sits below the waterline represents the softer, primary emotion (i.e. sadness, fear, shame).
How are secondary emotions helpful?
Consider for a moment how feeling anger in the above situation could have been helpful to Suzanne. It likely helped her to take action and get herself to the hospital. If she had been overtaken by the fear, perhaps she would have froze, costing her precious time in a serious situation. In situations where physical threat is a real possibility, anger can be very protective.
The secondary emotions of anger and numbness can also protect us psychologically. Sometimes the pain of sadness, shame, or fear is too much to handle, and our psyches have a beautiful way of supporting us through instability. For example, it is not uncommon for individuals to finally begin grieving a loss long after the event occurred. This may be because they finally reach a point at which it is psychologically safe enough to experience the pain.
In relationships, anger can help us to get an important message through to a partner. It can be seen as a bid for change, much like the anger a protestor might express when demonstrating for a change on a systemic level. This could be viewed as an “anger of hope.” Likewise, numbness can serve as a way to minimize conflict and preserve harmony in a relationship. If people are experiencing secondary reactivity in a relationship, let us assume they have good reason for doing so, and that there is likely something more vulnerable happening below the waterline.
Communicating “beneath the waterline”
Couples often come to therapy with the goal of “improved communication.” However, focusing on communication allows other discoveries to occur: how to make sense of their conflict, how to stop triggering one another, and how to understand and express emotion. This involves cultivating greater awareness of what might be happening “beneath the waterline,” for oneself and one’s partner. This process can take time. Sometimes it requires a full set of scuba gear, and a deep dive expedition. Usually it requires increased psychological and emotional safety.
5 strategies for better communication:
1: Maintain persistent, gentle curiosity about your and your partner’s primary experiences. Take ownership of your personal experience.
2: Notice what you are feeling in your body during a moment of reactivity (i.e. tightness, soreness, trembling). If that place had a voice, what would is say right now? What emotion links to this place of body activation?
3: Validate the secondary emotion (i.e. anger, numbness) that you are seeing from your partner. While it may not make complete sense to you, you can validate by saying, “I can see your anger, and I assume you have good reason to be angry. Tell me more.” When we feel validated in our anger or numbness, we naturally begin to feel and talk about the primary experience underneath.
4: Validate the primary emotion (i.e. sadness, fear, shame) without trying to fix it or make it go away. Don’t be afraid of the vulnerability, even though it may be quite painful. Breathe through it slowly.
5: If you have shared your primary experience, do your best to articulate what you need from your partner (i.e. a hug, a word of reassurance). If you are the one listening, ask your partner what that vulnerable part of him/her needs right now.
There is no magic how-to solution for these dilemmas, but a necessary ingredient is increased emotional safety. This is where taking ownership of our secondary and primary emotion, maintaining gentle curiosity, and offering sincere validation come in.
When to seek couples therapy
Most couples find that they are able to apply the above strategies for many conflicts they face. Most couples also find that there are specific issues which are very difficult to broach, specifically because there is so much secondary and primary emotional activation. This often overwhelming activation can make it nearly impossible to find resolution at times, because we get stuck inadvertently triggering each other, and going into self-protective mode to cope.
If you and your partner struggle to create emotional safety around certain issues, you also likely struggle to create supportive communication. If so, it may be a good time to enlist the help of a therapist. A good therapist will help to curate safety so that you and your partner can take increased risks to turn towards each other, and trust one another with your vulnerability. Click here for more information and to get set up with a therapist today.
*This is a fictitious couple.