By Kevin Hales, LPCC, (with contributions from Paul Sigafus, LMFT) Part 2 of 3
In our previous post, we explored how your role as a pursuer or withdrawer can reinforce the arguments and sense of disconnection in your marriage. To end this negative cycle, it is essential for you and your partner to learn how to speak from your hearts—your primary emotions and needs.
Reaching our Primary Emotions
It isn’t always easy to determine what causes your emotions to remain hidden. Often, you might keep your vulnerable emotions hidden from your partner because you don’t feel safe enough to share them. You don’t see your partner as a safe person to turn to. You’ve reached your hand into the fire and been burned, so you’re naturally hesitant to continue doing so.
Other times, you might not open up to your spouse because you’re only be vaguely aware your own primary emotions. For example, people sometimes cope with the pain of past abuse and trauma by limiting their own awareness of the pain and fear from those events. Whatever the cause, if you and your spouse have developed the pattern of not turning to each other with your vulnerable emotions, you will find that you’ve grown apart. Instead of turning to each other, you might find yourself turning towards other people, other responsibilities, or other distractions.
Despite this distance, underneath, you might fear that you can never get it right with your partner, that your efforts are never good enough. You long to know that you’re acceptable and lovable as you are.
Recognize Your Negative Cycle
To escape from your negative cycle, the first step is to recognize that you are both stuck in the cycle and to stop the argument. An interesting research study had researchers hook up monitors to couples and then leave the room. They gave the couples controversial subjects to discuss and watched the readings climb on their equipment. While in the midst of their heated discussions, the researchers would go in and interrupt them and pretend to make some adjustments to their microphones and equipment, still monitoring them as they did so. They found that on average, it took about 20 minutes for individuals to cool down to their baseline levels before starting. And so that’s what I typically recommend to my couples is that they give themselves a 20 minute breather and then come back to readdress the issue at hand.
What you do during those 20 minutes is crucial. Rather than angrily brooding, reflect and figure out what is going on below the surface of your anger. Think of anger as the tip of the emotional iceberg. It’s what the other person sees, but there’s a whole lot more underneath the surface. That’s what we’re trying to figure out during this time. Ask yourself if your upset feelings are connected to feelings of sadness, hurt, or fear in your relationship. Get in touch with your primary emotions.
Sharing Your Vulnerable Emotions & Needs
You may not be in the habit of sharing your real, vulnerable emotions with your spouse. And there’s a good reason why! They make you feel vulnerable! But here’s the irony: Sue Johnson said “the truth is, we will never create a really strong, secure connection if we do not allow our partner to know us fully.” And that can only occur when you share with your spouse your deep, vulnerable emotions. These are often fear, hurt, sadness, and longing. These primary emotions revolve around your deep need to feel safe, secure, connected, cared for, and important to your partner.
These deep emotions are best expressed by:
- Using “I” language
- Avoiding the use of the word “but” and replacing it with “and”
- Taking ownership of our emotions without placing blame or point fingers at the other person
Perhaps some examples would be helpful.
- “I felt hurt when you said I was ALWAYS late. It makes me feel like I’m failing in your eyes. I hate feeling like that. There’s nothing more important to me than knowing I’m getting it right with you.”
- “I was angry earlier with you, but under that anger, I think I felt sad. I wish we had a closer relationship with one another and I feel immense sadness over not having that with you. It comes out as anger instead I guess.”
- “I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why I got so mad. I think it’s because I saw you retreat to your “man-cave” and saw it as you running away again from things. When that happens, I feel like you don’t care about me. I feel distant from you. I want to feel close to you, loved by you and it’s hard for me to feel that when you run away.”
Some examples of what NOT to say:
- “Yeah, I’m sorry I said that BUT if you hadn’t been so insensitive earlier, I wouldn’t have said that.” (Blaming Response)
- “You are so selfish. What about me? Do you even care about me? Hey, don’t turn away! Don’t you leave! Come back!” (Attacking Response)
- “Hey, tone it down there tiger. I think you’re caught up in the cycle again. Let me know when you’re calm and ready to talk.” (Condescending/Self-Righteous Response)
We hope these thoughts will help you. There is never a one-size fits all approach to relationships. However, this cycle is very common to relationships and how we can get stuck with one another.
Perhaps this all seems obvious and sensible. The hard part is implementing this. And that is why we are here. If yours is a relationship that needs help getting to the heart of the matter, let us at Colorado Counseling Center help you.