No one likes to feel difficult emotions: sorrow, embarrassment, anger, shame, disappointment. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant—sometimes really unpleasant. For many of us, our first response is to shut down the circuits and to move away from a negative emotion, whether ours or someone else’s. On a different day, our approach might be to move in to fix it. To take action we believe will alleviate the distress. The common underlying desire is to DO something to lessen the pain, ours or someone else’s. Especially when that ‘someone else’ is our partner.
Then there are feelings about certain emotions: maybe we learned somewhere that anger is disruptive, or even dangerous. Or that grief means a debilitating depression. Or if I’m feeling shame, I really must be a bad person! Our feelings about feelings (meta-emotions) can be just as challenging to navigate as the feelings themselves.
The full spectrum of emotions is a part of our treasured human existence
– the joy, the sorrow, the times of fear and the times of frustration.
In our primary relationships, the negative emotions,
while not fun, offer a unique and meaningful opportunity.
In the same way some of the deepest human connections are forged in the most despairing of situations—combat, natural disaster, life-threatening accidents—a doorway to new levels can open when in conflict with a precious loved one.
The person who leaves home to fight in Afghanistan cannot foresee what they will experience, nor the intense, lifelong bonds that are born in a combat zone. Similarly, by moving toward our conflicts with our partner in a meaningful, conscious fashion, we enable a relationship of unimaginable depth. We allow a relationship with the potential to withstand and hold all of our parts. The good, the painful, and the difficult.
Behind every challenging emotion lies a longing. A story. A tale steeped in meaning. Something very precious.
Bringing these aspects of ourselves ‘up’ and integrating them into our relationship can add layer upon layer of depth and intimacy.
Ok, ok, it doesn’t always work that way, but it can! It truly can.
When both people are able to take a step back, self-soothe, rein in their defensive reactions, and truly listen to their partner, this doorway creaks open.
We All Stumble
What is also true is that we all stumble with this. We fall back on our old stress patterns. We react, we attack, we counterattack. One of the heartening lessons from John Gottman’s research with over 3000 couples is that even the ‘masters of marriage’ stumble and fall into old, reactive patterns with one another.
It isn’t the stumbling that’s the problem, it’s what we do with our blunders that matters in the long run.
My work with couples echoes John’s research: when we learn how to dialogue well with one another, when we learn how to soothe ourselves and our partners, when we repair early and often, when we honor each person’s experience, we strengthen and deepen our connection in ways not previously imagined.
When you are caught up in a swirling morass of negative feelings, try asking yourself these questions:
- “What is this feeling and where in my body am I feeling it?”
- “What do I need now?”
- “How can I nurture that need?”
- “What can I do for my partner?”
- “What can my partner do for me?”
- “How can we, as a couple, turn toward one another with acts of loving-kindness?”
Asking these focused questions and responding in turn will go a long way to promote empathy, compassion, and connection within your relationship.