A Peaceful Life’s Blog

Attachment Styles: Unlocking the Keys to Loving Well

attachment styles

Attachment styles have moved into more discussions and writing about relationships over the past few years. And for good reason: Understanding your own and your partner’s style can forge a new bridge to a deeper awareness of your differences. Most importantly, this new awareness opens the door to greater compassion — and then closeness.

There’s science here, too, that supports the growing use of attachment styles in helping couples better navigate the challenging times in their relationships.

In this post, we’ll address the basics of the science of attachment, how couples can struggle with different attachment styles and how couples can increase the depth of their connection by heightening their awareness of how attachment impacts their relationship.

Attachment Styles in Action: Familiar Scenarios

Diane is enjoying a girls’ night out at a local club. Dave is home playing board games with their kids. Both are relaxed, having fun. Dave is not worried about Diane, not anxious about when she’ll be home.

At a party, John is talking with a woman who is the date of a colleague. His wife Jane notices, and she’s becoming more angry and wishes he would come be with her. And, why is he spending time with this other woman?

Ann wants Andy to open up about issues at his job; Andy, though, prefers to leave problems at the office and deal with them as needed. Ann feels closer when they talk; Andy can be uncomfortable discussing emotions.

Each example demonstrates a different style of attachment. Without understanding attachment styles, couples can struggle to connect and feel close, fall into arguments frequently and even have different parenting beliefs they struggle to understand.

So, what exactly is attachment? And what are its origins for us as individuals?

Attachment: The Science, Briefly

We learn to love and be loved in our earliest years. As infants and young children, we are entirely dependent on our parents to feed us, keep us safe and to help us feel secure.

Our young brains are learning whether or not we can count on our caregivers to be there when we need them, to offer comfort and to help us experience joy that comes from connection with those important to us.  Children look to their caregivers for applause and encouragement when we take our first steps, to encourage us when we go out into the world on those early days of school and when we need reassurance to try something new.

Our early experiences are unique — and they begin to influence our brain development and how we will connect and bond with others as we grow. And, these early experiences of relying on others can set the stage for how successful we are in our adult romantic relationships.

Keep in mind, however, we are not intending to blame parents for misguidance. Parents themselves are influenced by their own family of origin, their culture, the era and times and stress they may be encountering.

As we mature, adult attachment is the bond formed when we fall in love. Attachment includes:

  • Seeking and maintaining emotional and physical connection with our beloved.
  • Reaching for this one special person for comfort during times of stress, offering us a safe haven from the challenges of daily life.
  • We miss our beloved when we are apart, and separation can bring forth intense emotions.
  • We depend on our loved one to support us emotionally, and it is this closeness that gives us confidence and courage to venture out into the world as individuals.

Benefitting from this New Understanding

Understanding our own ways of attachment and how we connect with others is important learning. And, we can, as adults, make changes to become more secure in our attachment styles.

The science of attachment was at first resisted — as often occurs with any new discovery. However, over the years, science has been better able to understand the roots of attachment. Today, we can actually see on brain images the impact of attachment when people receive comfort from their partner.

The source of our attachment styles can reach beyond childhood. We also find that experiences in previous romantic relationships can influence attachment feelings in the current one. If you had troubled, perhaps abusive, adult relationships, your attachment style now may reflect those traumas. Or, when a previous partner had an affair, you may be particularly anxious or cautious in subsequent relationships.

Understanding the Three Main Attachment Styles

Let’s take another look at our three couples mentioned above.

Diane and Dave have secure attachment styles, which include:

  • They are comfortable depending on each other
  • They assume their partner’s intentions are positive
  • They support each other’s growth and development
  • They don’t worry about abandonment and can easily trust each other

John and Jane may not share the same attachment style. Jane is anxious and she may tend to:

  • Need to be reassured that she is loved
  • Not feel John is as close to her as she needs
  • Be sensitive to any signs of rejection and need to know exactly where she stands in the relationship
  • Persistently call and text and worry if John doesn’t reply promptly when she feels the relationship is in any way insecure.

John, on the other hand, struggles to understand Jane’s worrying. His attachment style is secure, and her persistence can lead to arguments when he becomes frustrated with her needs for reassurance.

Ann and Andy also have different attachment styles. She is anxious when he is quiet and seemingly withdrawn. Andy’s behavior tends to align with the avoidant attachment style and can include:

  • A reluctance to get too close to others
  • A desire to be independent and minimize the need for others for assistance
  • Pulling away when things are going well and not be responsive when his partner wants connection
  • Not making his personal needs known

One of the foundations of Emotionally Focused Therapy is helping each partner understand his or her own attachment style and to be aware of and sensitive to the style of their partner.

It’s also not unusual for a person to have a “mixed” attachment style. These folks can struggle with:

  • Fear of losing their partner but also have difficulty with closeness and intimacy
  • Suppress his or her own needs, which appears as passive or uncaring by the partner
  • Typically includes some attributes of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles

“Aha! Moments” Bring New Understanding

When John and Jane learned in couples counseling about each of their differing attachment styles, their eyes opened to greater insight.

John began to understand and gain new respect for Jane’s jealousy and her fears. Her first boyfriend way back in high school had cheated on her with her best friend. So, alarm bells go off for her when she sees her new husband talking with a woman at a party.

John learned to comfort and reassure Jane, and she learned she no longer has to feel haunted by her past hurts. She also learned in therapy to voice her fears and to let John know when she wanted him to be close.

Indeed, couples can learn and grow by understanding their own and their partner’s attachment styles. Jane, with John’s help, can become more secure in their relationship.

Not Set in Stone: Attachment Styles Can Change, Evolve

Challenging events can cause a change in attachment styles, particularly as the couple struggles to recover from an unusual occurrence in their relationship. For example, discovery of any kind of unfaithfulness by one partner commonly triggers considerable anxiety in the partner. A death of someone in the family may cause an avoidant partner to reach out to the other.

Newer research confirms that couples counseling can create shifts in attachment styles. When the anxious partner is able to express his or her fears, the other partner can begin to respond in ways that can promote security. Avoidant partners can begin to feel more comfortable opening up.

Our brains are capable of change — of growing new habits even in our later years. As we begin to gain new awareness of our attachment styles and the benefits of making even small changes, we can learn to become more secure.

The Core of Attachment

Decades of research have affirmed the role of attachment in couples’ relationships. Dr. Susan Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, notes that these many studies “confirm that our need to attach continues beyond childhood and also establish that romantic love is an attachment bond.

“At every age, human beings habitually seek and maintain physical and emotional closeness with at least one particular irreplaceable other. We especially seek out this person when we feel stressed, unsure and anxious. We are just hardwired this way.”

We can see that the need is strong for connection. Where couples can struggle is with the “how.” Gaining greater insight into each partner’s obstacles to the closeness they seek is a first step.

To learn more about Emotionally Focused therapy, read Emotionally Focused Therapy: The Most Effective Approach

Healing Shame as a Couple: A New Path to a Stronger Bond

healing shameHealing shame as a couple offers an opportunity to draw each other closer, to bring a new level of empathy and compassion to a marriage or relationship and to create a more secure, loving bond.

Sounds like a tall order, huh? Indeed, perhaps, but a worthwhile journey.

Shame keeps us from truly experiencing deep connection with another person and from fully experiencing joy. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we are less likely to affirm others, to reach out to others or to feel compassion and empathy for ourselves.

However, learning shame resilience allows the joy in. Hence, the worthwhile journey. Here, we’re going to discuss how shame limits connection and the path toward healing shame as a couple.

The Power of Shame

Marie* was very controlled by her partner in her last relationship. Now, in her relationship with Devin, she becomes fearful of any signs he could be asserting control or being manipulative. As a child, her alcoholic father was critical and had very strict rules. Marie easily gets emotionally triggered when Devin makes even small requests — that they work on a budget together or when he tries to plan their vacation by making suggestions.

Alice and Jim have begun a negative pattern of arguing over neatness around the house. Jim gets easily upset with Alice when she leaves things around and when she’s not as tidy as he wants. Alice is frustrated because she thinks she’s accommodating Jim the best she can, yet it’s never quite enough.

The problem is that shame stays hidden, so we’re not fully aware of how shame affects us. Here’s the other part of these stories:

Deep down, Marie hides shame that she was not good enough or attractive enough to be an equal partner in her previous relationship. She also lacks confidence from her at-times chaotic childhood. Devin tries to reassure her, but Marie’s fears often lead to arguments and accusations that Devin is asserting control.

Jim was raised by a critical mother, and neatness was one of the ways he would try to get her approval. Though, no matter how he tried, his mother would find fault.

How Shame in Relationships Limits Connection

We can easily see how hidden shame impacts these couples. Unspoken shame has power; as we’ll soon see. Speaking about and sharing our deeper feelings is the weapon that can diminish that power.

Shame in relationships includes:

    • One partner putting on a facade or front to protect their image with their partner (and with others)
    • Keeping deeper feelings hidden to avoid having the partner or others find out about personal “flaws”
  • Connection can be blocked because of the “mask” we wear to avoid being authentic

Understanding “Shame Resilience”

Noted shame researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., uses the term “shame resilience” to describe how we can combat feelings of shame. And, she says, resilience begins with developing greater empathy toward ourselves and toward others.

And, yes, we begin with ourselves (though as we discuss soon, our partner can help).

We tend to keep shame hidden — we are ashamed of our shame! And, the hiding of shame is what gives it such power. When we learn to face shame head-on and with empathy, we can begin to deflate its impact. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” she writes.

Dr. Brown, in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Gotham/Penguin, 2012), she designates four elements of shame resilience:

    • Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Learning to recognize when you’re feeling shame and what events evoke these feelings.
    • Practicing critical awareness. Becoming able to see whether messages beneath your shame and expectations are realistic, attainable and what you actually want to be
    • Reaching out. “Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting,” she points out.
  • Speaking shame. Talking about shame and asking for what you need from your partner when shame surfaces.

In counseling, Marie shares her feelings with Devin, as well as her deep fears that she’ll lose the relationship. Now, Devin can make sense of her actions — and he can reassure her that their relationship is secure. She can begin to realize he’s not at all like the manipulator she felt shamed by in her previous relationship.

Also in counseling, Jim reveals his shame that lies beneath his demands of neatness in the home. Alice softens, and now it’s clear to her why their arguments can become so heated. With shame out in the open, they can work together healing shame as a couple with loving acceptance and kindness.

Healing Shame as a Couple Builds Connection

Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the leading developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, points out the problems of keeping shame hidden. “[Brain] scans show that suppression actually heightened activity in the amygdala, ‘fear central’ in the brain.” People become more stressed and tense when we hold back negative emotions.

And, importantly, she notes, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.”

Think back to a time when you shared deep feelings with someone who was able to listen and respond with understanding. You probably felt lighter, a sense of relief. That’s the power of connection and the power of not containing and hiding shame. And, that’s the power of connection and how healing shame as a couple reinforces connection and trust.

Building Self-Compassion

One of the powerhouses of defeating shame is building our personal arsenal to diminish the hold shame can have on us. And, developing self-compassion is a fundamental tool.

A great resource is the work of Kristin Neff, Ph.D., whose work on developing self-compassion is well known.  Dr. Neff writes: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Self-compassion involves acting with kindness and empathy toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, experience a failure, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. “Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?,” Dr. Neff explains.

Her website, www.self-compassion.org, is rich with information, including a self-test that’s easy and helpful to complete.

Defeating  and Healing Shame Together

Let’s look back at our two couples. Marie and Devin can now stand together as a team to work toward healing shame as a couple and create a new level of empathy. Devin asks Marie to let him know when she’s feeling afraid.

They work at talking through her feelings, and Devin learns what triggers her shame, so he can now approach those “land mines” differently. Marie works hard to accept that her fears were developed in painful past experiences. She accepts that those were very challenging times.

Jim begins to accept his shame as driven from his past. As a couple, they have several healing conversations in which Jim sincerely apologizes for his actions and accusations.

Now that Alice has deeper insight into Jim’s behavior, she is able to forgive. They can become partners in defeating shame and building greater compassion for each other.

These couples made it emotionally safe to explore their inner feelings and the emotions beneath their behaviors. They sought counseling because they were stuck in trying to break the cycles of arguing on their own.

Emotionally Focused Therapy authors and trainers Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies (Wiley, 2013) (yes, there is a “dummies” book for EFT!) suggest:

    • Recognize that shame is often colored by fear — a fear of being vulnerable, of not being fully accepted
    • If your partner becomes defensive, understand that shame is an internal battle with oneself. Your partner’s defensiveness may feel personal, so realize it’s not about you.
    • Show appreciation for the risks your partner is taking to reveal shame and the courage he or she is showing to step into such a painful place with you.
  • Validate your partner’s experience. You don’t need to have gone through his or her pain to understand your partner’s feelings.  Keep in mind that your partner’s emotional landscape may be different than your own. Allow them to be your guide by listening with compassion.

Healing shame as a couple is not easy for many. Yet, breaking through the barriers to connection that are the result of hidden shame can lead to new opportunities for closeness and joy together.

* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve privacy.

Shame in Relationships: Powerful Forces Can Undermine Connection

shame in relationshipsShame in relationships often lies hidden, beneath the awareness of each partner. Yet, shame can have a powerful impact on

each partner and in how they interact with each other, particularly during stressful times.

Shame is defined as believing we are flawed and unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is a belief deep within our daily awareness that we are not valuable, that we are somehow flawed and perhaps not worthy of love and happiness.

Importantly, shame can block our connection in relationships. We are often fearful of sharing our deeper beliefs and fears about shame — and this can keep us distant from our partner.

As we learn about shame and how it affects our lives, we can also learn to change our inner thoughts, our behaviors and reduce how shame can be negatively impacting our relationship with our significant other.

Shame in relationships is so important to identify and work through that we’re devoting two posts to this vital topic: In this article, we’re going to give you a primer on shame and discuss how men and women can experience shame differently. In the second, we’ll help you understand pathways to battle shame and to building empathy and greater understanding of yourself and your partner.

How Shame Limits Happiness

First, shame is different than guilt or embarrassment. We may feel guilt based on something we did. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about ourselves and who we are. Guilt can fade over time; shame stays with us, often beneath our awareness, unless we take actions to defeat this “inner enemy.” Embarrassment is less painful because it tends to be fleeting, and we know similar situations often happen to others.

Noted “shame researcher” Brene Brown, Ph.D., whose books and TED talks have created a greater awareness of shame and its impact on our lives, notes, “Shame is all about fear . . . Shame is about the fear of disconnection. When we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid that we’ve exposed or revealed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.”

Psychologist Richard Lazarus points out that shame can result from a variety of factors, from the family environment of our childhood to cultural messages. We may experience shame as a result of ideals we believe we fail to achieve.

Psychologist Tara Brach says experiences of shame can originate in broader cultural messages that give us a set of very high standards. “We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too dramatic, shy or loud.”

Sources of shame in childhood can include being criticized, bullied, blamed, neglected and not provided with positive nurturing. Shame can be linked to trauma, including physical or sexual abuse. Shame gets a foothold when we don’t feel good enough as ourselves, as who we are. We feel we don’t measure up to others, to expectations or to an ideal desired by others.

Shame and Connection and Belonging

We’ve written quite a bit here on our website about the importance of the emotional and physical connection between partners. Research has validated how having a secure relationship contributes to our overall well-being and the desire humans have for an emotional bond with their partner.

The role of shame and relationships can be rooted in each person’s beliefs about themselves as being lovable. “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging,” Dr. Brown writes.

If we have areas about which we feel shame, the ability to maintain a healthy relationship — particularly during difficult or stressful times — can be challenging. The need to belong and for connection to a significant other can get confused with the need to please others, to ignore our own needs for the sake of maintaining connection and to be able to ask for our needs to be met by our partner.

Where Shame Leads . . .

A few of the ways we may unintentionally be coping with shame include:

    • Addictions. We numb our feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex.
    • Perfectionism. We don’t feel good enough, so we are on a treadmill of sorts trying to continually prove ourselves and avoid criticism, judgment or blame.
    • Anxiety. We may feel we would be okay if we were smarter, stronger, better and could handle anything life throws our way.
    • Anger. We may unintentionally blame or criticize others, including our partner, in response to feelings of shame, as a way of protecting our own vulnerability.
    • Depression. We can feel helpless to improve our situation because of our core beliefs about ourselves as not deserving something better.

Shame in relationships can have two origins or roots: Partners may have come into the relationship with some shame related to who they are. Or, shame can result from actions by the partner during the course of the relationship that can include criticism and blame. Unfortunately, in abusive relationships, the person who feels blamed can begin to lose confidence and a sense of emotional security.

Women, Men & Shame

Dr. Brown’s research has yielded some very interesting information on how men and women in America experience shame.

For women, shame is centered around how they look and being “good enough.” Cultural messages to women include:

    • Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less is shaming.
    • Despite achievements, women may struggle to feel good enough.
    • Shame can result when women can’t “do it all” — at work, at home, as a spouse.
    • Women can feel they are never enough at home, with kids, in bed.
    • As a youth, girls may have felt they were never cool enough.

Men, on the other hand, are triggered by fears of being seen as weak or a failure. Shame for men can occur when they feel:

    • Failure at work, in sports, in marriage, with money, with children
    • Being wrong; not doing it wrong, but being wrong
    • A sense of being defective, being seen as having any weakness or being anything but tough
    • Showing fear
    • As a youth, boys felt criticized or ridiculed

When we look at the broader context in our culture, we can see how shame does, indeed, feel different for men and women. Now, let’s look at how we experience shame in relationships.

Many Forms of Shame in Relationships

Interactions with our partner can trigger long-held and often-hidden shame beliefs. Women can feel insecure in their relationships if they don’t feel pretty or good enough, for example. Men can feel shame in relationships if their role doesn’t live up to cultural standards to be tough, fearless and take-charge.

Both feel pressure to be good sexual partners and good parents.

Julie and Sam* have struggled with arguing the past few years, mostly centered around parenting. During times when their arguments escalated, Julie would be critical of Sam’s limited interactions with their kids. Sam would criticize Julie for being too lenient and for coddling the youngsters.

Can you find the shame? It’s sneaky and often hidden — and each person experiences shame differently and attaches meaning to what is said in very unique ways. Sam feels shame because he works long hours to give the family a good and secure lifestyle. He’s often tired in the evenings, and knows he’s not fulfilling all of Julie’s needs as both husband and father.

Julie strives to be a “perfect” parent (which is, of course, impossible!). However, when Sam says she’s lenient with the kids, she feels an emotional stab of shame that she’s not a successful mother.

Their different shame triggers keep them from being able to calmly talk about how they want to parent as a team and to agree on household rules for the kids.

Here’s another example: Carrie was cheated on by her former partner. She is insecure in her relationship with Gina. Carrie gets upset when Gina doesn’t answer texts, when Gina is out with her friends and, well, just about any time.

Since discovering her previous partner’s infidelity, Carrie has struggled to feel confident and good enough as a desirable partner. Since meeting Gina, she has become insecure and jealous — emotions she never felt before. To make matters more difficult, Carrie feels intense shame about her fears about Gina being faithful. Gina becomes frustrated because it’s so hard to reassure Carrie that their relationship is secure.

Hope for Healing Shame in Relationships

There is, fortunately, good news. We can learn to identify the roots of our feelings of shame, to understand their impact on our relationship and to work toward diminishing that inner voice that tells us we aren’t good enough.

In the next post, we’ll explore what researchers have discovered about healing shame and the role our partner can play in helping us grow and thrive.

Learn more about our Couples Counseling Services in Denver

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* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve confidentiality.


Emotional Communication for Couples: Getting to What Truly Matters

Emotional Communication for Couples can be Both Challenging emotional communication for couplesand Perplexing

So we’ve learned about why emotions in relationships matter, and how the habitual ways we get stuck drive a wedge between us. When it comes to actually learning emotional communication for couples, it can feel confusing.

Here’s a quick example of how communication can get off track:

Sarah is upset with Kelly for not remembering what Sarah needed at the store. “You only think of yourself. You don’t care about what’s important to me!”

The degree of Sarah’s anger startles Kelly. After all, she didn’t intentionally forget what Sarah requested.

But the anger about the forgotten item is actually just a “surface emotion.” Deep down, Sarah still feels very hurt because Kelly had texted an old girlfriend. The  issue, while being worked on in counseling, still lingers for Sarah occasionally.

Sarah’s deeper emotions were more than anger: She felt hurt, sadness and a fear of losing the relationship that is so important to her.

In this post, we’ll help you understand how learning to become more aware of those deeper emotions and how speaking from those feelings can radically change and improve couples’ communication. Yes, those are strong words — change and improve — yet that’s what we see in our offices as couples learn this new path to greater understanding and connection.

Emotional Communication: Distinguishing the Two Levels

Surface emotions are ones that you and your partner can see: We can see that our partner is angry, frustrated, withdrawn, critical and blaming.

Deeper emotions, however, show the important feelings that are “pushing” or producing the surface emotions. And, deeper is what matters when we’re trying to truly understand each other, particularly when one partner is upset. Deeper emotions stem from what things mean to us. 

Deeper emotions are compelling and powerful: Sadness that the relationship is going poorly; fear that the relationship is unstable and insecure; hurt from times when you didn’t feel important or that your partner was emotionally unavailable or inattentive when you needed care; grief because of the loving connection that feels lost.

Yet, why are only surface emotions expressed when couples argue?

holiday boundaries for couplesYour Brain in Love: When We’re Upset

When we’re upset, the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala) becomes activated. Our brain goes on a type of high alert when we are upset. We’re naturally sensitive to the outside world — and very sensitive to our partner’s moods.

We form a strong emotional bond when we fall in love. We are profoundly connected to that one special person. When that bond feels threatened in any way, our emotional brain almost instantly reacts. The “fight,” “flight” or “freeze” responses come to the fore. Our partner sees our anger, frustration, silence or our verbal attacks.

Here’s where a lot of damage to relationships can occur: Hurtful things are said, criticisms can be demeaning. The emotional brain’s fire can inflict an emotional wound on the partner. These remarks then can become embedded in the partner’s thoughts and fears and are difficult to let go.

Here’s where emotional communication for couples often falls into a pattern of arguing: One may be angry and press the other to talk; another may want to shut down the argument because the disputes are painful and never lead to resolution. Or, in another pattern, both partners may become defensive — repeatedly stating why their position is “right” and that the partner is “wrong.”

Those patterns, which we call “negative cycles” can, over time, cause great harm to the security of the relationship. Couples find they are walking on eggshells, fearing any upset of the other. There’s less talking, lots of avoiding — all while the hurt feelings continue to linger.

Calming Our Extreme Emotions

Emotional communication for couples is essential for sustaining healthy, loving relationships. However, first couples need to understand how to reach the important emotions — the deeper ones that lie at the heart of our feelings and needs for secure connection.

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful approach to helping couples, therapists guide couples to slow down their activated emotional brain and allow their “thinking” brain to come into play.

It is from this more reasonable, calmer place that emotional communication for couples helps partners learn to become aware of their deeper emotions and — most importantly — express them to their partner in a way the partner can understand.

Surface emotions and behaviors when in distress can include:

  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Quiet
  • Blaming, accusatory
  • Defensive
  • Critical
  • Frustration
  • Pushing partner to talk
  • Withdraw from conversation

Deeper emotions when in distress include feeling:

  • Abandoned, alone, isolated
  • Sad, hopeless
  • Like a failure to partner
  • Not good enough, inadequate
  • Hurt
  • Afraid, fearful the relationship is in trouble
  • Guilty
  • Unlovable, shame

Anger can be both a surface and a deeper emotion: We’re upset and angry with our partner because the anger we are feeling deep down (and the issue contributing to that anger) hasn’t been addressed.

To get to our “thinking” brain, we just need to calm our thoughts. Ok, easier said than done! However, taking some deep breaths or taking a short break from the discussion gives your brain time to de-escalate and then switch to the part of your brain that is more logical and able to have a helpful discussion.

It is from this other part of the brain that we can talk about important issues with our partner from a calm place, and which makes a safe space for our partner to be able to thoughtfully respond.

The Different Emotional Communication for Couples

Back to Sarah and Kelly. They’ve realized they’re in the negative cycle and that an important issue has come up. They agree to try to talk things through.

Kelly apologizes for not being thoughtful of Sarah’s request. This calms Sarah, who feels Kelly is not defending and may be open to hearing what she has to say.

Sarah and Kelly have worked on the texting problem in therapy, but at times it still comes to the surface. Sarah takes a moment to go inward and realize the tension she feels in her chest is signaling that she is upset.

“I think it’s taking me a while to get over what happened. It still hurts from time to time. I know it was a big misunderstanding on my part, but it’s taking me a while to trust again. When you didn’t seem to care about my needs, I think I automatically went to that hurtful and scary place. And, because I’ve been hurt in previous relationships, it’s a trigger for me when I don’t feel important to you.”

Sarah’s now-relaxed brain could connect with a deeper emotional wound. She now could calmly share her fears with her partner — opening the door for Kelly to reassure and comfort her.

When we learn to “speak from” our deeper emotions, our partner can then understand what we’re experiencing. Both partners can stay calm. And, Sarah can then ask for what she needs.”

“Please forgive me for getting so angry,” Sarah asks. “I know we’re both trying so hard to get past this.”

Kelly can stay connected because she doesn’t feel attacked and because it’s now clear to her why Sarah was so upset. Kelly can offer reassurance to Sarah of the importance of their relationship. And, they are learning to master emotional communication for couples!

Getting to Those Deeper Emotions

Here are some tips that might be helpful.

  1. When you realize you’re in that “negative cycle” and those surface emotions are taking over, slow down. Take a moment, learning new emotional communication habitsperhaps some deep breaths. Ask your partner if this is a good time to talk without distractions and in private. Emotional communication for couples is more successful if you both can set aside a time to be open to each other.
  2. As you become calm, consider what deeper feelings are “pushing” your upset response. Deep down, what’s really coming up for you?
  3. See whether you can find the “trigger” for the negative surface emotions. Is it an event? Something said, or not said; something forgotten.
  4. Keep in mind that you could be making assumptions about your partner’s behavior. When we’re upset, our assumptions are often quite negative — that our partner is in the wrong, that his or her intentions are to hurt us, that they don’t seem to care.
  5. Staying calm, can you “speak from” the deeper emotions. “I felt hurt when my birthday was almost forgotten . . .” “I felt afraid when you were late today and didn’t call me . . .”
  6. Allow your partner time to respond. Be curious about what was going on for them. This is an excellent opportunity to build a new, important understanding between you. So, allow that to unfold.
  7. Make a request from your softer emotions. “Because I get afraid when you’re late, could you pull over and call me?”

You might be interested in more ideas on improving emotional communication for couples

Better understand your different responses in the negative cycle

If you might need help to identify and conquer your negative cycle and learn how to slow things down to communicate about real issues instead of fighting, you might want to consider connecting with a Denver Couples Therapist here at A Peaceful Life Counseling to learn more about couples counseling

Emotions in Relationships: Learn to Deeply Understand Each Other

We All Want to Feel Understood

Last week, we explored the negative cycle at the root of couple fights. Now we will look at the emotions in relationships that

emotions in relationships

keep that cycle in play.  Understanding what is really going on for your partner the doorway to cool the fires of that conflict.

Emotions in relationships can be downright baffling for couples:

  • Why does my partner get so extremely upset about little things?
  • Why can’t we let go of past negative events?
  • When she gets upset with me, I clam up. I don’t want to say anything to make it worse.

Yet, on the other hand:

  • If I just hear my husband’s voice, I calm down and the bad day at the office doesn’t feel so troubling.
  • When I get a loving text from her, well, it’s hard to describe. I’m on Cloud 9!
  • During that crisis we were both afraid — but we knew we had each other. That’s how we got through it.

In this post, we’re discussing the role of emotions in relationships — why they can potentially be so painful with our partner, the role emotions play with keeping couples close and connected and how to better manage expressions of upset and disappointment.

The Brain: Our Most Romantic Organ

Yes, our brain actually is a “love machine.” “Our brain gives us a little dose of the cuddle hormone whenever we are physically near to those we love. In fact, just thinking about our loved one will trigger a rush of this hormone,” explains Sue Johnson, Ph.D.,  the principal founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy. She is talking about the hormone oxytocin.

When we meet and fall in love with our partner, the chemical reaction in our brain is spiked by closeness, touch, intimacy and orgasm. The brain’s reaction helped us bond — powerfully.

This strong bond also is responsible for our being upset (sometimes extremely so) when our partner disappoints us or when we feel distant and less secure.

The most powerful emotions we’ll have are with our partner. Both positive and negative. Therefore, understanding emotion in relationships is key to maintaining our bond, our happiness and our emotional security with our partner.

Strong Emotions in Relationships: What Are Your ‘Triggers’?

Counselors use the term “trigger” to gain an understanding of what sets off strong emotions. Our brain is designed to sense danger — and feeling less connected to our partner is a primal danger to that strong bond developed during falling in love.

Authors Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their book, “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies” list some powerful, common triggers for couples as:

  • Broken promises
  • Withdrawal of affection
  • Harsh criticism and contempt
  • Threats of divorce or separation
  • Defensiveness
  • Sorrow or sadness
  • Fear and uncertainty

What are your triggers? What types of feelings are a sure fire way to set you off in your relationship, and can you pair them with any of the above?

What We Learned About Emotions Growing Up

Our early impressions of the meaning of emotions can vary widely, depending on what we learned in our childhood from our parents.

Brad was taught as a child to stifle his emotions. His early cries for attention or comfort were often minimized by his parents. They felt little boys should learn to be tough and resilient, and they would often encourage him to “get over it” quickly and move on.

Now as an adult, Brad struggles to be open and vulnerable with his wife, to express himself when he feels hurt. He sometimes feels hurt because of something she says, or a feeling that she’s being inattentive or distracted. Rather than let her know how he feels, he bottles up his disappointment — which later comes out as anger and resentment when he can no longer contain his fear that he is not important to her. Deep down he feels like a childish, complaining, a weak man for even having hurt feelings. It’s (unintentionally) easier to be the angry guy than the sad one.

His wife, on the other hand, had parents who worked hard to be attuned to her feelings. They freely offered comfort and support and encouraged her in school and sports. She doesn’t feel stupid or weak for having those emotions and sharing them, so she doesn’t get why it’s so hard for her husband. She struggles to understand her husband’s emotions, particularly when he is angry and loud. “You just need to tell me when you’re feeling sad or hurt. I want to be there for you,” she’ll repeatedly remind him. 

what we learn about emotions in relationshipsGender and Emotions in Relationships

Sometimes, the root of our capability to feel comfortable with our own emotions lies in how we were regarded as  little boys or little girls.

Try as we might, gender differences often seep into parenting. Parents tend to be more protective of girls and more tolerant of their varying emotions. With boys, parents may lean toward helping their sons recover quickly from emotional upsets. While unintentional, boys can get the message that their emotions are to be held in, to avoid anger and to minimize feelings of hurt or uncertainty.

It can become challenging to look at our partner as an individual — with a range of emotions that benefit from expression rather than repression and to allow the open and safe discussion of feelings. As humans — male and female — we do seek to be heard and understood. Holding in our emotions stresses both our body and our soul.

Cultural Differences Can Impact Expression of Emotions

Depending on our background, we may have learned to be more open — or more closed — about expressing feelings.

Some cultures foster a more restrained expression of emotions. Others can be rather forthright.

And, each family within a culture is, of course, unique.

Having a discussion with your partner about how emotions were regarded in your families can be helpful. This is not intended in any way to place blame on our parents; but rather to honor the differences you each learned from your families and to deepen your understanding of each other’s approach to expressing emotions. Did you have a family that allowed emotions to be expressed? Or did having strong emotions mean that you weren’t in control, were being a burden, or selfish? 

Opportunities for Growth for Both of You

Learning to understand and express emotions in relationships appropriately with our partner offers ways for us to grow both personally and as a loving partner. We can:

  • Build greater self-awareness by becoming more insightful into how and why we react to those triggers we’ve identified
  • Become more open in expression of our wants and needs with our partner in healthy ways that increase connection
  • Enhance our ability to regulate our emotions by sharing with our partner when we feel sad, hurt or uncertain
  • Increase our knowledge of how to reflect on our emotions, to reach a greater understanding of what pushes our buttons and how to more genuinely react to stressors, disappointment and hurt feelings by learning to speak up to our partner in positive ways

Writes Dr. Johnson in her book, “Love Sense,”:

Learning to love and be loved is, in effect, about learning to tune in to our emotions so that we know what we need from a partner and expressing those desires openly, in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her.

When this support helps us balance our emotions — staying in touch with but not being flooded by them — we can then tune in to and sensitively respond to our partner in return.

We learn to regulate our emotions by sharing, not stuffing them.

Emotions in Relationships in Action

Brad is learning to trust his wife with his emotions. He’s had a rough day at the office. In the past he would come home, play some video games to decompress and try to avoid (and hide) his feelings.

Now, he can “download” his thoughts and feelings: “It was crazy today,” he begins. “I had to juggle calls between my own clients and the two people who were on vacation. I finally was able to eat a protein bar at 3 o’clock. I think I need to speak up again to my boss about how we handle the workload when people are out.”

His wife listens, and touches his arm, then takes his hand. She knows she can’t fix the work situation, but she provides comfort.

Brad adds, “I worked hard today to not get too stressed. I’d just take a few breaths and keep going. But it was hard — and there are two more days this week when I’ve got the same situation.”

His wife gives him a hug and asks, “Anything I can do to help?”

“I think you just did,” he replies, hugging her back. He relaxes, feeling more calm and ready to have dinner together.

Learn More About Emotions in Relationships

We encourage you to read about emotional communication for couples, you’ll find additional information to help you better understand how to get your point across with your partner.


Couple Fights – Understand the Hidden Roots of the Pattern

Getting to the Bottom of Why Couples Fight

Couple Fights are one of the main reasons that couples seek marriage or couples counseling at our Denver practice. They Couple recovered from couple fightdon’t understand why their communication often results in fighting, and they want help to get out of their patterns.

Couple fights often actually have a pattern: The most common is when one of you wants to talk and reach resolution, but your partner shuts down.

This in turn leads to greater frustration — and often more anger — as one of you needs to “talk it out” and the other seems to refuse, to not “care enough” to work things out.

If this sounds familiar, you could have one of the most common couple fight patterns.

And, if you’re the one who pursues your partner to talk and stay engaged in the discussion, it probably sends your frustration though the roof when your partner is silent or leaves the room. y

If you’re the one who withdraws from the argument, you may be confused and frustrated about that your partner can’t calm down or let the issue go. The arguments seem to go on and on with nothing getting resolved.

We’re going to help you get to the bottom of these ongoing behaviors in couple fights and to open the door to greater understanding of each person’s reactions. Understanding your partner’s experience is the first step to ending those “endless arguments.”

What Lies Beneath: The Deeper Emotions of the One Who Won’t Let it Go

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT), the leading and most-successful approach to helping couples in distress, we know that the person who keeps wanting (and needing) to talk may actually be feeling many things under that anger:

  • Unimportant to their partner, not wanted
  • Afraid of abandonment or betrayal
  • Hurt or shame for feeling rejected when they want to talk
  • A fear of not being truly loveable
  • Afraid of being dismissed

When there is tension in the relationship, the partner who pushes for talking and answers feels fearful that the relationship is in trouble, that they will lose their partner. They are reaching for — and longing to feel — close and connected.

When a couple’s fight has ensued, those core issues and the need for reassurance become overwhelming. The partner who pursues to talk needs to know the relationship is secure. Beneath the anger is often anxiety and fear and difficulty coping with now knowing where he or she stands.

We call this person the “pursuer”, the one who calms their distress by trying to work it out in the relationship. Pursuers often get labeled as “too emotional” and too easily upset. Yet, this partner tends toward open expression of his or her feelings. Often times, we don’t see the hurt or fear, only the anger, but the root of it is always an anxiety about the eventual consequences of letting things crumble before their eyes. 

Understanding the One Who Disappears

The person who disappears, by actually leaving or just not saying a word, is a frustrating mystery for the partner to understand: “Why won’t you just talk to me?” “If you really cared, you’d listen and not leave the room.” “If my needs were important, you’d talk to me!” We call the one who tends to calm things down by “not trying to make things worse” the withdrawer. 

However, what lies beneath for the partner who avoids arguments are some profound feelings as well, that may include:

  • Sad about letting the partner down
  • Fear of rejection for always failing to meet the partner’s needs
  • Not wanted or desired
  • Judged or criticized
  • Ashamed for not feeling accepted as they are
  • Hopeless about how to solve the issue at hand or convince their partner that they aren’t trying to fail

lesbian couple counseling denverMatchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match

85% of couples have one partner who pursues, and one who withdraws in couple fights. Some couples are are two withdrawing types who may be proud of avoiding arguments. Not talking about important issues can be fertile ground for building resentments. Other couples are made of two people who aren’t afraid to jump into the ring and defend their own position until the cows come home, attacking each other’s viewpoints. The point is, there is a pattern of interaction. 

Damage of the “Negative Cycles” in Couple Fights

In EFT, we call the patterns of couples’ arguments and distancing a “negative cycle.” It’s a cycle because it can repeat itself like Groundhog Day. After months or even years of repeated arguments, couples often see their partner as “the problem.” It’s an easy trap to fall into. After all, if your partner would just respond differently, you’d be able to reach some agreement on issues that matter.

However, the true “enemy” here is the negative cycle itself. This pattern activates like auto pilot and leaves hurt feelings and  resentments. It often feels like an impossible mismatch. There is hope! Couples can learn to stop the negative cycle and to talk calmly about their concerns in a way that actually helps them feel closer. 

What is Actually Happening in this Negative Cycle?

When couples’ arguments escalate, both partners’ emotional brains fire up: The one who pursues desperately seeks contact – you could say that they are in “fight” mode. The withdrawing partner is in “flight” mode, seeking relief from the partner’s fury.

So, when “fight” or “flight” are in full force, hurtful things are said, name-calling can be harsh and painful. These emotional scars can last unless the couple is able to apologize and forgive.

What is the fight for, and what is the flight from? It feels like each other. But what is actually happening is that it feels like the relationship is at risk. When we fall in love, a powerful bond sets into motion. It is a feeling of being special to someone and a powerful emotional and physical attraction. 

When you’re upset with each other, that strong bond feels at risk. In caveman times, anything that threatened your connection with your important people was literally a life or death threat. Our brains evolved to see relationship conflict as a matter of emergency, even if you aren’t consciously thinking in those terms.

And, over time, when couples’ arguments occur frequently, it can take less and less to trigger emotions (even a raised eyebrow, a “look”) . . . and they’re off to another negative cycle.

Reaching a New Understanding of Your Couple Fights

Given all this information, you can see that couple fights:

  • Are the way our brain reacts when our partner — who is so very important to us — seems distant or upset
  • Each of you may react quite differently when you’re feeling disconnected
  • The negative cycle is your true enemy — not each other. When couples’ arguments are taking place, what both partners actually need is reassurance that their bond is safe (by knowing that their partner cares enough about them and the relationship to slow down or engage)

Most importantly, couples can learn to exit the negative cycle and talk about their concerns, hear each other calmly and work toward a resolution. That’s what our Denver Marriage Counseling speciality is. 

In a related blog, we outline the proven approach that is part of the EFT process. Couples learn to slow down their emotional brains, to listen without reacting so each partner is fully heard and then to calmly discuss their differing viewpoints.

Couples also learn to speak from their “deeper” emotions — those feelings of hurt, sadness, fear of disconnection that lie beneath the anger, frustration and withdrawal that the “surface” emotions that your partner sees.