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
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
- 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.
Gender 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.