Emotional Communication for Couples can be Both Challenging and 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Surface emotions are ones that you and your partner can see: We can see that our partner is angry, frustrated, withdrawn, critical and blaming.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?
Your 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:
- Blaming, accusatory
- 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
- Afraid, fearful the relationship is in trouble
- 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.
- When you realize you’re in that “negative cycle” and those surface emotions are taking over, slow down. Take a moment, perhaps 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.
- As you become calm, consider what deeper feelings are “pushing” your upset response. Deep down, what’s really coming up for you?
- See whether you can find the “trigger” for the negative surface emotions. Is it an event? Something said, or not said; something forgotten.
- 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.
- 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 . . .”
- 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.
- 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
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.