Emotions in Relationships: Learn to Untangle Misunderstandings
“Why are my emotions in relationships so intense with my partner? I don’t have this problem with anyone else!”
“I feel so terribly hurt by the smallest thing my partner says or does. I’m not like this at work or with our kids.”
“I’m a successful executive, but I can’t seem to get anything right at home with my partner.”
Couples often wonder why the negative emotions in relationships can have such intensity – Small problems escalate to big arguments, the disconnection that has evolved is fraught with pain and the hurt seems like a wound that is stubborn to heal.
Indeed, the strong feelings between couples are real – as is the fear they often express that their relationship can’t improve. And, yes, your strongest emotions are going to be with your partner.
Understanding Emotions in Relationships
When you met and fell in love, you formed a bond – a strong emotional connection filled with incredible attraction. The bond that unfolded between you is a powerful force, and, research shows, is as compelling as the bond between child and parent.
Our brains are wired to connect with others, and this wiring ensured our survival in primitive times. As a group, humans could find greater protection against predators.
As a couple, we develop a safe haven to share the challenges life presents. We can share with our partner about a difficult day at the office; help each other calm our financial worries; and experience great joy together during happy events.
Our partner can be our main source of reassurance, helping us feel more confident and giving us comfort when needed. The role of our partner’s ability to soothe us should not be understated. Knowing our partner is there helps us attain calmness, and to greatly reduce stress from challenging events. Researchers have confirmed this in brain scans!
Negative Emotions in Relationships Can Emerge and Take Over
But, then, something changed. For some couples, an event in which one partner didn’t feel supported began the disconnection. Other couples can’t identify specific emotions or an event, but report a growing disconnection.
As the distance grows between the partners, arguing may increase, even over small issues. Couples who don’t know how to “repair” following a disagreement or hurt feelings may experience even stronger emotions. The result is often further frustration – and greater disconnection.
In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the research-supported and most-successful approach to helping couples, we refer to the continuing arguing and distress as “the negative cycle.” Over time, couples find they fall more easily into the negative cycle, and that issues never seem to get resolved. (Causing more cycles because the same issues keep coming up!)
I often explain the negative cycle as resembling a hamster on a wheel – only the wheel is 5 feet off the ground and he can’t get off.
Two Levels of Emotions
In the course of arguing or disputes, we most typically are expressing what we call “secondary emotions”—ones our partner can see, such as anger, irritability, frustration. What our partner can’t see (and of which the upset partner may not be fully aware) are the true, underlying feelings. These "primary emotions" include hurt, sadness, fear, abandonment, not feeling important.
Secondary emotions in relationships fuel the negative cycle. Learning to identify and speak from the primary emotions leads to healing, greater understanding of self and of each other and becomes the bridge toward rebuilding the secure bond that brought you together initially.
It’s important to note that neither partner is “the problem.” Rather, the negative cycle is the root cause of the couple's struggle. In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy there is no blame. The repetitive negative cycles are a common occurrence when couples don’t yet know how to repair when there is a misunderstanding.
When Strong Emotions in Relationships Become a Problem
Scientists have found there are six human emotions: fear, anger, happiness or joy, sadness, surprise and shame. It only makes sense that couples will experience all of these at time.
Yet, our partner can become the one person who can actually help us cope with our emotions, and happy couples learn to balance each other's negative emotions during times of stress.
For example, telling our partner about a challenging event at work can relieve some of the power that results when we hold in our feelings. We're able to "download" our tension and our partner can offer comfort.
But, When We Try to Hold in Our Emotions . . .
One of the perplexing issues with couples is that, at times, it is our partner who evokes our feeling of upset and distress.
Hurting our partner’s feelings from time to time is inevitable. Things we might forget, what is said or not said, what is done or not done.
If we are afraid to tell our partner about our feelings, we spend a lot of energy holding in those upset feelings. Until -- and here's the dilemma -- we get so upset that we have an outburst of anger . And, you're now in a powerful negative cycle with each other.
Healthy Ways of Expressing Emotions in Relationships
Couples can learn, with practice, to let each other know when they are upset or feeling disconnected. Here are some ideas:
First, calm yourself and take some time to figure out what is upsetting you. When you approach your partner quietly, he or she is less likely to become defensive and not really hear you.
Next, begin by telling your partner the primary emotions you're feeling. "I'm afraid we're not spending time with each other. I feel more distant, and that scares me."
Slow down and ask your partner for his or her thoughts. Consider that his or her feelings could be different than yours.
By staying calm, your partner hears a request, not an angry demand. Now, you can spend time discussing solutions. Couples who learn to repair and heal through calm and curious discussion are able to resolve issues, which then fosters even greater feelings of connection.
The good news: The strong positive emotions of caring and love for each other can return. Sometimes, it’s hard work. Yet Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy offers a path toward understanding the roots of disconnection and how to maintain the deep connection into the future.
Linda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection. You can learn to resolve issues through deepening your understanding of each other's needs. We also work to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at (602) 882-0533 or .