I’ve got this great young couple, newly married, and they’re sweet and funny and in love. They’re not remotely on the rocks. But I could see it getting there, and so could they, and that’s why they’ve started therapy.
Here’s the dynamic: She gets critical (sometimes loudly so), he feels verbally attacked, he shuts down and is distant, she spends the night feeling lonely and scared and trying to figure out what’s gone wrong. He fears that in the long run, he’ll become more and more resentful; she fears what will happen when kids enter the equation.
On one level, it’s about communication style. We all fall somewhere along the continuum from aggressive at one end to passive on the other. The healthiest communication style is in the middle, an assertive style where we can express our feelings respectfully. In the couple I’ve described, each partner is too far to one side. So theoretically, I could teach them some skills and get them on their way.
But that’s not what creates lasting change. I’m actually interested in the feelings underneath. I want them to learn emotional awareness and trust. I want them to know what they’re feeling and trust that if they express it to the other person vulnerably, they’ll be met with understanding and concern. That’s what makes a secure bond.
Feelings are an evolutionary alarm system. They’re speaking up all the time. Too often, we fail to listen when emotions speak quietly, so they get louder. We feel more out of control. For some of us, that means we become angry and accusing; for others, it leads to feeling so overwhelmed that we shut down. Most of us have a habitual way of responding to strong emotion, which is why the cycles with our partners become so predictable, as with the couple above.
The good news is that once you know to listen to your feelings (rather than minimizing, ignoring or discounting them), they’re incredibly helpful. They’re a language of urgency, telling us what our needs are and how quickly to attend to them.
My husband and I worked with an amazing therapist–we’ll call her Leslie, since that’s her name–and she was a master at deciphering the language of our emotions. A breakthrough session occurred after The Burrito Fight. My husband had brought home burritos, as he did about once a week, and I commented that there were too many beans in the vegetarian type. He responded that I was wrong. In those exact words. I said, “I can’t be wrong, it’s an opinion.” He said, “You’re wrong and I can prove it.” He dug in his heels, I dug in mine, and by the time we got to couples therapy a few days later, I was saying, “You need to fix his stubbornness. He’s out of control.”
Leslie, to her credit, never cracked a smile as we proceeded to use the word “burrito” no fewer than twenty times. She said gently, “Let’s unpack this,” and over the next hour of excavation, found the wellspring of trust issues. It’s never about the burrito, of course, but about the underlying attachment significance. My husband and I simultaneously felt attacked, and therefore, the need to defend. We didn’t feel like we were on the same team, like we could trust the other person to take care of us emotionally.
You can try this exercise at home. If you recently had a fight over some seemingly inconsequential thing, return to the intensity of feeling. Ask yourself what it might have meant, about other times you had that feeling, about what assumptions you made about your partner or thought he/she was making about you. Your partner can ask themselves the same questions. You might be surprised at what you discover. Or, if you’re especially self-aware, you might not.
So emotions (even the quiet ones) signal something important. My husband and I have learned that when we speak up from a place of emotion at the earliest stages, when we’re able to say “I’m sad because…” or “I feel disappointed…” instead of “You did” or “You didn’t”, the other person will respond with great love and care. That’s what makes for a secure attachment. We rely; we depend; we trust.
It’s not always a smooth path, though. Just wait till I tell you about the Sponge Fight.