As a psychologist who specializes in working with couples, I have likely treated hundreds at this point in my career. During all these years of helping couples heal and get closer, I have learned quite a lot.
In this article, I will share with you the one thing that couples can do that is so powerful that I call it “relationship gold.”
“What is this so-called gold?” you may be wondering right now. Here’s the answer: It’s something that may seem ridiculously obvious, yet it is actually not obvious at all. It seems like it should be easy, yet it is not so easy.
The one most powerful thing you can do to improve and strengthen your marriage or relationship is to respond to your partner’s feelings on a daily basis.
What Does it Mean to Respond to Your Partner’s Feelings?
In any long-term relationship, each partner’s emotions play a monumental role. Yet the majority of couples don’t give feelings, their own or their partner’s, much thought or attention on a daily basis. Even beyond that, many couples ignore each other’s emotions almost completely.
For virtually all of us, our unconscious, internalized concept of “marriage” is the one we were most immersed in when our brains were developing. That’s right. Our parents’ marriage, love it or hate it, for better or for worse, is the one our brains seek, outside our awareness, to recreate in our own lives.
If your parents paid little attention to feelings in general (meaning they had an emotionally neglectful marriage, which means that you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), you are likely to automatically repeat that same pattern of neglecting the emotional side of your marriage.
It’s far easier to go through one’s days paying attention to tangible, visible, easily observable aspects of life; like activities, plans, schedules, children, events and jobs, for example than it is to notice or talk about feelings.
So, for example, “I’m mad” becomes, “I’m going to run some errands.” “I’m sad” becomes, “I’m going to walk around the house more slowly than usual.” “I am hurt by what you said,” becomes, “I’m going to avoid you all day.”
Expressing feelings through actions is very ineffective. It results in passive-aggression, avoidance, and misunderstandings galore.
But, most importantly of all, in any relationship, feelings that are not expressed and talked about only become bigger, more powerful, and more painful. Over time, they drive the couple apart, leaving each partner feeling distant, alone and, most likely, baffled.
4 Reasons Responding to Your Partner’s Feelings is Relationship Gold
- Every single human being has feelings. They are literally wired into us at birth for a reason. Our feelings are an important part of our physiology that is meant to help us survive and thrive.
- Our emotions are meant to motivate, inform, guide and connect us. They tell us what to do and what we want. They tell us what we need, who we like, and who we want to be with. Then, they also tell us when something goes wrong, and when we need to protect ourselves.
- Our emotions are, without a doubt, the deepest and most meaningful expression of who we are. When you feel emotionally connected to someone, it is like a powerful magnet drawing you to them. When you feel no emotional connection to someone they have little importance in your life.
- There is not one area of your life in which emotions play a larger part than they do in your marriage. Marriage is like an emotional magnifying glass. Every feeling has extra power in a long-term, committed relationship. Noticing and responding to your partner’s feelings is a way to notice and respond to their deepest, most meaningful expression of who they are.
The 3-Step Solution
Although, as I already said, relationship gold is not necessarily easy to achieve, it’s very important to also realize that it is definitely achievable. And not only that, it is powerful. Every bit of effort you put into this will pay off in spades. In fact, every effort itself pays off. That’s because just trying to notice and respond to your partner’s feeling will be experienced as loving by your partner.
- Visit EmotionalNeglect.com and take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free and will tell you whether you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Then make it your goal to learn everything you can about emotions and, if it applies, Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. Then read the entire Emotions List that you can download under The Book tab. Tell your partner you are working on this, and have him/her also read this article.
- Start paying attention, every day, to what your partner is feeling. See if you can apply some of the words from the list to your partner.
- Now, after practicing on your own for a while, it may be time to start trying to respond to your partner’s feelings at the moment that you’re observing them. This might involve responses like:
You look irritated.
Are you upset about what I just said?
Did that hurt your feelings?
You seem to be relaxed right now.
You didn’t seem to like that.
I can see how stressed you are.
I know, that was sad, wasn’t it?
You look like you need a big hug right now. Can I give you one?
Pay attention to your partner’s responses. When you get it right you will achieve emotional attunement, which means that you’ll feel a moment of connection with your partner.
When you get it wrong, you’ll get feedback that will help you improve your emotional skills. Responding more to your partner’s feelings will also get you and your partner more comfortable communicating on a more emotional level. This is an important building block for emotional closeness and intimacy.
Above all, if you feel distant from your partner, do not wait for it to get better. It is time to act. Follow the three steps above and instead of creating loneliness, you will be panning for gold.
To learn much more about the role of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your marriage, and about how to do this exercise, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below).
Do you question whether you have Childhood Emotional Neglect? You will find a link to the free Emotional Neglect Test, plus many more resources to learn about CEN, below this article.