During counseling – and in life in general! – we talk a lot about emotions. But have you ever thought about why you deal with and process your emotions in the way that you do (or don’t)?
Lately in my practice, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of understanding our partner’s perspective on emotions. If one partner in a couple tends to avoid conflict or difficult emotions, while the other partner can easily discuss and process complex emotions, there is a meta-emotional mismatch.
According to studies by the Gottman Institute on what makes marriages work, this mismatch can lead to relationship difficulties.
However, understanding our own meta-emotions (and those of our partner) is a sort of secret ingredient that you may not have heard much about.
If we are able to understand the history behind how we experience different emotions, we can better understand our partner and know how to communicate with them when difficult issues arise. (In fact, conflicts and resentment often conceal a deeper story, if you are brave enough to delve into the underlying narrative.)
I recently met with a couple who was facing a meta-emotional discrepancy. It took a few sessions to deeply understand each person’s childhood history and how different emotions were either accepted or not accepted. You may find it helpful to do the same with your partner.
Take, for example, the feeling of sadness. Did your parents readily allow you to experience sadness and comfort you until you felt better? Or did they instead say something like „Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about“?
Know the Story Behind Your Relationship with Emotions?
Oftentimes, the stories underlying our relationship with our emotions are deeply rooted in our past. They may be buried so deep inside that we couldn’t explain to our loved ones the true reason why different feelings are difficult for us.
If you and your partner are willing to delve into these challenging areas, questions like these can be a helpful starting point:
- How was it to be sad when you were young?
- Who did you turn to when you were sad or angry? How did they react to your sadness?
- Did you see your father sad? Your mother? What about your siblings?
- How is it to be sad now?
- Can you recognize when I am sad?
- What do you need when you are sad? What do you not need?
These types of questions can lead to a much deeper understanding of your partner and help you meet them where they are, especially when they are going through a difficult experience or dealing with complex emotions.
Approach this work with your partner with gentleness and kindness. Reserve judgment. Acknowledge their experiences. You will be surprised at how much you will learn from each other!