Help for your relationship!
All the time, I hear my couple’s counseling clients say things like:
“He won’t want to hear about my feelings.”
“She already knows how much I love her.”
“He is angry with me all the time. I can tell by the way he looks at me.”
“She will never be satisfied with me. She would rather be with someone else.”
When we are in a relationship, we sometimes believe we know all there is to know about our partner’s their feelings and inner experiences. With this assumption, we in turn respond to those “known” qualities about our partner, our relationship, and our partner’s feelings in the relationship.
I have to wonder, though, how often are we getting it wrong?
How many times have you had an experience where you had multiple, sometimes competing feelings come up? How many times have you had a situation in your relationship where it took you a while to figure out all of your feelings? That one happens to me all the time, and I’m a therapist! How many times have you had vulnerable feelings underneath that you kept hidden because they felt too risky to share with your partner?
Take, for example, a couple disagreeing about how often they want to have sex. On the surface, the disagreement is simple: he wants more, she wants less. This is a common reason people seek the help of a couple’s counselor.
He perceives she isn’t interested and that she feels obligated to have sex. He withdraws from her because he fears her rejection. On the surface, he is either withdrawn or irritated because he works really hard to make her happy and he feels like this is the one thing that is really important to him, and she doesn’t want to do it. Underneath, he is also feeling really lonely, and very much wants to know that she chooses him, that he matters to her.
She, on the other hand, feels like he only comes to be close to her in order to have sex. She feels used and gets angry at herself for putting herself in that situation. Underneath, she fears he doesn’t really love her, and it scares her. She tests him all the time to see how much he loves her by assigning him a “honey do” list. If he does it, he loves her. If he doesn’t, it must mean he only stays with her for sex.
We could pick a hundred different topics like this one over which couples argue. On the surface, we may show one or two feelings. Often, though, those can be fleeting and conflicting (ex: irritated and flirty). Below the surface, we can have a whole soup of emotions happening, some of them which could be very surprising and very important to our partner.
I like to think of people like mysterious onions. We have layers, nuances, waves, and mixtures of emotion. We think we know what our partner is feeling, but I believe we very often get it wrong. We may even think we know what we’re feeling one the inside, only to discover surprising feelings that were there, but hidden.
Couples get into trouble in their relationship when they operate off of assumptions about those feelings, or in basing their response on a thin slice of emotion they perceive in the midst of an argument.
Take, for example, this fascinating article about the current research around facial expression recognition. http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/06/25/emotions-facial-expressions-not-related/
For nearly fifty years, the fields of psychology and criminology have been following the assumptions in Paul Ekman’s research on the universality of the facial expressions of emotions. He showed photographs of emotions (fear, anger, sadness, etc.) and then gave the study participants from all over the world a list of emotions from which to choose. His claim was that because people would universally assign the same emotion to the same photograph, we must all perceive emotion from facial expressions the same.
However, Lisa Barrett’s newer research shows that without that list of emotions, the “universality” of accurately and consistently assigning emotion to facial expression begins to fall apart. If we aren’t told what the possible emotions are in those faces, we interpret emotion differently.
When was the last time your partner handed you a list of all feelings she/he was having on the inside?
We’ve learned that in our most intimate relationships, the stakes are so high. If we lose this person we love, we would be devastated. In response, we often hide some of our most important and profound feelings about our partners out of fear – fear of rejection, fear they won’t care, fear they won’t respond, etc.
Going back to the example of the couple who disagrees about sex, we can see that underneath, there are really important emotions happening that could offer significant reassurance to both people. In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, we work to help couples begin to peel back the layers of their emotional onions. We help couples begin to share those feelings and have a deeper connection than they may have ever had. We also help couples figure out what gets in the way of sharing more deeply (all those fears, usually) and then talk to each other about those. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy has a well established body of research demonstrating that couples can and do repair the disconnection in their relationships and develop a more secure, close and loving bond.
Call for a couple’s counseling appointment today to begin learning all the surprises your partner has in store for you. 303-513-8975.