Engaging with our Partner’s Emotions

When involved in a committed relationship, naturally there are expectations. Unspoken rules to not violate each other’s trust. To be that foundation of support through thick and thin. When our partners are sad, we want to make them happy. When they are down, it feels dutiful to lift them up. But what happens in the moments when issues cannot be immediately resolved? It can be distressing to feel we are helpless when our partner needs us most, when we are unable to ‘fix’ how they are feeling.

 The Importance of Emotions

To see our partner in pain can be very difficult, so instinctually we may immediately go seeking for a solution. However, sometimes there is no solution. A statement not so easily accepted, especially depending on how upset our partner may be, but think of a case such as grief. At times the best we can do is just be there. Be a shoulder to lean on or be there to listen.

When it comes to effectively communicating in a relationship, the emotional component needs to be considered. As an experienced couples’ counselor, it is not uncommon to hear partners attempting to plead to each other’s rational side. Oh yes, how those bothersome emotions can just get in the way of truly seeing our side. But we are not robots. We’re humans! Social and emotional beings that take risks to be vulnerable to others. Expressing our emotions is a risk, and when our feelings are invalidated, shut down, or dismissed, then that can lead to a reduction of vulnerability in the long term. Why take the risk if it often leads to pain?

Emotions are Adaptive

The therapeutic modality that I choose to practice with couples is the evidenced based therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Developed in the 1980s, the therapy uses a foundation of attachment science and an understanding of the role of emotions within and outside the relationship. To give better context of what this might look like, imagine Partner A (we’ll call them Jessie) was raised in a household where it was not ok to cry. It was either stick with the rigid rules the parents had instilled or face punishment. Crying and complaining was unacceptable. For Partner B, (let’s go with Kelly), this was much different. Kelly had a greater opportunity to express emotions and be accepted for it. It may have been common with their parental figures to discuss what they were feeling, to better help them process their experience.

Now, what do you think it would look like when Jessie and Kelly experienced difficult emotions with each other? For Jessie, it may feel unacceptable to express these difficult emotions. They may withdraw when things get tough or misinterpret Kelly’s intentions when Kelly naturally would want to support them. For Kelly, sharing emotions may not get the response they are looking for. Their feelings may begin to feel invalidated, and both partners may be left hurt and confused at the inability to feel safe emotionally with each other.

So, whose fault is it? No one’s of course, although Jessie may direct the blame inwards, but it obviously more complex and simply unproductive to pin the issues on one person. That’s why it is important to understand our partners on an emotionally level. Just because Jessie did not previously have the opportunity to express emotions in a safe place, doesn’t mean they can’t learn to.

Creating a Safe Space

Establishing emotionally safety in the relationship is a process that requires patience, compassion, and everyone’s participation. The best part too, is that it can be really rewarding! To connect with the person, we are closest with on an even deeper level. The key component to this process can be boiled down into a sort of conversational dance that we can evoke to begin cultivating emotional safety.

The first part of this ‘dance’ comes in the form of reflecting the feelings shared by our partner, or in other words, repeating back to them what they shared. Going back to Kelly and Jessie as our example, imagine Kelly expressing how they feel insecure, uncertain, and hurt when feeling unheard. Now, this can initially be very difficult to hear, and easily Jessie could take a defensive position, derailing what Kelly is ultimately trying to express. However, if Jessie does accurately reflect, it can begin the process of a new type of emotional communication that the couple has been lacking.

In the second step after reflecting, Jessie would be prompted to share what it feels like to hear Kelly expressing that. Again, the key is to focus on the emotions as we are equally trying to teach our anxiety responses that it is ok to express emotions and have them accepted. This is part of the process that takes repetition. Once we are able to share, reflect, and listen, then we are able to explore further and deeper with each other. To wrap up this process, it is always important to review what has been learned. If this way of sharing with each other feels new and rewarding, then celebrate!

Sharing the Weight

Now, to bring this back to an earlier point where there may be times when we do feel helpless at ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ or partner’s emotions in a moment. The best thing we can potentially do in a situation is to be there through the heavy emotions. Use our presence to first let them know that it is ok to feel, and we are ok feeling it with them. It can be painful witnessing our partner distressed, but it can be powerful for our bonds to be able to endure it with them.

If you and a loved one feel that you are struggling to communicate, a safe place may be a great place to start to support both of your needs. Consider contacting us here at the Chicago Counseling Center. Our trained and licensed therapists can support you through this journey at fostering a safer and more understanding relationship.


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