In the intimate quarters of a romantic relationship, the reactivity between couples can be electric, the slightest jolt from one person sending the other into sparks. As emotional beings armed with complicated attachment histories, we key off each other in complex ways. The chronic lateness of our partner can cause us to feel wounded and vengeful. The persistent interest in our whereabouts can leave us overwhelmed and irritated. These stirred responses are often tied to our past.
Too often, our actions are a manifestation of these emotional reactions, as we scold, shout, complain, stonewall, sulk, nag, demand, and reject, all the while hoping to get a different result. Most of the time, we wind up with more of the same, generating just enough push or pull to maintain a certain emotional distance from our partner. This distance may be painful but also comfortable in its familiarity.
For couples who are struggling and want to break this pattern, identifying the hurtful cycles we fall into can be paramount to creating a closer, more fulfilling relationship. Yet, this process of acknowledging what we don’t want can be the easier, first step. The harder, second step is to discover and express what we do want.
When discussing his couples therapy approach in an interview with the Wise Counsel Podcast, Dr. Leslie Greenberg, the primary originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy with whom I created the eCourse “The Power of Emotion,” described how “couples get into negative interactional cycles like blame-attack-defend or dominate-submit [which are] driven by the inability to reveal underlying vulnerable emotions related to attachment and identity.” For many of us, it’s much easier to act out toward our partner than to recognize and disclose the deeper feeling, need, or want at the root of our reaction.
For example, if our partner has seemed quiet and removed, we may pester them to reveal how they are feeling. This may escalate until we are yelling at them, accusing them of always being unavailable. Most likely, this outburst would be a result of a basic need for emotional closeness, an attachment need. But our behavior does not give our partner an idea of our underlying vulnerability and makes it less likely we will get that need met. Our partner’s reaction to our attack will most likely be to feel defensive and to attack back, perhaps calling us demanding and intrusive, and seeing us as not allowing them any peace.
While the resulting tension may never have been our intention, we tend to create our own nightmare by acting out our half of this fraught dynamic. What we don’t realize is that we’re often more drawn to this argumentative or defensive posture than we are to doing the thing that could actually get us what we desire. We’re willing to act out in a million ways before we dare directly express what we feel, need, or want from an open and vulnerable place.
We all have things we want from our partner. While we may be aware of the surface-level complaints or frustrations, accessing our more central, wants and needs is harder, because it often brings up long-buried painful feelings from our past. We may want to feel loved and accepted in a consistent way we never felt as kids. We may want someone to be there for us and listen to us in ways we were never regarded or listened to before. Yet, to reveal this to our partner is to open ourselves up to being hurt again. As Greenberg put it:
The basic change process is helping people to reveal their underlying attachment oriented feelings – that’s about closeness and distance – and their underlying identity related feelings, which is often about validation and invalidation… But we’re unable to deal with really revealing our core selves to each other.
What keeps us from being self-disclosing? When we feel hurt or sad, we often cover over these vulnerable feelings with a secondary emotion like anger or fear. We may start to experience all kinds of “critical inner voices,” harmful thoughts toward ourselves or our partner that perpetuate our negative emotions and encourage us to defend ourselves. “Can’t you see he doesn’t love you,” “You are such a bother to him,” “You’re so stupid for trusting him,” it taunts. “Who does she think she is?” “She should be more sensitive,” it demands. These “voices” create a barrier that makes it difficult for us to be vulnerable with our partner, but it’s a barrier we must break through in order to reveal our “core selves” and feel closer to another person.
In order to feel seen and known by our partner, we must push ourselves to be open about what we really feel. We can say, “I feel hurt and sadness when you don’t communicate with me consistently.” We can express our more universal want or need, which may even sound irrational or extreme. “What I want is for you to love and accept me all the time no matter what.” We can then communicate a more specific need. “I’d love you to make an effort to let me know when you need time for yourself and then let me know when you are ready to take some time for us to connect.”
The more vulnerable expressions of who we are allow our partner to feel for us, and they invite a softer response. “When we do reveal ourselves to each other in non-demanding and non-attacking ways, usually from loving partners it evokes compassion rather than defense or counterattack,” said Greenberg. Not only are we more likely to get what we say we want from our partner, but we interrupt the behavior patterns that lead us into the usual destructive cycles.
The principles behind Emotion-Focused Therapy suggest that truly changing these behaviors involves facing the emotions that drive them. These feelings usually have roots in our past, which is why a certain tone, facial expression, or small act from our partner can leave us feeling so triggered. However, if we’re willing to be brave and open ourselves up to our partner, we give ourselves a chance at having a corrective emotional experience and building a more secure attachment.
It’s a brave venture to set out to get in touch with our core emotions, to understand what it is we really want, and to communicate these discoveries to a loved one. However, it’s our best hope for breaking the cycles that would otherwise destroy or diminish our relationships and sharing closer, more loving connections.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Les Greenberg for the eCourse “The Power of Emotion.”