Emotions can be frustrating. This is why so many couples come to therapy saying that “we have communication problems.” In my experience actual communication problems are rare. The real trouble is that an unpleasant message is being communicated VERY effectively. The real trouble is that you are more in touch with anger (or one of its friends) than you are with other emotions. And it’s your emotions that are causing the problems. Not the inability to communicate. So instead of trying to communicate better, try sharing emotions with each other. Here’s why.
Emotions are Feedback
Most of our emotions function to let us know that something is happening. Think about the last time that you felt joy. Was it when you were participating in your favorite hobby? Or maybe it was when your child was born. The joy that you felt throughout your body helps bring us back. That joy tells you to keep doing that hobby because it soothes you. Or it bonds you to your child. But what about when that feedback is not so positive…
Emotions Let You Know You Need Something
Painful, difficult emotions let us know that we need something. The physical pain of hunger tells your body that you need food. In the same way, loneliness tells you that you need connection. So when you try to communicate these things with your spouse, why do they go sideways?
That is because anger does not point out something that we need, it instead protects. Fear, sadness, and surprise are all the types of emotions that let you know a need is going unmet. But being in need is vulnerable. We have all felt the rejection and pain that comes with an emotional need going unmet.
Emotions like anger, disgust, and contempt function to protect us. Our instincts try to protect us from the pain and rejection that we have been through before. The pain of rejection at our most vulnerable is too much, so our anger protects. It might not be pleasant, but anger does not hurt the same way that sadness or any of those vulnerable emotions does.
So we communicate out of that anger instead of out of that vulnerable place. But why would you want to get more in touch with the vulnerable feeling underneath that anger? Why would you want to experience the pain that is there?
Vulnerable Emotions Help Us Build Secure Bonds
What is the worst that could happen if you just stay angry? You could let that pain stay where it is and not feel it. But remember that pain is letting you know that you need something. Most parents have had the experience of their child yelling for them from the next room. And most parents have had the experience of that yell getting louder if you do not answer quick enough.
The same happens with our emotions. When a need goes unmet, the ways that you protect yourself get more intense. But there is an intense bonding that occurs when you are able to share your needs and your partner is there to meet that need. Here is a video that explains just what that means.
So when you are angry, ask yourself “what am I protecting?” And if you are wanting to move past the anger and move toward connection in your relationship give me a call at The Marriage & Family Clinic.
About the Author
Ryan Hicks is a licensed therapist and marriage counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in working with couples in high conflict and working with couples in the LGBTQ community. When he’s not working with couples, you’ll find him rock climbing or taking in the great outdoors of Colorado