You need to be in touch with your own emotions in order to have a successful relationship. Why is this? Our emotional system is complex and affects how we process, think, act, behave and communicate. If we are dysregulated emotionally, then how are supposed to be present and grounded for our partner?
What is emotional regulation?
All of us feel and experience emotions. However, for some, these emotions can come on so strongly, and so high, that it can feel like a tornado or a rollercoaster hitting us. For others, it may be hard to identify, to express emotion, or to even “feel” at all.
There are healthy ways to regulate emotion, such as talking to a friend, meditating, going for a walk, journaling, exercising, getting adequate sleep and eating well, avoiding mind-altering substances, etc.
Then there are unhealthy ways to regulate emotion, such as using substances to numb our feelings, engaging in reckless and/or self-destructive behavior, self-harm, avoidance and withdrawal, physical or verbal aggression, etc.
Couples sometimes get caught in the pattern of the other if the couple is psychologically “enmeshed” or at the same level of “differentiation” as the other.
What does this mean?
Long story short; individuals tend to attract partners who have the same set of intimacy skills as they have, and are at the same stage of emotional development. As you can imagine, this means that it is quite common to encounter a “high-conflict” couple.
High conflict couple
High-conflict couples tend to have a pervasive pattern of negatively relating and reacting to the other, that is hard to break.
A “high conflict” couple also means that the individuals within the Couple most likely have a hard time regulating individual emotions. When someone becomes emotionally dysregulated, it means that they have an inability to use healthy coping strategies at that moment to help soften negative emotions.
In couples work, one will often see an individual who is the “pursuer,” and the other is the “withdrawer.” Both can find themselves in emotionally dysregulated states, and when this happens, the pursuer is more obviously and outwardly dysregulated (think very apparent anger, yelling, name-calling), while the withdrawer less obviously withdraws and avoids.
However, just because the withdrawer is quiet and keeps things in, does not mean the withdrawer is not dysregulated. The withdrawer too is in a state of emotional dysregulation and discomfort.
A fictitious scenario – high conflict couples work in action
Imagine a fictitious Couples’ session where fictitious George and fictitious Sue, report difficulty with communication and constant “blow-ups that always escalate into bigger fights. George states he has “been under immense stress at work,” while Sue states she is “tired of George’s attitude lately.” Because of it, Sue states she has chosen to “no longer help around the house.” George states,
“So last Thursday, Sue forgot to pick up paper towels at CVS on the way home. This made me very angry. I never ask her to do anything. I am carrying the weight of it all right now. She could care less. Sue, you are so frustrating! You never come through when I need you.”
Imagine George’s face getting red, with his fists clenched while sitting rigidly on the therapy couch, and his voice slowly escalating and getting louder and louder.
Meanwhile, I notice that Sue looks tearful and is shifting away from George on the couch. She also retorts with a quiet voice,
“Why should I bother helping you, you never appreciate my help anyway. We may as well just quit therapy. I don’t even know why I am here. I don’t want to be here, I want to leave.”
George states: “See, this is what I mean. I don’t have a life partner; I don’t have a teammate. This is so frustrating!”
First off, right at that moment, I would stop the back and forth and the retorts, the yelling, and the name-calling. I would tell Sue and George that while it is good for me to see a “taste” of their fighting for a few minutes, so I understand how they interplay and react to one another, it is a complete waste of their time for them to fight in front of me, just like they fight at home. By stopping the name calling, interrupting and yelling, I also am setting boundaries for the Couple, and for the therapy.
I would stop George, and ask him to please lower his voice so that Sue and I can hear him. I would explain that we cannot hear what he wants or needs when his voice is so loud. I would then have him identify where the anger is located in his body right at that moment while taking a few deep breaths. He may point to his chest or face, or to his shoulders. I would then ask George what the anger feels like. He may say, “It feels like a hot rush through my body, and I have a tightness in my chest.”
Slowly, I may notice George opening up his fist, to instead, put a hand on his chest to notify me where he feels the anger. Already, George has taken a step toward regulating, as he is becoming an observer and is slowly separating himself from his intense emotion through my somatic instruction.
Once George appears calmer, I say,
“George, what did it mean to you that Sue did not pick up the paper towel at CVS on her way home?
George slowly responds,
“I just felt so alone.”
At this moment, I would ask George to notice Sue, sitting far away from him with tears streaming down her face.
“George, what is it like to notice that Sue is sad right now?”
“I hate making her sad.”
I notice Sue starting to come closer on the couch next to George. I point out to George that Sue is shifting closer.
“What do you mean, George?” She asks. “I did not know you felt that way.”
George looks at Sue and states,
“I am so sorry. I am sorry for yelling and for not taking the time to listen or to hear how you have been feeling.”
“Do you appreciate what I do for you? I really feel as if I am taken for granted.”
Because both George and Sue are in a less escalated, and more regulated place now, George can calmly say,
“Yes, Sue, I so appreciate everything you do for me. I am sorry for my anger and that I have not been myself lately. I am going to work on it.”
Sue hugs George and says, “I am sorry too. I am sorry that I stopped trying.”
In essence, Sue and George are a“high-conflict couple,” who had a situation that was triggering for each of them in different ways.
“Sue and George,” I say,
“So you each had a situation that was triggering. What then went through both of your heads when we re-played this event?”
George: “That I am an island.”
Sue: “That I am unappreciated.”
“How did this make you feel?”
“What was your subsequent behavior?”
George: “I got angry and I started to yell.”
Sue: “I withdrew my support, and even threatened to leave the therapy session.”
“What was your body’s physical reaction?”
George: “To feel heat and tenseness in my body.”
Sue: “To physically withdraw and avoid.”
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
Remember, opposites attract for a reason
Sometimes, each individual has a broken sense of self that complements the other in a way that a ‘healthy self’ cannot fulfill. In other words, the unmet needs of one individual fit perfectly with the unmet needs of the other. Each envies the part of the other that he or she does not understand or has disowned about self. Essentially, the individual is attracted to the very thing they’ve rejected, or have a negative attitude toward.
In the case of the high-conflict couple, being confronted with a disowned part of “self” can be very triggering, as it stirs up an unconscious, unresolved part emotional development he or she may not want to confront on a daily basis. In other words, this scenario with Sue and George really was not just about the paper towels.
Lastly, changing thoughts is often much easier than changing feelings.
It is often not the experience of the emotion that causes a problem, but rather, the interpretation of the emotion.
Ask yourself, “What am I really reacting to here?”“What is making me feel so strongly about the paper towels?”“What is the worst or best outcome when Sue does not pick up the paper towels?” It can take time and practice to manage troublesome emotions as they arise. It takes even more effort when you are in a relationship, as you have a chain reaction between you and the other. You are the only one in control of your own thoughts and feelings. Do your best to learn to identify, express and regulate your own emotions, and you should find yourself reaching new heights in your relationships.
Courtneyis a registered associate marriage and family therapist in the South Bay of Los Angeles, with offices in Hermosa Beach and Palos Verdes. She offers free, initial, 15-minute phone consultations and convenient online booking!
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.