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Do You Know the Story Beneath Your Relationship to Emotions?

There’s an untapped power to understanding why you manage your emotions the way you do — and how that might differ greatly from your partner.

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In counseling — and in life, in general! — we talk a lot about emotions. But have you ever considered why you engage with and process your emotions (or don’t) the way you do? 

Lately, in my practice, I have become increasingly aware of how important it is to understand our partner’s view of emotions. When one partner in the couple is conflict avoidant or doesn’t like difficult emotions and the other partner is perfectly fine discussing difficult things and processing complex emotions, we have a meta-emotion mismatch. 

Meta-Emotion Mismatch

According to the Gottman Institute studies on what makes marriages work, this mismatch can lead to difficulty in the relationship.  

However, getting a better grasp on our meta-emotions (and those of our partner) is a kind of secret sauce that you might not have heard much about.

When we are able to understand the story behind how we feel about different emotions, we can better understand our partner and how to communicate with them when difficult issues arise. (In fact, there’s often a dream hidden beneath conflict and resentment, if you’re brave enough to dig into the underlying story.)

I met recently with a couple that was facing a meta-emotion mismatch. We took a few sessions to deeply understand the story of each person’s childhood and how different emotions were either accepted or unaccepted. You might find it helpful to do the same with your partner.

For instance, consider the emotion of sadness. Did your parents readily allow you to experience sadness, holding you until you no longer felt as badly? Or did they tell you something like, “stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about” instead? 

Do you know the story beneath your relationship with emotions?

Often, the stories at the root of our relationship with our emotions are hidden deep in our past. They might be buried so far down that we haven’t been able to tell our beloved the real reason behind why different emotions are difficult for us. 

If you and your partner are ready to mine those challenging areas, questions like these can be a helpful starting point: 

  • What was it like to be sad when you were young? 
  • Who did you go to when you were sad or upset? What was their reaction to your sadness? 
  • Did you see your dad sad? Your mom? How about your siblings? 
  • What is it like when you are sad now? 
  • Can you tell when I’m sad? 
  • What do you need when you are sad? What do you not need?

These kinds of questions can lead to a much deeper understanding of your partner and how to meet them where they are especially when they’re moving through a difficult experience or managing complex emotions. 

Approach this work with your partner with gentleness and kindness. Reserve judgment. Validate their experience. You might be surprised at how much you discover about one another!

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Sabrina Walters is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing since 2003 in Beaverton, Oregon, serving individuals, couples and families with a strengths-based approach. She is a Certified Gottman Therapist and trainer for Gottman Inc. Her work as a therapist and speaker are informed greatly by her personal life as a mother of three boys and her marriage of over 40 years to Eric Walters. Sabrina and Eric founded Core Values Counseling, and have been leading marriage conferences since 2004. If there were a phrase to describe Sabrina’s work, it would be “Hope Monger.” She often tells clients she will hunt down hope in every situation. Sabrina and Eric have published their first book; Enticing Love; Real Hope for Real Relationships.

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