In my last blog post I presented 6 Essential Facts about emotions. These were intended to set the stage for this more advanced review of the role of emotions in relationships and how understanding emotions can help a relationship improve.
Emotions are created by our perceptions and interpretations
Most of our emotional reactions are significantly shaped by our experience of people in the past. A word that a parent used negatively might shape the way that word is heard when a lover uses that same word (even if the lover is using that word in a very different way). Similarly, if our unloving parent had a characteristic curl of a lip when angry, we may react very intensely to a lover who makes a similar lip-curl. This is true even if the lover’s lip curl means something entirely different.
Emotions are quick summaries, based on our experiences and our stories, that signal to us whether our emotional needs are or are not likely to be met (more on that later). The scolding word from the parent meant I would not receive praise. The curl of the lip meant I was not going to receive love. The emotion of pain or anger when we perceive these cues is a way of protecting us from the experiences that we have paired with the cue. The emotion comes with an action motivation (see previous post) that helps us to respond to what we expect will happen when we perceive that first cue. The challenge is that our partners probably aren’t using the same script that our parents were. Our bosses aren’t likely to be using the exact script that our elementary school teacher was using. Yet because our emotional experience to the stimulus is the same, we might be inclined to respond to these current relationships with the script we learned in those early relationships.
In fact, our perceptions so thoroughly incline us to actions out of those old scripts that we’re likely to think that our experience is real. We tell stories about ourselves and other people that helps us make sense of our emotional experience and our responsive behaviors. For example, we might say, “You’re trying to control me!” or “It’s all my fault that you don’t love me.” As other people respond to these spoken or unspoken scripts it is so easy for us to get into a very problematic dance. The other person denies our script, “No, I don’t want to control you”, or tries to defuse it, “I’m not saying it’s all your fault, I’m saying that I need something from you because I love you.” But ultimately, if the script is very reflexive and fixed, we will hear these rebuttals as confirmation of our original script.
The pattern is that early emotional experiences lead to perceptual inclinations and interpersonal scripts which we then use to interpret our current interpersonal relationships and once interpreted we act out of our role in the script.
I have found that it is important to help clients learn two things. First, the message of the emotion, “Your needs aren’t getting met” is true. That is, the emotion is valid. Second, the emotionally laden perception and stories may not be accurate. Once the client can learn that the emotional message is both true and not true in this way, they can usually begin to behave in a way more in line with their aspirations.
Emotions are physiological summaries
Let’s imagine that in a romantic relationship physical affection like hugs and kisses are important for you. Now, if you partner forgets to hug and kiss you good-bye one morning, this experience might leave a sinking feeling in your stomach when you first notice it. You might also have a change in posture like a downturned face, or a lower back that is slumped outward. In assessing your emotional experience, you might say that you are “disappointed”. The word “disappointed” isn’t written somewhere except as a summary of how your body feels in that moment.
I often use an analogy with my clients that our emotions are like gauges on a dashboard. The emotional summary tells us what is happening in other parts of the car. An important aspect of this analogy is that each person can only accurately see their own dashboard. This helps me eliminate conversations where one partner is telling the other that she or he “shouldn’t” feel that way. Since we each only see our own emotional dashboard, it doesn’t much matter whether we “should” be feeling someway, if the dial on the dashboard reads “disappointed” then that’s the real experience, the real summary.
But what does “disappointed” mean? What is it saying about the person who is experiencing it? Or what is it saying about the partner? This gets really tricky because people are very quick to go from, “I feel disappointed” to “You disappointed me”. Or from, “I’m in pain” to “You hurt me”. But these are very different statements. That’s why it can be really important to recognize that emotions are physiological summaries and that the physiological experience is telling us whether our needs are being met or whether we anticipate that they will be met in the future. But they don’t tell us whether our partners are trying to meet our needs or whether they will in the future.
Emotions are valid, even if the reasons for the emotions are illogical
A common theme that I see among my couples is that they begin arguing about the content of the conflict. “You left me standing there for 45 minutes.” “No I didn’t. You were only there for 15 minutes, because you told me to pick you up a half-hour later than you think you did”. This kind of arguing has no winner, is not productive, and doesn’t help the relationship.
So, in a therapy session, I will turn to the person who was upset about being left behind and ask, “How did you feel when your spouse wasn’t there to pick you up?” A feeling like scared, lonely, or angry might be very common. The facts of the situation are irrelevant. The emotions are shaping the different perceptions of the facts so it is the emotions that need to be dealt with in the interaction, or we end up attending only to symptoms and not to the problem.
While the first section of this post identifies that the perceptions shape the emotions, once the emotions are present, they (and not the perception) must be attended to. It is the emotion that begins shaping the person’s behavior. Acknowledgement of the emotion, empathy for the experience of the emotion, connection to value the person underneath the experience, and a review to identify the causes of the emotion, (both interpersonal and intrapersonal) are what allow for the resolution of the emotional experience.
Sometimes clients object here, “But the facts matter!” To a degree I understand. The client who says this is having their own emotional reaction to being accused of something that they feel is untrue. So, again I turn to the person who wants the facts to matter, “How do you feel when despite your efforts to demonstrate love to your partner, they experience a different set of facts, and their emotional experience is pain?” Following this course, the same healing is available to both. The person who wants the “facts” acknowledged will feel better when they can talk through the hurt and pain they feel when despite their love, their actions (sometimes through no fault of their own) have resulted in pain in their partner.
Another perspective on the validity of emotions can be found in my prior blog post, “Of Mountain and Mole Hills”.
In my next post I’m going to add two more advanced emotional concepts and summarize how all of these advanced concepts connect into one view of the importance of emotions in relationships and couples therapy.