As a therapist, I often see couples descend into arguments because they struggle to accept and attune to their partner’s emotions. One of the biggest triggers for these arguments is when they put words into each other’s mouths, telling them how they should or shouldn’t feel.
Here’s an example: A client of mine, we’ll call her Mindy, recently shared a story. She arrived home from work one day and told her partner that she feels so frustrated by her commute that she’s thinking of quitting. Her partner responded, “I don’t understand why you’re so frustrated. It’s just a part of life. I always just put on a good podcast.” This aggravated her. “You know what? Screw you,” she said. “I’m just going to just stop sharing things with you now.”
John, another client, discussed sharing how angry he was with the cancer doctors treating his mother. His partner responded by saying “I don’t think that’s how you really feel. I think you’re actually sad but you just never know how to do that. You’re just always so angry.” John, frustrated, responded with, “I can be angry if I want to be angry. This is my mother we’re talking about!”
As these two examples illustrate, sometimes, telling someone how they should feel causes a more activated argument. Sometimes, it can cause the quiet kind of argument we have in our own heads — like when another client, Ari, was sharing with their spouse how upset they were with some employees. “Well, do you really have a reason to feel upset with them?” their partner said. Ari responded with “Maybe not” out loud, but silently thought: that’s the last time I try to process what’s happening for me with you.
We know that showing understanding, curiosity, and sensitivity towards others’ emotions tends to create the most bonding and lead to fewer arguments. However, people don’t often follow through on these things. Instead, it’s incredibly common to dismiss, question, judge, or tell the other person how they should feel. It’s a recipe for disconnection and frustration.
Why These Fights Happen
If responding this way to emotions leads to disconnection then why do we do it?
Simply put, we humans tend to forget that other people are different from us. You can see this evidenced in how often people respond to others’ choices by saying something like, “I would have never done that” or to their feelings by saying “Well, that’s not how I would feel about that.” One of the biggest blocks to resolving conflict that I see in the couples therapy office is people refusing to open up to the idea that there can be more than one way of feeling, thinking, and experiencing the same event.
There’s also the idea of complex stories. Each of us has a complex story written around our emotional world. It’s colored by our biology, personality, culture, history and even how we are physically feeling in the moment. When you put more than one person together, it becomes doubly complex.
Finally, there’s the fact that emotions are inherently vulnerable. Our emotions are encoded into us as a way to help us navigate the world safely. We show them to others in order to get our needs met. For example, if I am crying, my tears are a symbol that I am in distress. If I am laughing, my giggles are a sign I want to play. If I cry and you don’t respond to my distress, I feel as if my signaling isn’t working. This is scary for human beings because we’re pack animals, and feel threatened if we believe members of our group aren’t properly responding to or reading the signals.
So What Can We Do?
When it comes to emotional connection, people tend to respond to each other in one of three interactional patterns:
- Cutting Off: This might look like dismissing or seeming aloof to the emotions of others.
- Enmeshment: This looks like trying to be an authority on, and being too involved in, the emotional world of others.
- Differentiation: This looks like being present with the emotions of another person without trying to control them through cutting off or enmeshment.
In order to respond well to loved ones, we have to learn how to differentiate. Differentiation means being able to remain connected to yourself while being connected to another person. It requires us to identify our own feelings and beliefs and recognize that we cannot control other people’s feelings and beliefs.
Here’s a relevant example. When Hector and Ebony had their first child, Ebony felt a lot of anxiety. She would often express to Hector that she was too afraid to sleep at night in case she missed the baby crying out for her. Hector didn’t feel as anxious as Ebony. He felt confident that the baby was okay and that he was able to sleep at night.
However, because Hector was well differentiated — meaning he knew his perceptions and feelings could be different than his wife’s — he was able to be there for Ebony. Of course, he wished she wasn’t so anxious. But instead of merely saying “You have nothing to be anxious about,” he attuned to her and could say, “It makes sense you’re anxious. Tell me more about what’s been worrying you the most at night.”
If Hector wasn’t well differentiated, Ebony’s difference in experience would feel threatening to him. This is because poorly differentiated people aren’t confident that they can hold onto their own beliefs in the face of someone else’s. Instead of risking the discomfort of allowing the difference to exist, poorly differentiated people tend to authoritatively claim that their way is the only way. They tend to tell others how to behave more often and put pressure on people to conform to their way of being.
If Hector wasn’t well differentiated, he might say something to Ebony like, “I would never allow my emotions to overtake me like this. You just need to do what I do and lay down at the end of the night and go to sleep. The baby is fine.”
6 Ways to Improve Your Differentiation
When couples can improve differentiation, they’re able to navigate each other’s emotional worlds better, avoid arguments, and improve connection. Here are a few tips that can help.
1. Understand your narrative
As I mentioned earlier, we all have a complex story around our emotional world. Take time to understand your own story. What was it like for you growing up when it came to emotions? Did people tend to try to control other people’s feelings? Or were people open and responsive to them? What do you believe about emotions? Are they mostly helpful or mostly unhelpful? How does it feel in your own body when you’re having emotions? And how does it feel in your body when other people are having emotions? Beginning to understand yourself will strengthen your ability to stay connected to yourself in the face of difficult emotions.
2. Speak for yourself
Learn to speak for yourself during emotion-based conversations rather than getting silent or putting words into the other person’s mouth. Do your best to police yourself when you do either of these things and then move towards identifying what’s going on for you.
For example, let’s say you tend to cut off. You catch yourself falling into this habit. Great. But instead of simply falling silent, share, “I feel overwhelmed right now and part of me just wants to be quiet.”
If you tend to get enmeshed, instead of telling someone what they should feel, talk about how you feel. Tell your partner “I feel so anxious when I hear about your workday,” instead of “you really shouldn’t be feeling so anxious about your work.”
It’s crucial that you learn to do this for both yourself and the other person. For example, if your partner is angry about something that doesn’t make you angry, you can say to yourself: I am struggling to fully understand why they are so angry. I don’t feel angry about this at all and that is okay, while also being able to say, It’s okay for them to feel angry even if I don’t.