Everyone knows what it feels like to be sad, mad, scared, excited, and joyful, right? Wrong! Most think they do, and that’s the problem. They THINK their emotions rather than FEEL them. This is a leading cause for relationship issues. People who are out of touch with their feelings have difficulty saying what they mean and meaning what they say.
Many couples finally reach out for help when the go-nowhere conversations, passive-aggressive patterns, and discussions that begin civilly and end up highly reactive, become the norm. Others wait even longer until issues with substance abuse and self-medicating coping strategies become impossible to ignore.
I am a licensed psychologist and relationship expert. I’ve seen it all. And I find many couples with these destructive patterns are first, out of touch with their feelings, and second, lacking the language skills to communicate their feelings effectively. They know the feelings intellectually but don’t connect with them on a heart level. Those are two different things. When you don’t connect with your own feelings, the conversations become more about the other person’s external behaviors rather than their emotional state. “You never pick up your dirty socks,” versus “You seem to be struggling with low energy.”
As helping professionals, we know the importance of being able to target the core feelings: sad, mad, scared, excited, loving, joyful, and how these connections help us make decisions about what we want to communicate in our relationships. Yet how many partners can sit in your office for relationship therapy and articulate the following?
“Jean, I felt hurt when you did not remember my birthday even though I brought it up two weeks ago. Somehow, I really feel devalued in our relationship, and I find myself distancing, which is not what I want.”
Jack has the advanced ability to differentiate between thinking and feeling emotions. He can self-reflect and connect to his feelings, expressing them to Jean in a way she can hear. You can see Jack tells Jean more about himself than about her behavior. His courage to bring up his hurt and his ability to express himself in this way will most likely lead to positive change and growth, and ultimately to a stronger and more satisfying relationship.
It took me years to cultivate the skill and capacity to identify, tolerate, and effectively express my feelings this way. Now I can do it early on and efficiently. The ability to share in such a way has transformed my life and relationships.
In my first attempts I wrote a poem to describe the journey to develop a self who had a strong foundation and connection to my deepest feelings.
I long to find the words to tell
What’s hidden deep behind the shell
To break the shell is long and slow
Seasons pass the winter cold.
Creative expression through poetry, journaling, art, music, and movement can aid in accessing those deeper parts. Symbols, images, and metaphors often reveal and express what the linguistic mind cannot. My poem exposes the cold hard shell that kept me prisoner (an image that I identify with, having as grown up in Minnesota!)
In this chapter, you will learn some of the important interventions that can assist in working with clients who are both out of touch with their core feelings and lack the proper skills to articulate them properly. Though fictional, the characters and dialogue are taken from the many years of experience I have had with real clients and situations. The scenes and conversations are designed to offer the maximum learning techniques for a multitude of circumstances while being interesting and compelling.
Let’s meet Michelle and Mike, the stars of this chapter, as they engage in a dialogue during one of their early sessions in my office.
Mike and Michelle have been married 9 years and have two children, Rusty, 7 and Rosalind, 4. Michelle is tall, nearly six feet, with long blond hair. Svelte and stylish, she possesses the typical millennial persona: cool, confident and professional. With an MBA from Stanford, she easily landed a high-paying job at a Silicon Valley tech company. The competence and efficiency she expects from herself and her staff carries over into all aspects of her life, both professionally and personally.
Mike is about the same height but appears larger due to his muscular build. He’s clearly uncomfortable and quite anxious. Mike works hard, often putting in overtime hours on the construction site. He’s used to being out in the open, not in a therapist’s office. His tanned face makes his bright blue eyes and dark hair even more pronounced. Dressed in jeans and a company polo shirt, the only thing contemporary about him is his iPhone, which he fiddles with constantly.
Michelle initially contacted me indicating that she was thinking about getting a separation.
I encourage Michelle to open the conversation. She’s sitting directly across from Mike, but she doesn’t make eye contact. Her comments are directed toward him, but her eyes look past him.
“I wish you’d start keeping your commitments. You have been telling me for over a year you’ll organize the garage, and it is still not done. If you can’t finish a project once and for all, I am leaving…”
Her voice trails off. With these first few sentences I recognize a major issue. Her overuse of the word “you” indicates she is in parental mode. Mike responds.
“Ok! I know I should have it done, but you know we’re in a transition at work. Dave’s been giving me a lot of extra work. What do you expect me to do? Lose my job?”
Mike exaggerates and avoids any differentiation. He does not make any I feel statements and talks with a sarcastic tone. Not once did either of them define themselves or their own feelings. I say nothing and let the conversation unfold more. Michelle continues in exasperation.
“See, there you go again. Always blaming things on work and not taking any responsibility. I feel like I’m raising three kids and holding down a full-time job. Even Rusty does a better job than you.”
“Well, you should know—all you do is blame—you are just like your mother. No wonder your dad left her.”
Here, Mike is starting to get self-destructive. What we typically find in front of us as relationship experts is two people who blame each other, make a lot of “You!” statements, and either get reactive or sit on their feelings. As couples move into the stage of a relationship where they are disagreeing, some get highly reactive and defensive, circumventing any real discussion of the topic while others shut down and avoid bringing up their feelings at all. At this point I interrupt them.
“Let’s pause a bit so I can give you some feedback. Your pattern is very common, and it is clear how you two seldom get to the point of really understanding each other. Your patterns make it hard to come up with compromises that lead to healthy resolutions. This is something I help a lot of couples with, and you can learn to take your relationships to a new level.”
The goal is to identify and to normalize patterns between couples, so they know they are not alone. I have partners sit in separate chairs, so they are facing each other, as I believe it promotes the process of learning to be individuals who can express, I feel, I think, and I desire statements. Then I watch the patterns they have and listen to the content.
In this case, the pattern is a common one in that neither of them define how they are feeling. Michelle would be ahead of the game if she were to say something like:
“I want to talk as I am getting annoyed and pessimistic about our relationship. From my side, it seems like you seldom keep your agreements. You agreed clean out the garage over a year ago, and it is still a mess. When you do not keep your agreements, it is hard for me to trust you.”
This statement would take patience from Michelle, but it would be worth it. Michelle would have to self-reflect, to connect with her feelings of annoyance, pessimism, and hurt. She would have to stay out of blaming mode by telling Mike more about herself than about what he was doing wrong. The use of the words “from my side” can make a big difference and help your clients speak their truth.
When working with couples, it is essential to determine early on if they are connected to their feelings. I do this by exploring in the first few sessions how well they can target what they are feeling (sad, mad, scared, excited, frustrated, loving, and joyful). Through direct questioning, I discover where my clients are with their feelings. The session continues as I take the next initiative.
“I am curious, Mike, how you feel as you sit and listen to Michelle?”
If Mike said he was sad, mad, scared, excited, or frustrated, I would know he has a connection, that he is in touch and has at least some foundation of awareness. But much more commonly I hear something like the following in response.
“Well, I tell her over and over, ‘I am the one who brings home the paycheck,’ plus I spend time with the kids to give her a break—after that I am just drained…”
At this point, I realize I need to explore more and begin to mirror.
“I hear you feel somewhat like a broken record and you are exhausted after work.”
“Yes, you got it!”
“So, I am curious. How do you feel here in the room as Michelle tells you she thinks about getting a separation?”
“Well, she’s been saying that for months, but she’s still here. Like I said, Michele and her mother are two peas in a pod—all they do is complain.”
He continues to rattle on about Michelle’s last phone conversation with her mother, at which point I gently interrupt him.
“Mike,” I say softly but firmly. “I do not want to get off track as I am still struggling to understand. Do you feel sad, mad, scared, frustrated, and guilty?”
“Oh, I get it. I’m not sure—I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I guess I am burnt out and pissed off—just sick of her nagging me all the time.”
When Mike finally admits to and articulates some of the core feelings, I validate him by showing his progress.
“Mike,” I say with a smile of approval, “You just made progress as you shared with Michelle one of your central feelings. Instead of telling Michelle so much about her—you told her more about what you are feeling—you are off to a great start! I am glad you can target your feelings, and I am glad you spoke up. You are angry. Would you tell Michelle right now, “I feel angry with you as it seems like you nag me a lot?”
“Yeah, she is right. I feel angry a lot of the time,” he begins softly.
As Mike responds, his body begins to relax. His anger is expressed in a positive way. His voice is more defined and clearer. His words are presented in a way that is easy for Michelle receive. Her defenses don’t feel threatened. She relaxes as well. The tension in the room goes down. We have made good progress.
It is very important to look for ways to help clients feel good about what they are doing and the progress they make. We are slowly shaping people, and building a positive connection is essential in both individual and couple work. Working with core connections is not a one-time deal. You may have to go in several times to make an accurate assessment. But by helping clients target, identify, and connect to the core feelings of sad, mad, scared, excited, loving, and joyful, we help them make better decisions about what they wish to communicate in their significant relationships. And when they can do that, they transform their lives, create strong bonds, and generate growth experiences.