about Emotion and Relationships
Powerful emotions lie at the heart of every relationship. Yet too often we
labor under misunderstandings about the feelings that drive us to make serious
and sometimes irrevocable decisions about them. Emotionally Focused Couple
Therapy For Dummies® lists and debunks ten of the most damaging myths.
“So…how’s your relationship?” If someone asks you this question at the right time (after a big fight, for instance), it will unleash a flood of frustration: She’s too sensitive. The other day I suggested she forgo a second piece of cake—just because I care about her health, mind you—and she fell apart like a $2 watch! …Or He’s like a robot. He doesn’t care about how I feel at all! …Or Every time I try to talk about our marriage, he just shuts down. That makes me mad, so I keep pushing and pushing until we’re screaming at each other.
Notice how at the heart of all this maelstrom of emotion is the subject of…well, emotion? Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, authors of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies® , say that’s because the E-word is the glue in all romantic relationships.
“Over time, couples form emotional bonds that organize and prioritize their lives,” says Bradley. “They can see this clearly when they’re ‘falling in love’ because they’re focused on being romantic. But over time, couples can fall into problems, and chronic arguments can take over the relationship. So emotions can pull couples together, but they can also push couples apart.”
In their book, Bradley and Furrow help readers understand the power of emotion in their relationships and find deeper satisfaction and more effective ways to connect with their partners. This is actually true of all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. The first step, though, is separating fact from fiction.
“Myths about emotion and relationships can stand in the way of using your own emotion for a more clearly informed and healthy life,” notes Furrow. “To give just one example, some people believe that happy couples don’t argue and thus they strive to maintain harmony at all costs. But they’re basing their actions on a myth. Arguing can mean that vital emotions are being expressed. In fact, couples who never argue are those who no longer care enough to argue—a terrible sign for the future of the relationship.”
Here are 10 glaring, outdated misperceptions about emotions that may be hampering your relationship:
Myth #1: Happy couples don’t argue. This myth should have been dead 20 years ago. John Gottman, a leading couple researcher, found that even his “master” couples—those who stayed happily married over many years—argued with each other. His couples who divorced argued. In fact, the only couples who didn’t argue had grown distant, and even though they never argued, they were headed for divorce.
“A pivotal difference between happy couples and divorcing couples is the way they argue,” declares Bradley. “Happy couples argue without criticizing each other’s character. These couples don’t fall into the extremes of what Gottman refers to as ‘The Four Horsemen’: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Extremes in these categories were found to reliably predict divorce. Arguing without falling into ‘The Four Horsemen’ categories was a common trait of the ‘master’ couples Gottman followed over two decades. In fact, he noted that some ‘master’ couples were arguing about the same exact issues 20 years after he had initially interviewed them!”
Myth #2: Men don’t do emotions. This sentiment is taught to many boys very early in life. Statements such as “Boys don’t cry,” “Dry it up!” and “Don’t be a sissy!” can begin a trajectory of dissociating from emotion for males, making it difficult for them to intimately relate to their partners as adults. The truth is, men need to become aware of their emotions and integrate them into their daily lives rather than trying to change them. They need to learn the difference between secondary, reactive emotion and primary, adaptive emotion. Men who incorporate this approach into their lives become better partners, better dads, and better employees.
“We’ve seen many men in therapy learn the truth about how important emotion is,” confirms Furrow, “and as they begin to tap into their own emotions they’re stunned to learn that an entire world exists that was previously outside their awareness.
“Women sometimes don’t understand the lengths that some men go to in order to avoid emotion,” he adds. “Ali was shocked at how little Geoff knew about emotion. ‘When things got sad or vulnerable,’ she said, ‘it was like he suddenly didn’t even speak English. It’s like the way I talked with my girlfriends at age seven was beyond any level of emotional conversation he had experienced. He was so shut off from my—and his own—emotional worlds. It was killing us.’”
Myth #3: Women are more sensitive than men. Women are often socialized to be more emotionally aware and demonstratively sensitive than men (which explains the Ali/Geoff dynamics we just discussed). Researchers have consistently found that even young girls are much more concerned with how others feel, whereas boys are more concerned with competing. But too often society accepts this as an inborn genetic reality when this isn’t always the case.
“We’ve worked with plenty of women who struggle with effectively integrating their emotions,” says Bradley. “The good news is that everyone can learn to better integrate emotions into everyday awareness. What’s commonly thought of as women being ‘more sensitive’ than men is more a case of women being more in tune with their emotions. That’s healthy.”
Myth #4: Emotions are irrational. Usually what is referred to as “irrational” is someone who’s had a secondary emotional meltdown. For example, John finds his partner in bed with someone else, and John goes berserk, loses his temper, and does something stupid. If you’re reacting to something deeper—some kind of emotional pain, for example—but you aren’t aware of what the deeper emotion is, then you are, in effect, responding from your secondary emotion.
“You can trust your primary emotions,” adds Furrow. “When you ignore them and, instead, react out of your secondary emotions, you may get yourself into trouble. If John had the personal maturity to listen to his primary emotion when he saw his partner in bed with another man, he would’ve slowed down and felt that he was in a world of hurt, too. This would’ve allowed his thinking to catch up to his primary emotions, and he would’ve stopped himself from charging in and playing the fool.”
Myth #5: Emotions get in the way of making good decisions. Statements such as “Don’t be emotional when making decisions” and “Take the emotion out of it” are common. They stem from not understanding the different layers of emotional processing. When people talk like this, they’re almost always referring to secondary emotional reactions, like anger and frustration.
“But heeding primary emotion has the opposite effect,” claims Bradley. “It helps you get clear on your needs and wants. And you get clear on when you feel you’re being taken advantage of or when a business decision just isn’t good. These gut-felt responses or intuitions can be streamlined into immediate awareness and used to help guide you.
“You don’t need to ‘control’ your primary emotions,” he adds. “Just the opposite: You need to learn to let them guide you more. That’s why primary emotions are there—and why they’ve remained there across time. Ignore them at your own peril!”
Myth #6: Your thoughts are in charge of your emotions. Actually, the opposite is true. We cannot control our emotions with our thoughts. In fact our emotions set up our thinking. They arrive in lightning-fast fashion and set the stage for the later-occurring thoughts. When we’re in danger, for example, we simply don’t have time to think it out. Your emotional system sends you signals of fight or flight before you can consciously think and reflect on the situation.
“We need both emotion and cognition to function at our best,” says Furrow. “Trying to love and make decisions without both can be dangerous. But cognition has been so overemphasized that it’s the emotional part of the equation that many people simply don’t yet understand and use. We could give many examples of clients who ‘know’ how they should be thinking and behaving differently. But so many of them report, ‘I know what I should do in my mind—I know it—but when I get afraid or worried, I just can’t do it. My emotion is too strong. It stops me.’”
“When you ignore emotions and push them away, they can leave you paralyzed to behave in ways that you know you should,” adds Bradley. “When you can clearly experience what your deep, primary emotions are telling you, you can act instead of being stuck in fear or worry.”
Myth #7: Painful feelings are always bad. Consider funerals: They are sad, depressing, painful, and sometimes cruel. But funerals aren’t all bad and neither are painful feelings. They can remind us of what life is really all about and can provide clarity into how you want your future to look. When you allow yourself to feel painful emotions—when you don’t run away from them—they can remind you what’s important in your life. When you emotionally hurt, you feel firsthand what’s important to you. You don’t get sad and cry over something that doesn’t matter.
“When you say something you regret to your partner, for example, it’s not long before it begins to emotionally tug at you,” says Furrow. “As you feel emotionally disconnected from your partner, your primary emotions of hurt and loneliness emphatically tell you that your current state isn’t good. The pain is washed away by the equally powerful emotions of happiness and joy, stemming from acceptance, connection, and emotional harmony with your partner.
“The funny thing is, if you refuse to feel your pain deeply, you also make it impossible to feel your happiness and joy deeply,” he adds. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Myth #8: Experiencing emotion makes it worse. Some people think that if they let themselves feel their painful emotions, it will make the situation worse and make their pain more painful. In more extreme cases, these people may turn to alcohol and drugs to ward off their emotions. Yet the opposite of this myth is true: When you face and fully feel your emotions, they get their message across to you, and they begin to dissipate. Mission accomplished.
“It’s like putting hydrogen peroxide on a wound,” explains Bradley. “When you first apply it, it hurts a lot. But as the hydrogen peroxide does its job of cleaning the wound, the stinging goes away. If you ignore your emotion, just like refusing to clean a wound, the pain only grows and returns another day, with more strength.”
Myth #9: Emotions get in the way of business decisions. When people say, “You have to remove emotions when making business decisions,” they’re usually referring to someone’s secondary emotional response of aggression or defensiveness. Sure enough, someone caught in secondary emotion can be difficult to work with. And it’s not a good idea to make decisions when you’re feeling the effects of secondary emotions like anger or frustration. But that isn’t helpful in intimate relationships, parenting, or friendship either.
“Being aware of your own and others’ primary emotion is a great asset when making business decisions and in being an effective leader,” says Furrow. “Effective leaders—those who garner loyalty from others—are most often the ones who are well tuned in to their own emotional worlds and those of others. People can tell that they care, because they show genuine empathy, which is possible only by demonstrating emotional sensitivity.”
Myth #10: Anger is always bad. Like all emotions, anger is a signal with a message. It tells you when something is wrong, and it prepares you to make it stop—to protect yourself. Anger, in the right context, is there because you need it. When you feel infringed upon, your boundaries crossed, taken advantage of, and so forth, anger immediately organizes you to protect and assert yourself to stop the intrusion. Anger, in and of itself, is helpful.
“It’s how you respond to your anger that leads to the myth that anger is always bad,” states Bradley. “Couples can learn to recognize their anger with each other and discuss it without attacking each other’s character. Often, simply naming the anger as it’s happening (‘I’m angry right now’) can help you contain it.”
“Recent findings in affective neuroscience and a greater understanding of the healthy centrality of emotion in the fields of marriage and family therapy and psychology now have lots to say in erasing old misunderstandings,” concludes Furrow. “Sometimes misbeliefs can hamper progress in many areas of your life. As you move toward a fuller life emotionally, these errors no longer need to impair your progress.”
About the Authors:
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are coauthors of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies® .
Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org ), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy.
Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.