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Healthy disagreements and constructive communication are nearly impossible when couples can’t share their true feelings. Many people have difficulty putting names to their feelings, or they hold back and bury their feelings. This impaired communication can lead to anger, resentment and even divorce, but relationship problems can often be solved when couples are willing to cultivate an awareness of their feelings and to express those feelings effectively to their partners.
Bill and Anne had been married for five years. Bill had lost touch with the good feelings he once felt for his wife, and he was tired of the same old routine in their relationship. Anne always seemed to have excuses for not making love, and she scolded Bill for spending too much money, even when it was spent on flowers to surprise her. Bill resented this treatment and reacted by making sarcastic remarks or spending hours on the computer, which he knew Anne disliked. Like millions of guys, he didn’t really know what he was feeling or what to do about it.
During difficult discussions with Anne, Bill was impatient and found himself going around in circles, so he distracted himself with junk food and web surfing instead of taking on the challenge of developing a strong marriage. Anne and Bill seldom took the time to hear each other out and were stuck in a cycle of defending their own positions. They couldn’t really understand each other, so neither one could figure out a way to negotiate and return to harmony and health in their relationship.
The Core Emotions
If you observe a toddler, you generally see sadness, anger, happiness, joy, love and fear. These are the core emotions, and they often exist in a cluster. It’s important to become aware of the range and depth of your feelings and to stay with them long enough to understand what you want to communicate and how you want to word your message.
Here are the five main steps to help identify your feelings:
1. Schedule some quiet time to be with yourself.
2. Focus inward on one event in your day where you had an emotional response, and make notes about what you felt and thought in terms of core feelings — do you feel sad, mad, scared, excited, frustrated or love/joy?
3. Stay with your feelings long enough to become clear about what you are thinking and feeling.
4. Write down in a journal or notebook whatever comes to mind so you can go deeper into your emotions and generate options from this connection.
5. When you feel confused, stick with the process till you get somewhere.
Journaling is a great way to get connected with your feelings. Here’s an excerpt from Bill’s journal:
“What’s on my mind? Mostly I am connected to negative thoughts about Anne. She’s such a control freak, and all she cares about is keeping the house in perfect order. She’d rather clean the kitchen than make love. I’m sick of her and her anger. Actually I’m really angry at her, and I’d like to get even with her for how she mistreats me. She doesn’t seem to care about me, and I guess I feel hurt and lonely. What are my options?
I can tell Anne the truth about these feelings.
I can go on the way I have been, burying my feelings.
I can just move out and find a new place to live.
I could suggest counseling for the two of us.
I could have an affair.”
Bill was able to use “I” messages such as “I feel hurt when you don’t want to make love, and sometimes I want to get even.” He also learned to focus on telling Anne more about how he felt rather than what she was doing wrong. This helped Anne stay out of the defensive mode and motivated her to talk with Bill in a more caring manner. His effort and his clear communication prompted Anne to share that she felt hurt because of Bill’s sarcastic comments. Anne confessed that she distanced herself from Bill as a way of getting back at him.
Both Anne and Bill agreed to speak up about what they wanted and to work individually on keeping notes to develop a stronger connection to their thoughts and feelings. Gradually, both partners were able to connect with the full range of feelings and rekindle their former love and intimacy.
Healthy people know what they feel and what to do about it. Developing strong connections with feelings and being able to both contain and appropriately express those feelings are essential to developing exceptional relationships and mastering the challenges of life.
Patrice Wolters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with over 22 years of experience. She specializes in relationship therapy, child and adolescent therapy and in the early identification and treatment of mood disorders in teenagers and young adults. She has helped many couples revitalize their marriages, improve family functioning and create healthy environments for children and teens. Dr. Wolters is particularly interested in helping parents cultivate resiliency, responsibility and healthy relationships in their children and teens. Her trademark “Go from a Maze to Amazing” represents her model of therapy, which is based in the emerging area of positive psychology. For more information about her approach to change and to read various articles she has written, go to http://www.patricewolters.com.