Relationships are emotional bonds and disruptions to those bonds lead to emotional pain. It takes teamwork to manage emotional pain.
Most important, feelings like love, joy and happiness as well as anxiety, anger and pain may arise at any time. We can have many feelings at the same time, and confusingly, some can be the exact opposite of others. For example we can feel joy, pain and guilt at the same time.
We all need emotion regulation skills
So discovering the origins of these feelings, and learning skills to deal with them, is essential for successful relationships. Not only does it take teamwork to manage emotional pain, it firstly requires developing individual emotion regulation skills. If you don’t have the skills yourself, you won’t be able to play well in a team.
It’s not uncommon for insecurity, jealousy, and conflict to suddenly override the feelings of connection, love and safety – especially if you lack skills for dealing with conflict. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, and conflict brings up many feelings. It is scientifically proven that feelings will hijack our thinking brain, especially if you don’t practice emotion regulation skills.
First, a word of warning
The advice below is not appropriate if you are in a relationship where you feel unsafe or abused. This needs a completely different approach – often requiring exit strategies and safety plans. If your partner is violent, abusive, heavily controlling, accuses you of being crazy or threatens your safety in any way, please seek help immediately. You cannot deal with this alone. Call RESPECT – 1800 737 732, or go to these websites RESPECT and White Ribbon Australia for support.
A typical relationship conflict in my practice
Andrea and Jacob each had individual histories of feeling unloved and rejected. It is a psychological truth that our choice in partners is mostly unconscious. We are often attracted to someone who feels “familiar” to us initially. This means we can find ourselves with someone whose schemas or scripts interlock with ours.
Schemas and scripts are formed due to our different histories, personalities and neurobiologies. When triggered, they bring up familiar feelings and old ways of coping with them. Because people are different, in any relationship conflict we will deal with these feelings in different ways.
When Andrea felt unloved or rejected, her scripts led her to turn against herself, to internalize and withdraw, engaging in self-harming behaviours she believed she’d conquered ages ago. Jacob’s scripts led him to externalize, to turn against others. He burst into jealous anger when he felt insecure about Andrea not paying him enough attention. Below are some of the skills I coached this couple to develop. They both needed to individually learn emotional regulation skills and after that to practice teamwork to manage emotional pain.
Speaking respectfully and listening non-defensively
Andrea and Jacob’s first step is to learn emotion regulation skills to calm themselves down. Only then will each be able to take turns in speaking and listening. Each must accept that their partner has their own valid perspective about what triggered their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. They are separate people with different bodies, brains and histories, so they have unique responses to the same stimulus.
Speaking respectfully means owning our own reactions. No-one “makes us” feel anything. If Andrea is the first speaker, she must learn to clearly describe: a) what she observed during a conflict b) the meaning she gave to it c) the feelings which came up and d) what Jacob could do to make it better for her. She can ask for what she wants, but must not be attached to getting it. For this, she needs to be able to have emotion regulation skills.
Listening non-defensively means being able to recap your partner’s experience of the conflict to your partner’s satisfaction. The aim is to help your partner feel heard and understood. As the first listener, Jacob must learn to put his views aside by first practicing emotion regulation skills. His sole task as a listener is to let Andrea know he’s trying to understand what happened for her. He will get a chance to explain his own valid perspective when it’s his turn to speak. He also has the right to agree to do what she wants him to do. If he can’t or won’t, he must learn to explain why he can’t do it, plus, and this is very important, offer an alternative proposal. This is the start of learning the vital skills of negotiation and compromise.
Take turns in speaking and responding
When it was Jacob’s turn to speak respectfully, he said that that when Andrea listened to him, he immediately felt calmer. He said Andrea’s willingness to listen to him was what he needed to manage the jealous, angry feelings that often flooded him. What he wanted from her was her promise to listen when he asked for it and to apologise for behaviours that made him jealous.
Then it was Andrea’s turn to respond, and she bravely said “No” to his request. The reason she gave for this was that at times Jacob demanded apologies for things that triggered him, even if she hadn’t done them. “And if I don’t apologise repeatedly, you punish me,” she said. “What I’d like is for you to take responsibility for your emotions by calming down first and arranging a time to speak with me that suits us both. Then we can hear each other’s points of view and decide together what to do.”
Jacob reacted angrily to Andrea’s response. They’d reached a stalemate, so I stepped in to coach them.
It’s your job to manage your feelings
As their therapist, I challenged Jacob to take some responsibility in this situation. If he depended entirely on Andrea to “make him” feel better, he was giving her full responsibility for his emotional well-being.
I said to him “Listening is an important and necessary skill in all intimate relationships. It may help you when Andrea listens in a triggered moment Jacob, but as a way of managing your overall emotional well-being it’s not helpful. What happens if you get triggered and Andrea’s at work or asleep? Your reactions are informed by your unique nervous system, history and personality. Her listening can’t totally erase your painful issues, especially those coming from your past”.
Self-soothing is a fundamental skill
Instead of expecting Andrea to be his only resource, Jacob must take responsibility for healing his old wounds. These shape his present anxieties. Andrea may (or may not) have done something to trigger his old wounds, but it’s his job to manage his reactivity first. This is an inside job; no-one can do it for him. Good communication is learning to speak about your emotions, not from your emotions.
“You may not want to hear this”, I said, “but the job of healing our childhood hurts is ours. It’s our own responsibility. What happened to you over many years in your past cannot be magically erased by Andrea’s listening or by her apologies. These are important, if she actually did do something, but they are not everything.”
I coached Jacob to come up with different, healthy ways he could self-soothe when he was flooded by emotions. His feelings of being unloved and rejected were the underlying triggers for his jealousy, anger and insecurity. Having a written list of things he could do to self-soothe, is one of the first conflict management skills I teach couples.
Andrea also needed to create her own self-soothing list. This counselling session was helpful for Andrea because for a long time she’d felt powerless and inadequate when her caring and attention didn’t fully resolve Jacob’s anger and jealousy. I explained that her task was to let go of her guilt and responsibility for his feelings. She needed to remember that it was Jacob’s responsibility to manage his own feelings. She could help by listening and supporting him in healthy ways, but it was unhelpful to apologise for things she hadn’t done.
Good relationship teamwork
So you can see how it takes teamwork to manage emotional pain. But before you can work in a team, you have to be able to manage yourself first. Teamwork requires the necessary work of differentiation. Differentiation is vital if you want a healthy, successful relationship. It consists of three steps:
- looking within and getting clear on what you think, what you feel and what you want
- holding steady while you communicate this to your partner
- managing your own anxiety in the face of your partner being different from you and/or wanting something different than you do.
Differentiation is vital for good teamwork
To make clear contracts and agreements between you, you have to learn how to identify and respectfully say what you think, feel and want. Differentiation is the foundation for good teamwork and to managing emotional pain. Teamwork needs two adults balanced on their own two feet, being responsible for their own feelings, thoughts and behaviours while working towards a joint relationship vision. Each partner takes responsibility for themselves first, so they can work together as a team to deal with the inevitable difficulties that all couples encounter.
Just like the different players in a football team, each individual practices and plays their own position, to their best ability. This makes them a good individual sportsperson. When they get picked to work in a team, they must continue to do their own individual practice, while working with all the other team members towards their team’s success. The team works together to achieve the team’s vision. This is the model for building a successful relationship.
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