How do we get so polarized and stuck in our relationships problems?

This post looks at the way that emotional sensitives contribute to the development and maintenance of problems in intimate relationships. It is the second in a series of posts that look at the four factors that contribute to couple problems. The three other factors include personal differences, external stressors and patterns of communication. However, for this post we’ll be focusing solely on the role of emotions.

What are emotional sensitivities and why do they matter?

The previous article looked at personal differences, which seems to make a lot of sense. If we tend to handle things differently, then surely that can lead to problems over time. However, what might be more hidden from view is what happens emotionally with partners during conflict. Emotional reactions can vary in strength and can be confusing to ourselves and our partners.

The problem is that we often share the wrong emotions.

What typically happens in arguments is that we share our surface “hard” emotions, like frustration and anger. It certainly makes sense that we share these feelings, and these emotions are often very legitimate. However, they tend to hide the fact that there are “hidden” softer emotions underneath. For example, Jill felt unimportant to Sean when he didn’t call to let her know he would be running late. However, this feeling became masked by her frustration and anger with him.

The problem is that hard emotions typically don’t exist without a softer more vulnerable emotion underneath. That’s just how emotions work, and there’s no way around it. We wouldn’t get angry if we weren’t hurting or wounded in some way. While our anger can be completely legitimate, it covers up an opportunity to work with a more powerful emotion – an emotion that has the potential to increase intimacy if shared in the right way.

Of course, it’s not that we’re intentionally hiding these underlying emotions. Oftentimes, we may be only dimly aware of them. It also may feel safer to share anger and frustration, rather than to make ourselves more vulnerable.

These more vulnerable emotions are our emotional sensitivities. They’re our buttons, our hotspots. When they get triggered, we have some kind of emotional reaction and it’s typically not pleasant.

Our partners are often not completely responsible for our sensitivities.

Certainly our relationship history with our partners can help develop or maintain our emotional sensitives. However, just as our partners are not responsible for our personality differences, they are not solely responsible our emotional sensitives.

Take, for example, Chuck and Susan. Chuck grew up in a family in which he felt criticized and demeaned by his father – never good enough for him. When things happen in his current relationship where he feels criticized, Chuck has a very strong emotional reaction of feeling not good enough, he becomes angry and then he withdraws. Likewise, Susan’s father left at an early age and she felt abandoned by him. When she senses Chuck withdrawing, she feels abandoned, gets angry and lashes out at him. Prior to seeking couples counseling, they had begun to become more and more polarized and less likely to share their underlying hurts.

Of course, emotional sensitivities can come from more than just our families of origin. They also come from our histories with our partners, past relationships, genetic makeup, and maybe even how the stars are aligned when we are born. The important bit though is that our partners are never fully responsible for what we are sensitive to, though they do often play a role in jointly creating the environment in which our sensitivities have continued to evolve over time.

So, what do we do with these emotional sensitivities?

Well, it seems to be human nature to avoid them. However, that also seems to be one of the most unhelpful things to do because it prevents us from having an opportunity to talk about what is really going on with use. One of the most powerful things that can be done in an intimate relationship is to build the skill of noticing and then sharing the softer vulnerable emotions underlying our hard emotions. This is no easy task, but it is vitally important for relationships.

When a couple gets to the point of being unable to identify, work with, or share these emotional sensitivities, it can often be a strong indication that they may be in need of professional marriage counseling. Evidence based therapies have consistently shown themselves to work effectively with the strong emotions experienced by couples and can help partners build the skills necessary to begin talking about their feelings in an intimacy-building way.

Our partners are often not completely responsible for our sensitivities.

Certainly our relationship history with our partners can help develop or maintain our emotional sensitives. However, just as our partners are not responsible for our personality differences, they are not solely responsible our emotional sensitives.

Take, for example, Chuck and Susan. Chuck grew up in a family in which he felt criticized and demeaned by his father – never good enough for him. When things happen in his current relationship where he feels criticized, Chuck has a very strong emotional reaction of feeling not good enough, he becomes angry and then he withdraws. Likewise, Susan’s father left at an early age and she felt abandoned by him. When she senses Chuck withdrawing, she feels abandoned, gets angry and lashes out at him. Prior to seeking couples counseling, they had begun to become more and more polarized and less likely to share their underlying hurts.

Of course, emotional sensitivities can come from more than just our families of origin. They also come from our histories with our partners, past relationships, genetic makeup, and maybe even how the stars are aligned when we are born. The important bit though is that our partners are never fully responsible for what we are sensitive to, though they do often play a role in jointly creating the environment in which our sensitivities have continued to evolve over time.

So, what do we do with these emotional sensitivities?

Well, it seems to be human nature to avoid them. However, that also seems to be one of the most unhelpful things to do because it prevents us from having an opportunity to talk about what is really going on with use. One of the most powerful things that can be done in an intimate relationship is to build the skill of noticing and then sharing the softer vulnerable emotions underlying our hard emotions. This is no easy task, but it is vitally important for relationships.

When a couple gets to the point of being unable to identify, work with, or share these emotional sensitivities, it can often be a strong indication that they may be in need of professional marriage counseling. Evidence based therapies have consistently shown themselves to work effectively with the strong emotions experienced by couples and can help partners build the skills necessary to begin talking about their feelings in an intimacy-building way.

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