Emotions are incredibly complicated and it’s not uncommon for our emotions to get us into trouble when communicating with our spouse or partner. Have you ever said exactly the thing that you know will hurt your partner or make them upset? Chances are you have. Did it get you what you wanted and improve your relationship? Chances are it didn’t. Why do we say hurtful things, things that we know will push us further from having the relationship that we want, and then continue to do so over and over in our relationships? Well, emotions are complicated.

Emotions in relationships.

Emotions are not “things”, they are behaviors. They are a complex process that we go through akin to walking or talking. Neuroscience has shown us that there are numerous biological and biochemical factors that influence or emotions. However, the ways that we label (accurately or inaccurately) and express our emotions, as well as how aware we are of them greatly impacts our experiences of our emotions.

Additionally, the ways that we respond to our partners contributes to how we experience our emotions. When we engage in understanding and validating responses it actually helps to soothe our own difficult emotions. However, when we engage in critical and invalidating responses, we end up feeling our emotions even more strongly and increase our own hurt – exactly the opposite of what we’d ultimately like to achieve.

Getting to that point of acting out-of-control.

When we become emotionally aroused, our cognitive and physical action systems are also affected. That means that when we can regulate and manage our difficult emotions, we can also help to regulate our ability to think about our situation and how we act – hopefully acting in ways that increase closeness and intimacy. However, when we become overly emotionally aroused we begin to focus narrowly on trying to get out of, or escape, our difficult feelings.

This point would often be what we call “out of control” – a state in which our thinking and acting is hampered in a way that we are no longer thinking and behaving in “rational way” but rather focused on trying to get out of our emotional state. So, being “out-of-control” isn’t the same as being angry or distressed. Rather, it’s that point in which we start doing things that may hurt the other person but is really focused on us trying not to feel the feelings we are having.

While this may seem extreme, these types of states and behaviors happen frequently, comprising most of the times in which we say hurtful, nagging, critical, or invalidating things to our partner. They also have the potential to last only a few seconds or a much longer time. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing criticisms or concerns, the point is that it usually makes things worse in our relationships.

So, we should all just roll over and not express our difficult feelings and thoughts, right?

Wrong! The answer isn’t to become a doormat. The answer is to break the cycle – learning how to respond to difficult feelings in a way that deescalates difficult feelings without giving in, increases closeness, and opens up opportunities instead of shutting them down.

Evidence based couples therapies have consistently been shown to increase closeness, improve the ability to communicate effectively and assertively (not aggressively) about difficult feelings, and begin to move towards more validating relationship patterns.

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