Engaging Emotionally with Your Partner
One of the most common themes I see between hetero couples (some same-gender couples, but lots of hetero) is that they are speaking two different languages.
Not literally, obviously, but they may as well be. Couples will come into session, feeling infuriated, misunderstood, and irritated with the other. She's upset because he's not listening. He's upset because she doesn't make any sense. They both are trying to say their piece, but aren't getting through to one another.
My couple sessions, especially, are Gottman style (to the extent possible - I'm not fully certified at this point, but I've done the Level 1 training and will be continuing with the other trainings to get fully certified). This means that one piece of the first session is to have couples engage in a 'conflict discussion.' I tell them that they're open to talk about any conflict in their life - they can get mad, they can stay calm, or they can sit and stare daggers at each other. I just want them to talk about something they disagree on so that I can assess the four horsemen and conflict style. Both of which are important (surprisingly, the content of an argument isn't important - it's the style and presence of the horsemen that are telling). SO - I have couples engage in conflict discussion and then, more often than not, I notice one thing. I mean, there's lots of things to notice, but this piece is usually one of the first to show up. It's when couples are firing right past each other without realizing what the other is trying to say.
For instance, she says that she doesn't like when he goes out with his family because his brother is a bad influence. She doesn't trust his brother. He responds by saying that he hasn't done anything stupid with his brother in five years and that she's living in the past. She says she knows he's right, but that she doesn't like it. He asks for an example regarding why she doesn't like it. And so on and so forth. No resolution. In this case, no hatred or vile anger - just not being on the same page.
Here's the common theme - it's emotion-focused coping versus solution-focused coping.
This is about the feelings and thoughts behind an issue. It's the experience of the issue and there's no need to come to a solution. The solution is in the process, meaning that in talking about it, people feel better. This is what lots of women bring into the session (DISCLAIMER: NOT ALL WOMEN FALL INTO THIS CATEGORY - THIS IS A BROAD BRUSH STROKE). You can see this in the example above. She's trying to tell him that she's feeling nervous and uncomfortable about him going. She's heard his stories and doesn't like to think of him cavorting around as a single male. She's nervous.
If you couldn't already tell at this point, with hetero couples, this is where the men generally (not all the time) fall. And you can see it in the example above. He, on the other hand, doesn't understand why she doesn't trust his brother, why she's even talking about this, and why she won't hear him when he explains that she's mistaken. He's trying to solve each problem that she brings up by giving her responses to the content of what she's saying.
Both parties are missing each other.
The good news? This isn't really that big of a fix. I mean, it's habitual (probably partly genetic/biological and partly social), but it's not impossible, by any means, to change some things up and help both parties be heard even better.
Two quick things that can be done?
- Emotion-focused coper can learn to clearly articulate the feeling of what they're going through, as well as clearly state that they don't need an answer or solution right away, they just want to talk about their feelings.
- Solution-focused coper can learn to refrain from offering solutions right away and, instead, allow for partner to share feelings. A step further might even be attuning to those feelings by saying things like, "Sounds like you're anxious. Tell me about it." Or, "I'm sorry you're nervous about this. I wish I knew how to help you."
Also important - after an emotion-focused coper feels heard, the cherry on the sundae is that the solution-focused coper can then share their solution! Yippee!! This can come in one of two ways - the emotion-focused coper can state or ask for a solution to their problem, or the solution-focused coper can ask, "Would you be open to a suggestion of mine? I'd love to help you out with this, but I want to make sure you're in a place you can hear it."
Both parties will be happier, feel more heard, and feel more engaged with each other, rather than feeling confused, mistreated, and upset.