Author: Amy Di Francia, LMFT 105646
Let Me Set a Scene For You
Imagine there’s a couple, and one partner (let’s call him John) is stuck late at work. The other partner (let’s call her Sarah) is at home wondering when John will be home from the office, and fuming that he hasn’t called to say he’ll be late. When John finally does get home, he walks in the door and is immediately met with anger and resentment from Sarah:
“I’ve been waiting here for hours not knowing when you would be home! Why didn’t you call? Didn’t you think to call me? It’s like you never think about me at all!”
Feeling attacked and caught off guard, John has some options on how to respond. He can either match Sarah’s intensity with an attack of his own. Or he can withdraw into himself to avoid further attacks. With either choice, both John and Sarah are left feeling alone and isolated in the relationship. And a bigger fight is inevitably brewing under the surface…
Not Fighting About What Is Really Bothering You
As a marriage and family therapist I can say that most of the time when couples fight like this, they’re not actually fighting about what’s really bothering them. Let me explain…In most arguments there are two layers of emotion happening at the same time, that we’re not always aware of:
The first layer of emotions is called Primary Emotions –
This is the emotion we feel deep down in the core of our hearts. It’s usually a vulnerable emotion such as shame, hurt, or loneliness. Sometimes this emotion is buried so deep that we’re not even aware of what it is (which is one reason that being in your own individual therapy is helpful for your relationships as well!) The problem in arguments is that this vulnerable, primary emotion (if we’re even aware of it) is not usually what we show to our partners when we’re upset with them. Instead, we show them our second, more reactive layer of emotion.
The second layer of emotions is called Secondary Emotions –
This is a reaction to our more core and primary feelings of shame, hurt, loneliness, etc…
Let me explain: in the example above when John came home late from work, Sarah showed him her secondary emotion of anger and resentment. However, what Jane was probably actually feeling deep down in her heart was more vulnerable emotions like hurt, alone, or forgotten: hurt that John didn’t think to call her, hurt that she didn’t feel like a priority to him, and alone and forgotten in the relationship.
Vulnerability Can be Scary
This vulnerable, primary emotion can be a scary thing to show other people, which is why we usually show them the less vulnerable, secondary emotion instead. It feels a lot easier to show our partner’s anger than it is to show them vulnerability.
However, when we only show our partners secondary emotions and never let them into the primary, more vulnerable parts of our hearts, then the result will be a relationship that is filled with discontent and disconnection.
Healthy Relationships are In Touch With These Primary Emotions
In healthy relationships, on the other hand, both members of the couple are in touch with what their primary emotions are and feel safe enough to share those vulnerable primary emotions with one another.
Getting There is a Process
It can take work to get here. A lot of couples don’t feel comfortable enough to show their partner their primary emotions right away. After all, vulnerability requires trust in the other person to receive that vulnerability. This is where seeing a couple’s therapist in Couples Therapy can help you build that level of safety with one another. A good couples therapist can help you identify your own primary emotions. as well as that of your partner. While additionally also feeling safe enough to share those primary emotions. Therapy is also a great way to help you identify what primary emotion is consistently being activated in arguments.
Stop and Ask Yourself These Questions
So the next time you’re in an argument with a significant other, I encourage you to stop and ask yourself these two questions:
- What emotion am I SHOWING my partner?
- What emotion am I actually FEELING?
If the emotion you are showing your partner does not match up with the core emotion that you are actually feeling, then you’ll keep having the same fights over and over. Additionally, you likely won’t feel seen, understood, or validated by your partner.
Are You Ready to Begin Deciphering The Emotions in Your Arguments? Reach Out to a Couples Therapist for Couples Therapy in Burbank, CA, Today!
If you find yourself caught in recurring arguments with your partner. Or if the emotions being expressed don’t align with the deeper, more vulnerable feelings you’re experiencing, it may be time to seek help and build a stronger connection. As a marriage and family therapist, I understand the importance of addressing these underlying emotions. I also understand that fostering an environment of safety and understanding. Couples Therapy can provide the guidance and support needed to identify and express your primary emotions. This can create a space where both you and your partner feel seen, validated, and accepted. Are you ready to break the cycle of repetitive fights and strengthen your relationship? Reach out to one of our experienced couples therapists today. Take the first step towards a deeper, more fulfilling connection with your partner.
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Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. 2nd Ed. Taylor & Francis, 2004.