Negative Emotions Are Opportunities for Connection in Relationships

Negative Emotions Are Opportunities for Connection in Relationships


The 3 Steps for Connecting Over “Bad” Emotions

As a listener, you can:

1) Calm Yourself:

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your partner’s pain, tell yourself that it’s important that you listen. It’s also valuable to remind yourself that you are not responsible for your partner’s happiness or their problems. Rather you are responsible for listening to their problems, which more often than not leads your partner to solve their own problem. Note: if the issue is about you, read this.


2) Seek to Understand without Judgement:

Problem-solving is only productive after your partner feels completely understood. You can do this by asking open-ended questions and statements that let your partner know that their feelings matter and that you care. Here are four examples:

  • “Tell me everything about this feeling.”
  • “I want to know how you’re seeing this.”
  • “What was that like for you?”
  • “This is important. Can you tell me more?”


3) Empathize:

Paraphrase back what your partner has said and done your best to feel how they feel about this issue. This demonstrates that you honor and understand their experiences.

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” – Stephen Covey

For example:

Your partner: “You should have been on the phone when my mother was talking to me. She is such a witch. Ugh. I can’t stand her.”
You: “It sounds like what she said really angered you. I can totally understand that. She can be harsh sometimes.”
Listening to Sadness
Crying about something tends to mean your partner has felt like they lost something meaningful. When your partner is sad, don’t try to cheer them up. Instead ask them, “What are those tears about?”


Listening to Anger

Don’t ever tell your partner to calm down. This dismissing statement backfires. Anger can be a protector of deeper feelings or a reaction to feeling blocked in some way. You can say, “I want to understand what this anger is about, this feels important.”


Listening to Fear

Don’t dismiss your partner’s fear. Instead ask, “What is so scary about this? Can you help me understand?”


Self-Edit What You Say Without Editing Feelings

If you’re the partner who is expressing your “bad” emotions, focus on putting your feelings into words and vulnerably sharing what the event meant about you as a person, lover, parent, worker, etc.

It will become impossible for your partner to connect with you over negative emotions if you criticize and attack them. You too have a responsibility in connecting with your listener by choosing how you say something.


What Do Emotions Mean to You?

When couples feel disconnected over their emotions, I encourage them to explore each other’s past and present, and experiences in the relationship. When partners do this well, they get a map of their partner’s emotional inner world with the laws they created to survive their childhood. Once partners understand this, they can begin constructing a shared emotional culture that deepens their emotional connection.


Giving the Gift of Attunement

Being there for your partner when they are upset is one of the best gifts you can give them.

It may be difficult to listen to your partner’s negative feelings such as sadness, anger, disappointment, or fear, especially if it’s directed at you, but it is valuable.

“Taking responsibility—even for a small part of the problem in communication—presents the opportunity for great repair.”― John M. Gottman

Negative emotions are like knights protecting the castle around your partner’s heart. If you can get past them by being kind and gentle, you’ll get to see the heart of your partner and learn how to love them better.

The goal is for you and your partner to feel comfortable expressing negative emotions in ways that allow both of you to listen without feeling attacked. That way the message on how to love each other better can create healing rather than injury.

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