Emotionally Intelligent Relationships: Part 1

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?”
Marcus Aurelius

There is a myth that perhaps comes from Californian psychology of the sixties that we should express all our emotions – that in close intimate relationships we should always tell our partner how we feel particularly if we are angry or upset at something. However, more recent psychological thinking suggests that this may not always be the case.

Expressing unprocessed anger to our partners, in the form of criticisms, put downs or even contempt, tends to escalate the original rows, increase negative feelings and almost certainly does damage to our relationship in the long term (and ironically is unlikely to gain us the satisfaction we are looking for). While it might feel better in the short term to get our negative feelings off our chest, it can come at great cost to our close relationships especially if it these exchanges occur frequently and when the relationships are already under strain.

Happiness and satisfaction in long term marriages and love relationships are primarily about feelings and emotions. Relationships flourish when we feel primarily feelings of love, security, fondness, and admiration but suffer when we are overtaken by resentment, anger, feelings of insecurity and jealousy. The key to being happy in learning to cultivate our positive feelings towards our partner, and even more importantly to understand and manage negative emotions so they don’t get out of hand.

However, perfectly matched we are, experiencing negative emotions is normal in all long term relationships especially when the stresses and strains of building a life together, where we are dependent on the other person, with different interests and personalities to accommodate.

What seems to matter though and what distinguishes happy content couples from distressed unhappy ones is the ratio of negative to positive feelings. In a fascinating study, which observed the daily interactions of a large number of married couples marriage researcher John Gottman actually pinpointed this ratio be five to one: Happy content couples had five times more positive to negative interchanges with one another whereas with unhappy couples this ratio dropped to one to one.

Whether you agree with the number or not, we can tentatively conclude that while conflicts and negative emotions are normal in healthy relationships (and perhaps even essential to passionate and intimate relationships) we need to cultivate many more positive emotional experiences than negative ones to ensure we both feel happy and content.

While this may be easy when your relationship is going well or when you are still within an ‘in love’ period, it becomes much harder when your relationship is under strain or going through a rocky patch. One aspect of emotions is that they tend to be self-reinforcing: While positive emotions create more positive experiences and thus further positive emotions etc, negative emotions act in the same reverse cycle and couples under strain get trapped into destructive cycles of negative emotions.

Ongoing conflicts lead to attack, defence and escalation and become a repetitive vicious circle that deepen conflicts and over time erode a relationship. Sadly, when overwhelmed by these negative feelings couples can disengage from one another, and separate even though there is a lot to lose for them both and still great potential in their relationship

The key to breaking this cycle and getting a relationship back on track is take a moment to understand what is going on. When working with couples in conflict, my first piece of advice is to ‘press the pause button’ as a negative interchange starts – the invitation is to pause, to pull back and take a deep breath, to understand what is going one and then to choose more positive way to respond. The good news is that it often only requires one person to ‘ press the pause button’ for this to work – an argument only continues if both parties continue it and only one person needs to change for a relationship to change.

The second step is to learn how to understand, distil and express your own negative feelings in way that doesn’t do damage to your partner or your relationship. While it might be important to say how we feel it is crucial not take out our negative feelings on our partner or to blame them for them. The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg proposes a model of ‘non-violent communication’ in intimate relationships which centres on empathic listening and taking responsibility for your own feelings..

As well as communicating your own feelings, learning to understand your partner’s negative feelings is equally crucial. When hearing your partner express anger towards you it is easy to react defensively and to reach with anger and criticism in return or on the other extreme to cut off and not communicate at all. In a healthy relationship, however, managing and soothing your partners negative emotions is as crucial as learning to soothe and manage your own. It is in fact the couples who learn to empathically understand, de-escalate, and distract their partners negative emotions (sometimes even with humour) who do best.

Whatever way you choose to communicate what matters is that you come across as genuine and respectful to your partner and different things work for different people.

One partner could feel patronised if they thought you were using a formal listening skill when they were annoyed, but instead prefer you to simply be silent and/or show reassuring affection. While one person may want to talk through details of a dispute immediately another person may want some space and talk about it later. The key is to find a way that works for you and your partner. For example, some couples raise most conflicts only indirectly and briefly and instead diffuse their annoyance using humour or a distracting to another lighter topic. Other couples are happy to have a full-blown row, because it is over quickly clearing the air and they make up quickly and stay connected.

Negative emotions, disappointments and ongoing conflicts are part and parcel of most long term partnerships, however, happy couples learn to manage these emotions so they don’t escalate and overwhelm the relationship. Successful couples find a way of living with disappointments, talking about them in non toxic ways (sometimes even with humour and lightness), putting them into perspective and counter-balancing them with the other joys, happiness and satisfaction that is in their in the relationship.

Managing conflicts and negative emotions in your relationship 
When angry or upset with your partner – Press the ‘pause button’, take a deep breath and think how to express your feelings in a positive constructive way.
For example, instead of reacting angrily when you feel let down by your partner’s lateness you could respond as follows:

1) Starting positive – ‘It means a lot to me when you take over with the kids in the evening’
2) Owning feelings – ‘When you come home late, I feel annoyed because I am tired and waiting for you to help with the kids’.
3) Making positive requests – ‘I need you to be on time in the evening’
4) Listening in return – ‘What do you think?’

When your partner expresses anger to you, try not to react angrily or defensively in return (and/or cut off and not respond). Instead pause and try to respond is a helpful way that deescalates the negative feelings. This can include:
– Listening ‘Tell me what is wrong’
– Soothing ‘Let me make you a cup of tea’
– Positive assertion  ‘I know you are upset, but no need to take it out on me – I’m on your side’
– Humour ‘Lets take a chill pill for a moment’

Though often the most effective, humour is often the most riskiest and requires there to be an ongoing joke both partners enjoy! The key is to be sensitive and empathic to find a way that works for you and your partner. If what you do increases the anger towards you, take a pause and try another strategy!

In balance, regularly create positive times and experiences with your partner. Cultivate your positive feelings such as enjoyment, gratitude, admiration, love etc, by recalling and dwelling upon happy shared experiences and by seeking to
express these positive emotions as frequently as possible.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2009. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every second Tuesday.
Read Part 2  and Part 3 of this series on relationships.