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Couples

How to reduce defensiveness when things get heated

There’s so much confrontation around these days, often fanned by social media, but often it just leads to people sticking in their own bubble and not really hearing what the other side is saying

And that often occurs also in couple relationships. Each person feels misunderstood and not really listened to and so defensiveness enters the interaction and feelings escalate.

Confrontation is sometimes necessary. But, generally, for things to improve in the longer term it’s important for both sides to feel respected and heard.

This struck me when listening to a BBC Radio Four documentary about reducing escalations when police officers are questioning someone. In the programme Robin Engel, a University of Cincinatti criminologist, says that what seems to work is when police are trained to slow things down and build rapport with the person they are questioning.

When officers take a bit of time to build rapport with someone they have stopped by, for example, using the person’s name or adopting a friendly tone, there is less likelihood of violence. 

It turns out that when someone stopped by police feels they are being treated in a respectful way, they are less likely to become defensive and more likely to be cooperative. 

This is a finding confirmed by Ian Leslie in his book Conflicted*, which argues that the beginnings of any potentially challenging interaction are extremely important. When, at the beginning, an attempt is made to connect with the other person, it is far more likely to result in a constructive discussion even if there are important differences between the two people. 

Leslie says: “Humans have a deep rooted tendency to respond to each other in kind”. He adds that we take our cues from the person we’re talking to. If they seem interested in us and our ideas, we will tend to treat them in a similar way. If we feel they’ve made their mind up about us and we feel judged, then almost inevitably we will be closed and defensive.

I think much of this applies to couple relationships. When our partner does something we don’t like it is common to want to tell them what they’ve done ‘wrong’. Frequently, this then leads to a familiar argument in which both partners try to show they’re right.

What happens in couple disagreements is we often find ourselves in a power struggle. We’ve moved away from a disagreement towards a zero-sum ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ position. By that point both partners have given up listening to the other person.

What can help build rapport in couple therapy is reflective listening. In this approach partner A says something that they feel is important. Partner B just listens and then repeats back to partner A what they heard. Partner A is given the opportunity to correct partner B’s summary is anything important has been missed out.

It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder to do. This is because we are so used to only half listening to our partner, especially if they are saying something critical. Reflective listening forces us to listen and take in what they are saying. For both partners, being listened to in this way can break the logjam of poor communication and enable the building of rapport over time.

*Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber and Faber, London.

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Discussion Individuals

The beliefs we hold about ourselves without realising it

“We can drive ourselves to be successful and realize later that we are further and further from ourselves.”

James Hollis

There’s a great story told by childhood trauma specialist Gabor Mate about a woman who has an awakening, after being diagnosed with cancer. 

It focuses on the internal beliefs of this person, formed when she was a child and which have kept her living a life trying to please others. When she begins to act more authentically, which means working out what it is that she wants, rather than what others want, things begin to change dramatically.

This story reminds me of how, as children, we’re always interpreting the world and making it about us. Children are, in a very normal way, narcissistic. What I mean is that children relate what is happening in their immediate environment, and particularly in their families, to themselves.

So, if their parents get divorced many children will feel in some way responsible. If they have a parent who treats them badly, children will tend to blame themselves. This is in order to avoid acknowledging that their parent is unloving as that thought is too overwhelming to a child who depends on the parent for survival. 

In order to keep the parent as ‘good’, the child must become ‘bad’.

Of course, none of this is conscious. The child is forming these beliefs at an unconscious level. But the beliefs are nonetheless very powerful in creating that child’s sense of self.

The beliefs may be things like, “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me”, or “I am not lovable”, or “I am only of value to the extent that I help others”.

As the child grows up these internal beliefs shape their personality. They may develop defence mechanisms, such as a need to succeed in their career, or even a ‘false self’, which means a personality shaped in order to win approval or validation. This occurs at an unconscious level, but there are clues that this has happened, such as a feeling of emptiness, flatness or disconnection from others.

Sometimes it requires a life shock in order for the person to realise that something is seriously out of kilter in their psychological foundations. This could be a marriage breakdown, a heath emergency, an addiction crisis, or a breakdown.

Then may come the slow, patient process in therapy of uncovering the beliefs of childhood and the formation of an inauthentic self. Over time, and with the help of the therapeutic relationship, the individual can gradually get to know themselves and work out what they really want and how they want to live.

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Why goal setting is more complicated than you think

I’ve been thinking about goals – how having goals can sometimes make us feel we’re doing something important to ‘improve’ ourselves but actually, sometimes, goal setting can get in the way of change.

At first glance my comment may seem strange. After all, it seems to be a natural part of the personal development process to have goals, as it also often is in our work life or our hobbies.

But while goals can be a helpful way of motivating ourselves, they can also bring their own limitations. 

Think of new year’s resolutions – how often do we start out with great motivation but then gradually let them fade?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that goals have several limitations. These include the fact that they provide a temporary satisfaction, when we meet them, but don’t always change the underlying beliefs and assumptions that underlie the behaviour. 

He adds that goals also create an either/or situation, in which either I meet this goal and am a success or I don’t and I’m a failure.

While Clear argues that it is not goals but systems that are important in achieving improvements, I prefer viewing this subject through the context of values. In a way systems, in the way that Clear uses the term, are similar to values, i.e., the quality of action or behaviour that we are choosing to value.

Therapist Jenna LeJeune talks about this in her book Values in Therapy, noting that it is our values that determine our direction in life and that goals can be the milestones. But without values, goals can become arbitrary and sometimes even damaging, believes Lejeune.

She says: “Behaviour focussed on outcomes (goals) often has a more instrumental quality – it’s more of a means to an end. A glow such as working to obtain money or dressing a certain way to be admired often functions as a means to an end rather than something important in and of itself.”

For example, I have had a goal of getting up early to meditate and reflect before breakfast. It’s a useful goal and it has helped me develop a positive habit that nourishes me. But the goal emerged from work on my values. 

One of my values is giving myself space and time to connect with myself and to reflect. This helps me feel more centred and satisfied in my life. The goal of an early morning meditation is an expression of that value.

This means that on those days when I don’t achieve the goal I don’t beat myself up. Instead, I focus on the general direction of travel and may try and find a space later in the day for reflection. 

Despite the limitations of goals, I do find that they can be helpful in focusing attention and as a motivation in creating positive habits. We just need to acknowledge that they must be linked to deeper values or desires.

Image creative common licence, https://utechod.com/beyond-smart-goals/

LeJeune, Jenna, (2020), Values in Therapy, Context Press, Oakland, CA.

Clear, James, (2018), Atomic Habits, Random House

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Uncategorized

Don’t try so hard to be your ‘best self’

“[Our] refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality.”

Robert A. Johnson

Striving for our ‘best self’ can set up a difficult dynamic

A brief internet search on ‘best self’ throws up articles such as these: ’10 powerful ways to be your best self!’, ‘The complete guide to becoming your best self’, ‘How to be your best self and get what you want in life!’

And there’s a lot more like these. 

But is this focus on trying to be your best self always helpful? I’m not sure.

Instead of trying to be our ‘best self’, why can’t we just allow ourselves to be…well, ourselves?

Of course, most of us want to ‘improve’ in some way, whether that means being kinder, less irritable, harder working or more patient.

But I’m wary that too rigid a focus on being our ‘best self’ can become another stick to beat ourselves with. For those of us with fierce inner critics, which probably means most of us, the ‘best self’ ideal can be another goal to struggle with, another thing to fail at.

There’s more than a hint of perfectionism in the ‘be your best self’ message. The implication is that the parts of ourselves that we don’t like (or that other people feel uncomfortable with) must be denied or suppressed.

But it leaves out our human frailties, the mistakes we make, the times when we are far from our ‘best selves’ – when we’re irritable with our children or partner, flop out on the sofa watching reality TV, or drink one glass of wine too many.

There’s a place for effort and striving in our lives, but if that takes centre stage it can also lead us to shame ourselves when we fail to live up to an ideal. 

For those of us who may have been criticised as children for not achieving, that’s a painful place to find ourselves.

In my view, a more interesting approach is to become curious about ourselves and our behaviour, especially when we find ourselves engaged in behaviour that negatively affects our relationships, work or self esteem. 

Rather than judging ourselves, can we instead reflect on (or get help in therapy) the behaviours that seem unhelpful. Sometimes when we take amore enquiring attitude we can understand why we behaved in that way. We may discover an unmet need that the behaviour was responding to, albeit in an unhealthy way.

With more awareness of ourselves and what underlies our behaviour we can find ways to honour the different parts of ourselves, including the parts that we find difficult. 

That honouring may take the form of expressing those parts in our relationships or it could be finding a way of honouring that is more symbolic and less about literal expression, such as working with our creativity. The important point is that we have an accepting attitude to the different parts our ourselves rather than a judging attitude.

Image Creative Commons, www.snappygoat.com

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Uncategorized

Love’s disappointments

“In promoting expectations of unending bliss and security, the dream of love sets us up for shock and disillusionment.”

John Welwood

 This is a blog post about the other side of love. This is not the ‘heart skipping a beat’ of early passion or the merging of lovers in the belief that they are ‘soul mates’.

It is, rather, those feelings we may have after the honeymoon period and in the years following. The times when we feel unappreciated or misunderstood by our partner. The times when we may question if we’re with the right person at all. They seem more interested in their work, the kids, their friends, the TV, than in us!

I think feelings of disappointment in our partner are almost inevitable. This is because it is impossible for them to carry all the expectations, conscious and unconscious, that we bring to intimate relationships.

But it is in dealing with these disappointments that we can, potentially, grow and develop. It gives us the opportunity to create a love that is more realistic and authentic.

As psychologist Thomas Moore says in Care of the Soul*, “Many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock bottom experiences of love.”

When we embark on our intimate relationship we feel passionate and excited. This person seems to love us for who we are and we find them delightful. They make us feel complete.

Of course, both partners are probably showing their best side, or what they think is their best side, in the early stages of love. Sooner or later, usually within a couple of years, things begin to change – perhaps accelerated by moving in together or having children.

No longer charming

Those qualities that we first found so charming may begin to irritate us. They leave their socks on the bedroom floor, they love that awful TV show that we disdain, they’re more interested in football/shopping than in us. 

When kids arrive these tendencies may continue, especially if the couple have different parenting styles and new frictions emerge.

But I think it is important that our early expectations of being uniquely understood and accepted by our partner are punctured. This puncturing may lead to feelings of disappointment, anger or depression. We can become critical of our partner or withdraw.

As Moore says: “Our love of love and our high expectations  that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience.”

Without meaning to sound glib, however, through pain can come learning. 

There is the chance for us to come to terms with these disappointments and see them not as an indictment of our partner but rather as a natural process in relationships. It is the recognition that our partner is an individual with their own qualities and flaws, like the rest of us.

The question is can we learn to let go of the expectation that our partner is going to look after us and heal those wounds we suffered as children? Can we let go of the idea – often unconsciously held – that they are the perfect parent we never had?

* Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, 1992, Piatkus, London.

Image Creative Commons from pixels.com, https://tinyurl.com/46yrphh7

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Discussion Individuals Uncategorized

The myth of the idyllic childhood

Very often when I ask a new client about their childhood they reply that it was happy or even ‘idyllic’.

When I hear this I’m sometimes tempted to say, ‘People with happy childhoods don’t usually end up in therapy’, as  an old supervisor of mine used to say.

Usually though, I prefer to allow their story to unfold over the coming sessions.

Typically, those people responding that they had a happy childhood will refer to material things, such as ‘we always had nice holidays’. But they far less frequently talk about the emotional aspects of their families and whether their own emotional needs were met.

Sometimes, I pick up a rather defensive message from these clients, that everything was fine in their family growing up and they don’t really want to take about it further, These are often the clients who want a quick fix solution or a ‘strategy’ to deal with whatever painful experience it is that has brought them to therapy.

Emotional challenges

But if they stay long enough, as I get to know the client better, it often emerges that they struggled with some quite deep emotional challenges when they were children.

Perhaps they had parents who were unhappy with each other, an emotionally distant father or a mother who was critical. Or perhaps a sibling who outshone them or who bullied them. They may have been the family ‘star’, who was pressured to succeed, or the ‘responsible’ child who was not allowed to have their own needs.

So, why the desire to present an image of happy families?

I think in most cases it’s not an intentional misrepresentation but a story we tell ourselves. We love our parents and don’t like to feel disloyal, so it’s understandable we would try to preserve their images, in our own minds and also with others.

It is also often the case that we forget, or play down, the bad times when we look back. It’s not uncommon for people who have had very difficult childhoods to have memory blocks for much of that time.

Cultural messages

There is also a cultural message many of us receive that it is wrong, unfair or childish to blame our parents and so we can take on a persona of the ‘well adjusted’ adult who takes responsibility for their life. 

While I agree that personal responsibility is important, it is also important to be able to acknowledge what happened in our childhood that may have affected us and how we relate to the world.

My belief is that none of us had a ‘happy’ childhood. By that I don’t mean that we necessarily had an unhappy upbringing or that our parents were cruel to us, just that, as well as providing lots of good things, it was impossible for our parents not to let us down in certain ways. 

Our parents were flawed human beings, as we all are, and how they responded to our emotional needs as children will have been influenced by their own childhoods.

When we can acknowledge what emotional wounds we may have received growing up and find a new way of relating to those wounds, something inside us can begin to shift. It may involve feeling grief and/or anger. It is a process that takes time.

Ultimately, it is embarking on this process that allows us to give a place to those early wounds and to come into a different relationship with ourselves and, over time, our family of origin.

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Image from Pixabay, Creative Commons licence, https://tinyurl.com/1q6kvlbl

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Discussion Individuals

The value of the therapeutic ‘action replay’

I find one of the most effective techniques when helping people look at their behaviour is the ‘action replay’.

 A bit like how football pundits on Match of the Day examine a dramatic incident on the pitch, the therapeutic action replay looks in detail at an incident in the ciient’s life.

In the TV action replay there may be different camera angles showing a different perspective on a disallowed goal or alleged foul. In the same way, the therapeutic action replay can sometimes reveal different meanings.

For example, a client may talk about an argument with their partner, a family member or friend, how the other person was being unreasonable or selfish.

 I’ll invite the client to try and remember exactly what was said by both parties and how he or she felt at different stages of the interaction.

Drilling into the detail

Drilling down into the detail is important.  When we have an actual interaction described with what was said and felt, it comes to life much more than when we say, “I could tell my boyfriend was annoyed with me so I told him where to get off!”

The quote above contains judgments – how did the person know her boyfriend was annoyed with her? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Without checking it out with him it’s hard to know for sure.  

When we’re able to break down the argument into its different parts we can often she new light on what might have been going on for both people.

It can sometimes mean the client is able to see things from their partner’s point of view, or perhaps see themes in the incident that link to other things we’ve talked about in the therapy.

For example, when slowing down an incident it may become clear that the client has made certain assumptions about the person they’ve had conflict with. Their partner may have said or done something that the client interpreted as a criticism. The client then reacts to that perceived criticism and escalates the argument.

The assumptions we make

In intimate relationships a common situation is where one partner is quiet or withdrawn and the other partner interprets this as anger and feels that they are being blamed for something. This can lead partner two to say something like, “Why are you so miserable?” Or “You’re always annoyed with me about something.”

This reaction then leads partner one to feel judged or misunderstood and they then react with irritation.

Helping the client see that they made an assumption that the silence was a sign of anger or disapproval is important. They can then hold the possibility that their assumption was incorrect – perhaps their partner was just tired or worried about an unrelated matter. 

A further level to this kind of interaction could be that the client had a parent who would become quiet or withdrawn when angry with their child. 

Again, this is the kind of theme that can be explored in the therapy, thanks to the information provided by the action replay.

I think one of the reasons the action replay can be so helpful is because so much more is going on in our everyday encounters than we realise. Much of our behaviour in relationships is automatic or unconscious, so looking at an incident in detail allows us to bring deeper feelings and assumptions to conscious awareness.

Photo creative commons licence, https://tinyurl.com/3hh5sd3b

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Uncategorized

How strong emotions bring meaning to our life

I’m a big fan of meditation and mindfulness. Being able to introduce a feeling of calm, when we feel buffeted by our emotions, can be really valuable. 

But perhaps we have not sufficiently valued the intense emotions we sometimes experience – both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ – in shaping our life.

Intense emotions sometimes get a bad press. They are somehow seen as extreme or dangerous and a threat to our ‘rational’ selves. Many of us may feel uncomfortable being around someone who seems very sad or angry. For some of us even intense feelings of joy can feel uncomfortable. 

Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology finds that people reported intense emotional experiences as being extremely important in giving their life meaning.

Previously, some people had argued that it was positive experiences, such as a wedding day, that were most important. While others believed that negative experiences, such as battling against a personal challenge, were most influential. The study on intense emotional states showed that it was not whether an experience was good or bad that was important, but rather the intensity of the experience.

I think this shows the importance of our emotions in shaping who we are and how we see ourselves. While it’s important to be able to question what we are feeling and not allow our feelings to be our only source of information, at the same time it is our emotions that shape who we are.

It is these intense emotional experiences that can lead us to reflect on our life and how we are leading it. In some cases these experiences can enable us to drop our defences and become more open to relationship with others.

In my own case I can think of experiences where I’ve allowed my vulnerability to be seen by others and, while this has often felt scary it’s also enabled a feeling of connection and being ‘seen’ . 

It also suggests to be the importance of being willing to step outside our usual environment. Many of us create an environment where we can feel in control. While that keeps us feeling ‘safe’ it may also smother excitement and unexpected experiences. While we may need routines and the familiar, we also need the challenge of the unexpected or of a different environment where we feel less sure of ourself.

I need to stay aware of this because I have a tendency to stick to the known and predictable. If I’m feeling in my familiar environment I feel safe, but after a while it can feel a bit too safe and even verging on the dull.

I don’t think we need to start doing extreme sports in order to achieve these intense emotions, but we could begin to allow ourselves a deeper emotional range. Noticing our judgment of our emotions is one place to start. 

As psychologist Robin Skynner says of sadness, though it could apply to other strong emotions also: “When we’re sad it’s a rich deep emotion and it makes us feel very alive, even though it hurts.”

That quote sheds some light on the value of deep emotions. They may sometimes feel scary or uncomfortable  – even, for some of us, the ‘positive’ ones – but they play an essential role in our development as human beings and our sense of  meaning.

Image, Creative Commons, https://tinyurl.com/1uq0u8zk

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Discussion Individuals

The dangers of spiritual bypass

I’ve had quite a few clients who have a spiritual practice but who are finding that that is not enough to cope with some personal challenges. 

They may meditate or pray regularly, and perhaps attend a church, Buddhist centre or some other spiritual group. And yet they do not seem able to shake the problem that brings them to therapy – which could be a relationship issue, anger management, addiction, depression or some other problem that seems intractable.

It sometimes turns out that these clients have had a ‘spiritual bypass’. This phrase, coined by psychotherapist and Buddhist John Welwood, applies when a person seeks to avoid dealing with unresolved personal  issues from the past. Instead they use their spiritual practice to try and be ‘above it all’ and strive to be good, kind, generous, forgiving etc.

Obviously there is nothing wrong, and in fact a lot to be praised, in being kind, generous or forgiving. The problem arises, however, when these become ‘rules’ or positive injunctions.

In that case we can end up suppressing the ‘non spiritual’ parts of ourselves – our anger, jealousy, envy or even sadness.

In an interview available on his website*, Welwood says: “We often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalise what I call premature transcendence; trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”

A common aspect of people with a spiritual bypass is compulsive helping or rescuing. This is because many spiritual texts, whether of an established religion or ‘new age’ type beliefs, promote putting others first. Believing too rigidly in this teaching can lead people to devalue their own needs and feelings, in favour of helping others.

But this kind of helping or caring can actually cause indirect problems, both for the helper and the person being helped. The helper may feel resentment if their help is not being sufficiently appreciated, while the person being helped may pick up on this expectation and feel patronised.

Another common  problem is attitudes to anger. While many of us, spiritual or not, struggle with how to relate to angry feelings, it can become a major issue for people who have been taught that anger is somehow unspiritual or unloving. 

Of course, unthinking or chronic expression of anger can create many problems and we need to reflect on what may be underneath these feelings. But viewing this emotion as somehow a problem in and of itself can lead to negative consequences. 

One of my favourite books on the tension between spiritual values and the messiness of everyday life is Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. In this he quotes an advanced Buddhist practitioner, who returns from a long spiritual retreat.

“Some months after [my spiritual retreat]…came a depression, along with some significant betrayal in my work. I had continuing trouble with my children and family too. Oh, my teaching was fine, I could give inspired lectures, but if you talk to my wife she’ll tell you that as time passed I became grouchy and as impatient as ever.”

For such people it can be difficult to acknowledge that their spiritual practice may not been enough to tackle some of these recurring problems and that they have somehow ended up using their spiritual practice to maintain their neuroses.

None of this is to say that having a spiritual practice is at all unhealthy – the opposite in fact. It’s more about the way that we engage with a spiritual practice. It can be tempting to think that now we have a road map to meaning and fulfilment, that all we have to do is give ourselves fully to this practice and our problems will be solved. 

The reality is that we also may need therapy to help us in some of those areas where our spiritual practice doesn’t seem to have the answers or may have, in fact, made the problem worse.

*www.johnwelwood.com

Kornfield, Jack, 2000, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Random House, London.

Categories
Couples

Couple therapy – making sense of emotions

Recognising and naming what we are feeling is a valuable part of couple therapy, but it’s not something that comes easily to most of us.

It is important to learn how to recognise and name what we’re feeling because, in one sense, we are what we feel.  It is often through our feelings that we reveal ourselves to others, that they get an understanding of what we want, what we’re passionate about, what moves us. And that helps create intimacy.

Identifying what we are feeling is also essential for us  as individuals in terms of knowing and understanding ourselves.

But unfortunately many of us are not fully aware of what we’re feeling and, even when we are, we may be reluctant to share that with our partner for fear of appearing silly or being judged. 

This can apply, in particular,  to emotions such as sadness or vulnerability, as many of us are brought up to see these as examples of weakness. Similarly, for many people acknowledging anger is very uncomfortable because in many families the children are given the message that it is not acceptable to show anger. 

There is also a very strong problem-solving attitude in our culture. One that says, “it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling, just focus on the solution.” While that may be an appropriate response in some situations, in couple problems it doesn’t work because usually part of the “solution” is working with the emotions that are present and allowing them to help point us towards a new experience of being with our partner. 

As couple therapist Robert Taibbi says*, part of the therapist’s job is to draw out new emotions: “Your job is to change the communication, to stir the emotional pot. You’re moving toward the holes, looking for what they are not saying. This is where their anxieties and, ultimately, the solutions lie. “

Often in couple there will be a mirroring – one partner may be rather emotionally contained and the other “over emotional”. While not always the case, in heterosexual couples there is often a gender aspect, with the man finding it harder to name what he is feeling.

When I’m working with couples I’m often trying to get them to be clear about emotions. So, rather than “upset”, I ask if they mean “upset angry” or “upset sad”, as there is a big difference between the two. 

I may also introduce “feeling” language into my comments in the session. For example, “I’m wondering if that was annoying for you when Jill said that?” Or, if a client seems to be wiping away imaginary tears, I may offer the suggestion that they may have been feeling sad. 

For people who are rather detached from their emotions it can be difficult when they are asked questions about how they are feeling, so I sometimes offer the idea that there are four primary emotions – fear, sadness, joy and anger – and ask which of those primary feelings is closest to what they are feeling. This can help open up something new in the conversation between the couple. 

When we are able to say what we are feeling and have our partner acknowledge it, we can feel validated. This is something that a couples therapist can help with, encouraging and coaching the one partner to simply acknowledge the feelings of the other partner.

Acknowledgement is not agreement. We are not saying that because parent A is angry that means partner B is in the wrong. We are instead saying that partner A is angry and partner B can acknowledge that reality without immediately feeling the need to defend themselves. A further step can be taken in the therapy, whereby partner B not only acknowledges the other person’s anger but also is able to understand why they my be feeling angry. 

For clients who really struggle to know what they are feeling I may suggest they keep an emotions diary between sessions. This is something that can be easily done using a small notebook or mobile phone, just jotting down several times a day what they are feeling at that moment and (if they know) why they may be having that feeling. 

Part of the process of identifying emotions is understanding that sometimes we use one emotion to hide another. This is particularly so with anger and sadness. Some people major in sadness and find it very hard to acknowledge anger, perhaps because that was a taboo in their family of origin. For others it’s the opposite – they can get angry easily but sadness is taboo. Helping these individuals acknowledge and feel the underlying emotion can be valuable in creating a more authentic connection within the relationship. 

Doing Couple Therapy, Robert Taibbi, 2009, The Guilford Press.