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.