What you will learn about handling difficult emotions in relationships
In this article you will learn more about how to handle difficult emotions both for yourself and through your relationship. I will also guide you through an exercise that will help you practice your emotion acceptance skills.In the context of handling difficult emotions in relationships, the concept of emotion regulation is very important.
Emotion regulation, what does it actually mean?
Emotion regulation involves awareness and knowledge of emotions. It also involves acceptance of those emotions and the ability to influence or tolerate them. This can include confronting situations that trigger undesirable emotions and supporting yourself through the process. As an example, you can imagine having a difficult conversation with your partner and motivating yourself to go through with it, even if it scares you (1,3).
The way you personally experience, express, and regulate emotions can contribute significantly to healthy and intimate social relationships and improve emotional well-being (2).
How mindfulness and meditations help you with handling difficult emotions in relationships
Mindfulness meditations induce a state of "non-judgment," which is important for emotion regulation (4). This is because this state has a positive effect on your emotions (5,6). You can think of it as if you were an inn - you can have different guests (emotions) come and go and observe what is happening. You are not one guest or the other, but you are monitoring what is happening, observing things from a distance. Moreover, meditations also help in cultivating awareness and acceptance of our thoughts and emotions because you learn not to avoid them but to accept them (7).
As a tip, you can listen to guided meditations, for example on the app you use to listen to music and podcasts. Meditate 1x a day for a month and observe what you notice about yourself as a change!
How your relationship helps you with emotion regulation
Your relationship helps you with emotion regulation because it provides a sense of security and relieves stress (8). Conversely, emotion regulation is also important for your relationship because it helps you resolve conflicts more quickly. So there is a reciprocal influence between emotion regulation and your relationship!
How emotions influence your relationship:
- Positive emotions help closeness and intimacy develop because it signals a desire to be close and connected (9).
Suppressing emotions can hurt your relationship (10).
When few positive emotions are shared, it can be interpreted as indifference and cause partners to withdraw. (11).
Why you should not suppress your emotions in the relationship
Suppressing your emotions leads to constant monitoring of your emotional expressions. This monitoring costs you energy, which leads to a poorer memory for social information (11). You are less able to focus on the person you are talking to and may seem distracted or uninterested. Your partner may also see you as inauthentic if your inner experience and outer expression differ. However, authenticity is central to relationships because it leads to more satisfaction, trust and self-disclosure (12,13).
How your relationship can help you regulate emotions
Interacting with your partner can support handling difficult emotions in a number of ways, such as:
- by providing a different perspective
- by distracting you (known as "attentional deployment" in psychology)
- through other forms of social support
- through physical closeness, which positively influences your stress response (14).
Emotion regulation is facilitated for couples by avoiding accusatory ("it's your fault!") or defensive ("but you did...") comments (15).
- When attempts at emotion regulation go well, they can promote the development of new relationships and maintain or improve the quality of existing ones!
- On the other hand, emotion regulation can also be harmful to close relationships if ineffective strategies such as suppression are used.
Why you should be able to regulate your emotions by yourself as well
You may be reading this headline, asking yourself, "Why do I need to be able to regulate my emotions myself? There's my partner!"
In his books, psychotherapist David Schnarch emphasizes the importance of individual emotion regulation in relationships, that is, the ability of each partner to be able to influence and calm their own emotions. According to Schnarch, this is a central component of long-term happy couples in which both stand on their own two feet, so-called highly differentiated couples. Only when couples learn to be there for themselves as well, and not just rely on each other's support and validation, can they be happy in the long run.
It is very important to emphasize that it is not about being able to regulate oneself exclusively. It is perfectly normal and okay for our partner to help us regulate our emotions and feel good about ourselves. After all, having another person so close to us and understanding and supporting us helps most people with their emotion regulation.
However, it becomes problematic when this is the ONLY SOURCE (16).
Problems when you depend too much on your partner for handling difficult emotions
1. Conflicts feel more threatening
If you tie your emotion regulation solely to your partner, then every time a difficult emotion comes up for you, you have to turn to your partner to feel good about yourself. When you argue with your partner, the conflict with your partner, or even your partner themselves through their statements, is the source of your pain. During conflicts, your partner may withdraw or not be there as an emotional safe haven for you through other behaviors. It's only logical that you feel desperate: your partner is the only person who can help you regain your balance. As a consequence, you may avoid conflicts with your partner, or conflicts affect you much more than if you can take care of your emotion regulation yourself.
2. Emotional dependence and you do not learn to be there for yourself
You also make yourself emotionally dependent on the other person. If your partner doesn't have time, what do you do? If you don't know how to be there for yourself, then it can be difficult for you in the long run. Because you are very dependent on that one other person.
3. Less emotional stability
For many people, it also means being on constant alert and watching the relationship for the first signs of conflict. This is then done out of fear of losing the emotional support of the other person. This can lead to constant restlessness or vigilance.
Example of emotion regulation in a relationship: Sabine and Max
Imagine Sabine is sad because Max made an unkind remark about her out of nowhere. So Sabine is sad and also becomes increasingly desperate because Max does not realize his mistake and does not comfort Sabine. Sabine finally gets angry and also throws insults at Max.
This is what happens for Sabine: Desperately she tries to get Max to see his mistake and comfort her, and be there for her. Because she can't handle her emotions well herself, she fights with all her energy to get that support from her partner. Moreover, her own self-esteem is also strongly tied to Max's affirmation and appreciation, so it is essential for Sabine that Max gives her good self-esteem.
If Sabine now only depends on Max to comfort her, she relies heavily on the relationship and cannot perceive her own competence to take good care of herself. She leans a lot on Max and does not stand on her own feet emotionally.
Handling difficult emotions in a relationship: This is what successful emotion regulation in a relationship could look like
Imagine that Sabine has learned to regulate herself. Then she can recognize that she was hurt by Max and feels sad, but she can make herself feel better. Because Sabine knows that she is a special and great person, even though Max may not be able to see that right now. Sabine then decides to take care of herself now.
To do this, Sabine goes into her own room, takes a deep breath, writes down her feelings and thoughts, and begins to treat herself with self-compassion. She says to herself that this is a difficult moment, but that she supports herself and is there for herself to get through this difficult situation. She says to herself in her mind phrases like, "May I accept, value and love myself as I am. This is really a difficult moment for me right now." After Sabine meets herself with self-compassion, she feels more centered. She then returns to Max and tells him that she felt hurt and sad. She also tells him that she doesn't want to listen to such comments anymore and will take consequences if he continues to treat her this way.
How to learn to manage your emotions yourself
An exercise to help you with acceptance of your feelings and thoughts
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there are exercises to help you notice, accept, and still be present with your feelings and thoughts.
From an ACT perspective, it's all about learning how to accept your feelings and still do the things that are good for you based on your values. It's specifically not about controlling, changing, or pushing away feelings. With this technique, you can learn to do just that: be present while experiencing difficult emotions.
One method you can use to stay present even when you are experiencing intense emotions is called the "Dropping an Anchor Method".
You can think of your thoughts and feelings as an emotional storm in which you are the boat. Because even though this storm is there, you can still learn to set an anchor so that the boat is anchored to the ground and comes safely through the storm. This is an exercise you can use with any thoughts and feelings to center yourself. It is recommended in the beginning especially with slightly uncomfortable feelings, so you practice it and slowly approach the stronger feelings.
Drop anchor exercise for acceptance of feelings
The first step is to consciously acknowledge and notice your feelings and thoughts, and name them. For example, you can feel inside yourself, scan your body, and see what sensations and thoughts you can perceive. Then name them with the words: "anger", "fear", or "I am worried".
The next thing is to come back into your body: To do this, you can stretch, press your feet into the floor, push through your back, raise your shoulders, or circle your arms. The important thing is that you consciously feel into your body. Feel free to do this for a few minutes.
The third step is to pay attention to your surroundings: You can consciously notice what you are doing, while still acknowledging your inner experience. For example, you can focus on 5 things that you feel, smell, see or hear. As you do this, notice that your feelings and thoughts are not gone, but you can still be present to your environment (17).
This exercise helps you to be present, and to focus your attention on what is important. Also, you learn to accept your feelings and still be present to what you are doing. Want to learn even more about how to be more aware of your feelings? Then this article on recognizing feelings and needs may also be interesting for you.
Conclusion on emotion regulation in relationships
You've learned that in relationships it's important to be able to regulate emotions both together as a couple and separately. Now it's your turn:
- Feel free to discuss what you've learned with your partner.
- Observe yourself for a week and write down which situation triggers which emotion, thought, and behavior in you.
- Think about what area of emotion regulation you can still work on.
- Meditate for 10 minutes every day for a week to practice the skill of observing your emotions.
This post was written in collaboration with Fatima Herden.
If you'd like to learn more about how to accept your emotions or work with your partner on the topic, feel free to contact me!
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