A careful review of the most recent emotional explosions in your relationship may bring you to the conclusion that "my partner is an emotional mess!"
- A bad day at work can lead to increased tension during dinner prep, and one slip of too much salt or a lost piece of an eggshell creates an ultimate explosion of criticism and disappointment.
- A text from a friend that seems inconsiderate or inconvenient lead to a deluge of self-doubt and a perceived destiny to live a destitute life of loneliness.
- Or even the sincere compliment from you that had the intention to uplift and encourage seemed to have had the same reception as a handshake from captain hook.
While holding ourselves completely responsible for our partner's (or any others') emotional responses is not healthy, an intentional analysis of how you may be contributing to the flames is a prudent practice.
As you notice the temperature gauge rising in your partner. Perhaps it's his pacing or her silence. Maybe you notice her face getting flushed or the veins in his forehead beginning to bulge. Gathering an assessment of what you're observing can help you remain grounded as well as give a good indication of how to proceed.
Using emotional awareness and regulation is not only applied on the individual level but can also have distinct advantages when partners use this type of emotional regulation interpersonally within their relationship.
As nearly every conflict management post on this site recommends, the first step to helping resolve conflict is STOP. Just take an intentional and deliberate step back to breathe and get out of the momentum of the emotion. This allows the demand of the emotion to soften, and you can begin asking yourself and each other questions to communicate respect and understanding
1. How am I feeding off her emotional experience?
Can you notice that when she begins her description of events, your temperature gauge begins to increase too? Do your emotions seem more controlled by the environment and conversation rather than mindfully listening with the intention to connect and understand without getting overwhelmed by the details and intensity of the experience?
Think about this: have you ever experienced significant grief - the loss of a career or loved one, perhaps? Did you have people approach you with the intention to comfort you, but you ended up being the one having to console THEM?
Once you determine how you notice that you are feeding off of her emotions, gently acknowledge it in yourself, perhaps use it as a reflection back to her on what you believe she may be experiencing, and allow her to agree or correct your automatic interpretation. "That sounds frustrating. You must feel so angry. Am I right or is it something else?"
2. How am I feeding into his emotional experience?
After stepping back, does it appear that your actions and responses are actually fanning the flames of the experience, generating a more severe intensity than it was when it started? Are your behaviors of turning away, ignoring, jumping in, interrupting, or invalidating his experience actually feeding into the challenges he is trying to process and making it seem even worse than when it started?
Getting to the point where you can acknowledge your contributions can be pivotal in the process of repair. When he is feeling misunderstood and considering that what was initially a personal worry has now escalated to a relational concern with his partner may have a significant impact on future conversations. Now is the time when you can own your contribution to what he is experiencing. "I just realized that when I keep moving around the house doing things, and not listening to you, it may seem like I don't care", or "I keep offering you advice and solutions - I bet that sounds like I don't think you know what you're doing or I don't trust you". Once you acknowledge your part, then re-invite him to the dialogue. "It sounds to me like you're feeling ___. Am I right or is it something else? Want me to help by listening or by brainstorming solutions together?"
You're giving your partner the space to experience the entirety of an emotional experience, rather than intentionally or non-intentionally aiming to increase the intensity, rescue, or remove the experience altogether.
Intense emotional events, conflicts, and distress are some of the most beneficial breeding grounds for intimacy, unity, and connectedness. Consider an event in history that caused intense emotions such as fear, sadness, or even elation. Communities can rally together the most intricately when they choose not to fan the flame but warm together beside it.