When your partner feels sad, angry, disappointed or otherwise “upset”, do you try to talk them out of the feeling? Do you give them lots of reasons why they shouldn’t feel this way? Are you afraid of them being upset at you? If this is you, you are fighting a losing battle. Here’s why –
Feelings aren’t facts
Feelings aren’t facts, which means they’re unarguable. Some feelings might be more desirable than others, but no feeling can be right or wrong. The source of a feeling might be debatable, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves (and upon close examination the source of feelings tends to shift elusively). First things first: we have to accept that our partner feels what they feel. Why do we have to accept this? Because feelings aren’t arguable. We can never win at that game, and there’s a very good reason that we shouldn’t bother trying –
Two operating systems: Feeling and thinking
When we argue against our partner’s feelings, which part of ourselves do we employ? Usually we employ our thinking; we use reason to argue why our partner should not feel how they feel. We pit our reason against our partner’s emotions, our thinking against their feeling. This is an important point because reason and emotion are like two different operating systems, and they are not very compatible. In fact, emotion and reason are each associated with different parts of the brain, and these parts of the brain have different functions and different architectures.
(Note – I am using the words feeling and emotion interchangeably here for convenience, but they are technically distinct from one another. It’s easy to find information on this online.)
Feelings aren’t rational
Feelings, by definition, are not rational. This does not mean they are not legitimate. We don’t actually choose our feelings, so trying to assess their legitimacy is a futile approach. If you find yourself de-legitimizing your partner’s feelings (or your own) you’re just avoiding some necessary work and prolonging your disconnection and suffering. Once you drop the hopeless exercise of deeming feelings legitimate or not, you might be able to take on the more relevant task of developing more tolerance for them.
Feelings aren’t behaviours
While feelings do not conform to judgements about legitimacy or right and wrong, behaviours do. A feeling is not a behaviour, but feelings often lead to behaviours. In fact, the association between certain feelings and behaviours can be very strong. This is another reason why it is important to meet feelings on their own terms first, and then assess the behaviours or impulses that go with the feeling.
For example, anger needs to be accepted as it is, but yelling may be judged as unacceptable.
Feeling craves feeling
Feeling does not respond well to the language of reason. Someone having strong feelings might say they wish to be understood, but as long as “understood” activates the operating system of reason you remain in a losing game. What feeling actually wants is more feeling. Feeling wishes to be met with feeling. When feeling is met only with reason, feeling tends to turn up the volume… “Can you hear me now?!”.
Do you feel something too?
A person who is having strong feelings does not want your analysis of their feelings. They want to see that their feelings make you feel something too. That’s what they really mean when they say they want to be understood; they want to be felt. They want their emotions to have a visible emotional impact on you. Why? Following the analogy, operating systems need to interact with similar operating systems or else incompatibility issues arise.
Departing from the OS analogy, physiologically it probably has something to do with nervous system regulation. What we know in our head, intellectually, consciously, does not necessarily translate into the body, where your nervous system and emotion resides. A person who is having a strong uncomfortable emotional experience and wants your understanding is seeking your help in co-regulating their nervous system. Things are getting overwhelming inside, and if they sense that you “get” them, it helps them calm down. It’s about soothing.
Psychologically speaking they perhaps seek a deeper connection, a desire to be seen and known, to be acknowledged in their multitudinous shades, moods, and incarnations. Chances are, even if they are upset with you, the feelings run deeper than that, and they want, even unconsciously, to touch into the source of their emotion, and they want you as a witness and ally, someone to hold the space for them to feel what they feel, so that they might perhaps reconcile something from their past, shine a light on the mystery of their feeling, or find meaning in their suffering. This is a form of intimacy.
Why would they need or want you for this? Because you are a meaningful figure in their life, perhaps the most meaningful. They have given their heart to you. They want to see if you are capable of holding it. They hope you are, but they’ll test you until you prove it. At some level this dynamic is present in many relationships, rarely named, but present and actively running the show.
Don’t pretend your feelings are rational
A person having a strong emotional experience doesn’t help their cause when they insist that they are coming from a rational place. We live in a culture that tends to value rational thought over feeling, so many people reflexively try to justify their feelings by presenting them as rational. Ultimately this is counterproductive and only adds confusion to the situation.
You don’t have to rationalize your feelings. Remember, feelings are unarguable and by definition non-rational. But they are fundamentally legitimate. Don’t start digging up a bunch of evidence to justify what you feel. And don’t automatically turn feelings into demands, criticisms, judgements or regrettable behaviours. It isn’t necessary, and it just creates more operating system incompatibility within yourself and between the two of you.
Instead, see if you can parse out the feeling part of yourself, feel it fully, communicate it effectively, and then move into whatever requests or complaints you might have for your partner rather than bundling the whole thing into one package and dumping it their feet. Hint – You can be sure you’ve tangled up emotion and reason when you find yourself saying things like “You always…” and “You never…”.
A benefit of certain communication methods and practices (ie – talking stick, active listening, non-violent communication) is that they legitimize feelings without having to rationalize them; also they can help you differentiate between feelings/emotions and thoughts/judgements/requests/criticisms etc.
It’s common for people to mistakenly conflate feelings with thoughts and to present a thought as though it was a feeling. If you’re not sure of the difference between feelings and thoughts, here are some examples –
I feel sad (feeling)
I feel like you’re being unfair (not actually a feeling)
I feel angry (feeling)
I feel like you’d rather be somewhere else right now (not actually a feeling)
Here’s a tip on recognizing the difference – Feelings are usually one single word, and though there are hundreds of different feelings, most can be traced back to a small set of primary emotions like joy, sadness, anger, fear. (Experts don’t always agree on the particular details of what constitutes the primary emotions, but there’s a general pattern of consensus overall.)
See the Junto Institute’s emotion wheel (click here) for an interesting visual showing the relationships between many common emotions or feelings, and their root in the primary emotions.
To learn more about differentiating between thoughts and feelings, and communicating feelings effectively, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.
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