Why your beliefs about emotions really matter for your relationship

Whether we've ever thought about it or not, we have all formed strong beliefs about emotions. Our families are the first place we learn about this - our parents' response to us when we were happy, sad, angry etc communicated messages about how to be with those feelings. We tend to take these into our relationships with our partner and our own kids, without necessarily having given then much thought.

Our beliefs about emotions tend to fall into one of the following categories:-

1. "Emotions are great! It's good to 'let it out" and if people don't like it, that's their problem!"

2. "Emotions are dangerous, or at least a bit risky. If I connect too closely to my strong feelings, then I might not be able to cope with life in the best way. Better to stay 'rational' and 'reasonable' at all times!"

3. "Emotions are important. I rely on connecting to how I'm feeling to know what's going on for me in various situations. Of course, it's important I manage how I express those feelings in a way that's respectful of others."

Often we apply one of these beliefs to some emotions, and a different belief to others . For example, I may think that it's great to 'let it all out' when I'm sad, but try to stay in a 'rational' place rather than connect to my anger, because I don't think anger is a useful emotion.

So why do these beliefs matter so much for how I navigate my closest relationships - with my partner, my kids, my extended family etc.?

Many relationship problems stem from conflicting beliefs about emotion. A common example is - one person believes it's important to express emotion (belief 1) and does this often with her partner. When he says he is uncomfortable with this (he believes number 2!) she tells him that if he just let her know what he was feeling then they could work through their issues. He responds by advising her that she needs to be 'rational' and 'reasonable', not so emotional! Before long they are locked in a negative cycle where both feel misunderstood and disconnected from each other.

The third belief is one that few of us have been taught, or even exposed to growing up. It is the basis of 'emotional intelligence' and when done well, forms the basis for deeper intimacy and connection. Emotional intelligence is vital for good relationships, and for achieving in life more broadly. 

So what does this look like in practice? In relationships, the starting point is we both believe that "It's not only OK to express our feelings to each other, it's vital - otherwise we don't have enough information to make informed decisions about what the problem is, or how to solve it". We commit to expressing our feelings in a way that's safe for the other person - using respectful language, not blaming each other. We also commit to being interested and curious about our partner's emotional world. It might look something like this:- One person tells her partner that she feels angry about some things he has been doing lately. He listens carefully and non-defensively, accepting her right to have her feelings. He then lets her know he's been feeling angry too - about things at work, that he hadn't been easily able to resolve. They decide that they need to make more regular time to connect and let each other know what's going on for them. He decides to leave work on time, and make sure he has some decompression time before arriving home.

While this couple may not have found an easy answer to their problem (he's still struggling with work, she still struggles with what he's like when he's stressed), they have worked on the issue in a way that builds connection and opens the door to effective problem-solving together, rather than creating further discord and disconnection. Both feel heard and respected by the other one, and better equipped to tackle the issue together.

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