Who Knew It Could Be So Hard?
One of my group members wanted feedback from the group regarding the hurt and frustration she felt when her husband was not able to stay engaged with her when she was expressing bigger emotions. Even when her emotional experience was not related to him specifically, she just wanted to share with him and feel supported. These moments felt to her like being abandoned.
These are moments that could be important intimacy builders, especially when a couple is navigating the aftermath of betrayal. It is likely the husband cares deeply. Its likely her husband would like to be able to connect with his wife in that moment. It may be that the big emotions are pretty scary. Often, it’s just a matter of not having the skills.
John Gottman’s research indicates that of his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” men are most likely to stonewall. And while that is not what’s going on in this scenario, the roots of the behaviors are similar. With stonewalling, it is not intentional or purposeful shutting down or turning away. Although the wife or partner may interpret it that way before she understands the concept of stonewalling. Rather it’s felt-sense that you don't have the ability to meet this need, you feel underwater and sinking fast. It’s likely that partners in this scenario don’t know how to stay connected to their wives, attune to them, stay turned toward them, without having to take on their big emotions. It can seem like the choice is one of two ditches, either I fix the problem or fix the emotions, but either way I have to fix something, right?
At Faithful & True, we often refer to the Iceberg Model for understanding our personal triggers and big emotional responses. Therefore, the important first step would be for the wife or partner to go through an iceberg process personally to have a good handle on what is getting activated for themselves and then to take their iceberg to their community first to help take some of the emotional energy out of their response.
Many couples would like to be the one safe place for each other. And what is true is that we need several safe places to take our hard things. It's too big a job for one person. Also, it is because the couple’s relationship is so important to us, that it is often the last place we can use our new skills well.
A Skill to Practice: Imago Dialogue
What may be a helpful beginning framework for responding to someone’s big emotions, whether it’s with fellow group members, family members or spouses, in order to meet their desire to be heard and understood is the framework of an “Imago Dialogue.”
The Image Dialogue was created by Dr. Harville Hendricks and his wife, Dr. Helen Hunt. It can feel contrived when first practicing it, and it can change our posture toward each other as we learn to become safe friends and partners. As we become more comfortable with the process, we can drop some of the formulaic responses.
Here's the pattern: There is a transmitter and a receiver. In the above example the wife is the transmitter – sharing something that is going on for her. The husband is the receiver, practicing honoring the information that is being offered to him
Step One: Mirror – Reflect back
Transmitter: shares in a few short sentences the main details.
Receiver: repeats back, keeping as close as possible to the information given (this is not a time for riffing or evaluating what was shared) and then says something like “Did I get that right?”
Transmitter: Offers any correction or extra details.
Receiver: repeats the above process and then asks, “Anything else?” That process continues until there is no new information to add.
Step Two: Validate
Receiver: Shares with their partner what makes sense to them about what was shared. It’s important to be genuine – share only what actually does makes sense to you. “It makes sense that…”. In accordance with the ideas of Neuroception and Congruence, you will undercut your efforts to be safe to your partner if aren’t truthful here.
Step Three: Empathy
Receiver: “I’m wondering if this makes you feel….” And filling in the blanks with emotion words, not thoughts. (This can take a lot of practice!) And then check that out with your partner: “Is that true?” This is the general framework. The tendency at this point, if the sharing was in regard to something conflictual between the couple, will be to immediately want to switch roles. It will be best to wait 24 hours or so to honor the process of actually hearing your partner and allowing them to feel like “you got them”.
I had a horse trainer once use this descriptor that I think gives a good picture of the sense of connection we are striving for here, she said it’s the process of “feeling for, and feeling felt for”. And I like that. There is a lot to learn in the area of listening well. And practicing this one skill will help to begin being safe with others and staying connected with your partner when sharing big emotions.
This skill seems simple, but is a complicated process that may need support while implementing for the first time and hopefully this increases your understanding of what safe communication can look like.
Rebecca Deckers MA, LAMFT, has a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and specialty training in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy. Rebecca provides individual counseling to women who have experienced relational betrayal and are embarking on their own life recovery journey. Rebecca also facilitates weekly women's groups and provides couples counseling.