Emotional Contagion

Emotions are contagious. And the closer we are to others, the more time we spend with them, the more likely it is that we feel their emotions and are affected by them, sometimes “catching” them. On the one hand, this ability to sense our partner’s emotions forms the basis for empathy and intimacy; on the other hand, there are times when this ability needs to be managed well, both by the sender and by the receiver, to maximize understanding and closeness, while minimizing the discomfort and disruption that strong emotions can cause.

For most of us the complexity of how to handle emotions, especially strong or unpleasant emotions may be made more difficult by early experiences. Lacking early experiences that teach us how to handle emotional reactions, we often develop defenses that make emotional awareness and skill more difficult. Defenses such as the ability to not know we are having emotions, or the ability to pull away from others so that they will not know we’re having emotions. Or, at the other side of the strategies we justify actions that allow us to discharge emotional tension at other’s expense – angry outbursts for example.

Handling emotions with other people involves more than a binary decision to either express or not express what one is feeling. Containment means that we exercise something often known as mindfulness. That we learn to pause between experiencing an emotional reaction and expressing it. This pause allows us time to more fully know our own reaction and then to make decisions about how and when to communicate the feelings so that understanding and support are maximized and harm is minimized.

Consider these three scenarios.

Jim has a very demanding job and is also very sensitive and reactive emotionally. He believes in authenticity. If he has a bad day, he makes no attempt to hide this as he walks in the door.  Often within seconds he barks orders to the kids in the living room to turn off the TV and get to their homework.  He then turns to his wife in the kitchen and asks her what is going on that she is letting them watch TV before homework. Minutes after he’s home everyone in the family feels unhappy. Later when he has calmed down a bit his wife comments that he seemed pretty upset when he came home. His comment is “well, you know how stressful my work is; today was just one of those days.”

Susan grew up in a house with a mother who raged often and loudly. She learned early and well to turn down the volume of her experience – to not feel the emotional reverberations in herself of these rages. She is very rational and prides herself on staying cool in any situation. She has a very demanding job supervising a large team of people. Tom, her husband, can “read” her when she walks through the door. Often he goes to greet her and encounters her stiffening body and a forced smile that signal “don’t touch me.”  Later at dinner when he asks her what happened at work? She’ll say “nothing in particular.” He’ll make one more try, something like, “you seemed a little tense when you came home.” And she may say, somewhat sharply, “no, not really.”

Matt comes through the door tense from a bad staff meeting at the end of the day. He walks hesitantly into the kitchen, aware that he’s not in the mood to really greet Karen. She’s happy he’s home and eager to greet him, but she looks up from the salad she’s making, and sees the tension in his face. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m not fit for human contact right now. I think I’ll go for a jog, hopefully that will help.” “OK,” Karen responds. She’s disappointed and angry at his work that once again has left him in not such a good mood. She briefly considers following him out of the kitchen to tell him so, then knows that that will likely lead to an unpleasant and unproductive exchange. Instead she returns to her salad, and decides to ‘let it go.’ In a few minutes Karen is back to neutral and having fun cooking. At dinner, and after a short jog and a shower, Matt is tired, but no longer angry. They chat pleasantly for a while about various social plans, then Karen asks, “Do you want to talk about work?” “Not really, but I am getting weary of all the political jockeying that’s going on there.” “Yea, I know, me too. I’m getting tired of you being upset so much of the time.” “Me too,” Matt responds, and they proceed to commiserate on that point for a few minutes before segueing into a talk about their daughter’s new job.

Jim is an example of not containing, but expressing negative emotions as they are evolving with the result that both his kids and his wife experience negative and unpleasant emotional reactions and he has allowed his unhappiness to be contagious. He knows what he is feeling and acknowledges it, but in a way that causes further damage.

Susan is doing what we call repression: keeping her own experience out of her awareness. Tom is emotionally sensitive and ‘feels her pain,’ but they cannot support and comfort each other due to Susan’s unawareness of her own states, resulting in an inability to talk about it with Tom.

Matt and Karen’s handling of their unpleasant emotions is an example of skillful “containment.” They each effort, mostly successfully, to contain negative emotions while they work to understand and detoxify them. Having succeeded at regaining an internal state that is not harmful, they then communicate to each other what they understand about these feelings, and offer support. They are able to successfully contain, detoxify and communicate emotions in a way that causes minimal damage and results in connection, comfort and support.

The ability to “contain” our emotions while we work to know and understand them and then make wise choices about how we share these with others is one of the central skills of relationship. This ability makes navigating the roiling waters of intimacy easier and happier.

 

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Stanford Continuing Studies Course: Enhanced Dialogue for Couples March 5 & 12, 2016

The quality of a couple’s relationship is often the most important determinant of their sense of well-being and satisfaction in life. It can also be the source of much challenge and frustration. So how do we make our committed relationships a source of pleasure, support, and growth? We are neurologically designed for openness to each other and for the ability to sense and respond to the openness of others. By becoming aware of these sensitivities and developing tools for increasing perception and comfort we can make meaningful changes in the quality of our conversations.

In this course, we will learn from the evidence-based work of John Gottman and others who are researching couples’ dynamics. We will also look at the neurological basis for our responses to each other and the optimal conditions for receptivity, expressiveness, and learning. Participants will be instructed in simple and powerful techniques for staying open in difficult conversations. Presentations by the instructor will be combined with time for couples to practice techniques privately. Couples will not be required to share personal details in the group; rather, group discussion will feature our reflections on the ideas presented and on life as a couple. Participants will leave the workshop with enhanced skills for becoming a high-functioning team.

https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/detail/20152_WSP-257

 

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Difficult Conversations: The “Doorbell” Strategy

Difficult conversations epitomize the concept of crisis as a moment of risk as well as opportunity.  Much of the quality of relationships is determined by how well we handle difficult conversations.  Handled well, they further trust and intimacy; handled poorly, they can damage the relationship.

Starting difficult conversations is…well…difficult.  How we introduce the conversation can make the difference in whether or not each person opens or closes to the possibility of greater understanding and closeness.

John Gottman talks about the very important skill of “soft start-up” for which he gives a few rules such as using “I” statements, describing instead of evaluating, being clear about what you need and being polite. I would add things like: slow things down; and make a brief statement of what you want to talk about followed by a request for conversation and flexibility about timing. All these strategies give your partner the best chance of responding mindfully, with an open aperture, to a difficult conversation.

Yet sometimes, if we are upset or merely unskillful, words coming rushing out that are anything but soft start-up. Strategies that allow couples to recover from mistakes are at least as important as those for avoiding mistakes. I want to suggest the “doorbell” strategy for dealing with a difficult opening so that both of you are allowed to slow down, calm down, and re-open apertures.

Imagine this: your work place has been going through a period of tight deadlines for a very big project. You, like everyone there, have been working much more than usual, racing against the clock.  You come home very late day after day, and when  home you are often exhausted or irritable.  Your partner is increasingly upset and also afraid that talking about it will only make it worse.

Finally he decides he must speak to you. Anxiety pounding in his head he says, “I can’t take it anymore. You’re never home, and when you are, you’re impossible to deal with.” The likely response that rises up in you, to the accompaniment of your own double-time heart rate, is something like, “ What do you mean I’m never home!? We just finished having dinner together and last weekend I took the kids to a ball game. And as for impossible, I’d say I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping my cool for someone working as hard as I am for this family!”

And bingo! You are launched into exactly the fight he had feared.

But what if you were to respond to the less than skillful opening as a “doorbell” comment? This means that you recover from the negative effects of his less than “soft” start-up, return to openness and compassion, and treat whatever was said as a request for a conversation, a doorbell requesting entry. After giving yourself a moment to

recover from his less than skillful “doorbell,” your response might sound something like,” Wow! I had no idea you are so upset about this. And you’re right it’s a difficult time at work and I’m not home as much.  We should probably sit down soon and talk about how to handle this better.”  A partner who is genuinely looking for connection and conversation, but mishandled the start-up, may respond to this open aperture, by opening their own and with something like, “yea, I’m really upset and have been scared to bring it up. It would be great if we could talk about it.”

A skillful recovery has moved the two of you away from damage and toward a more trusting conversation and relationship. Intimate relationships involve many mistakes and many false starts. What matters most is how the two of you deal with the mistakes, how well you recover and move forward.

 

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Repair After Injury

We are not able to dance closely without sometimes stepping on each other’s toes, trampling or loosing track of each other. And attachment research tells us that secure attachments happen in relationships where there is connection, then disruption of connection, followed by repair and reconnection. In this way we learn to trust that when the disruptions happen, as they always do whether in the parent child relationship or in other intimate relationships, reconnection is possible.

Therefore, a very important part of having a really good relationship is the repair process – knowing what to do after you’ve made a mistake and injured each other.

What not to do.

-Guilt

-Blame

-Confuse caring with confession

-Think it’s possible to not make mistakes

-Keep score

-Try to be right

-Forget that taking care of the relationship first is the imperative.

In working with couples in my practice I often find that apologies are not being offered because of confusion about what the apology means.  In particular that an apology is an admission of guilt.

In the disruption and injury that happens between couples the determination of guilt is the least important, and in fact often optional, part of the process.

When couples injure each other three things get broken and need repair:

  • The empathic connection,
  • Consensual reality,
  • Agreements and expectations.

 

Step #1

Repair of the empathetic connection is the most important repair, the first repair and usually the easiest repair.

Ideally the first “I’m sorry” comes as soon as you realize you have been involved in something that injured your partner. This “I’m sorry” means: “ it matters to me that you have been injured or upset.  I care about you and when you feel bad, I care about that.”

This one thing, an empathetic connection, defines your relationship as either allies or adversaries.

We do not have to feel that we have erred in order to be distressed that our partner is in pain. The more complicated matter of responsibility can be addressed later, and, in fact, is better addressed after mutual caring has been affirmed.

If the initial “I’m sorry” is offered immediately, it often needs repeating as the injured party is often in a state of upset that gets in the way of fully accepting the apology.  The best Step #1 in apology is usually a two step process of speaking immediately and then returning later when feelings are more neutral and emphasizing that you really are sorry that the other was hurt.

Step #2

The second thing that gets “broken” between couples that needs repair is consensual reality.  All of us depend on a social consensus about reality in order to feel safe and sane. Between couples even a small disruption of consensual reality (“You said you were going to take Matt to school.” “I absolutely did not; I told you I would be going in early to work and that you had to take him.”) can be disturbing and disruptive. Repair of consensual reality is often the next step and this step is often the hardest of the three. In fact consensus is not always possible. What is possible is a good conversation that leaves the relationship more intact.

This is the discussion of what exactly happened and who is responsible. Two things can happen in this discussion that are helpful and make all the difference. First, that we listen to and try to understand the other person’s experience. Second, is the clarification of misunderstandings, which account for a surprising number of injuries and which usually come to light in a careful discussion of each person’s experience. Discovering the misunderstandings is extremely helpful and often relieves the tension of hurt, anger, guilt and blame.

But sometimes you are left with some aspect of the mistake(s) about which you disagree either concerning what happened or who’s mistake it was, whose responsibility.  Some times this is the place where you have to ‘agree to disagree,’ or be willing to loose the battle to win the war. Try to remember not to beat the dead horse. Better to leave this one in the realm of disparate realities than to cause further problems by a heated stand off.

Step #3

The next step in apology, the repair of agreements, involves figuring out whether the injury resulted form somebody making a mistake or from a disagreement about what should happen. Does this injury indicate a difference between us about how we want to treat each other or is it a result of being unskillful? Do we agree on the ways we want to treat each other and what we are trying to realize in our vision of this relationship, even though often neither of us quite upholds this as well as we would like?

Usually this step amounts to a reaffirmation of agreements, but occasionally it turns out that we do not agree on what should be happening. One person may feel that they should always reserve weekend time for each other, while the other person wants time on the weekend reserved for solo activities.  Clarifying the difference between disagreement about the goals and mistakes made in implementation is an important part of the ongoing dialogue for couples.

In a good repair process we join with the other in an attempt to reaffirm our caring for each other, understand what happen to the fullest, and learn what we can that will serve us in the future.

 

 

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The Power of an Inspiring Vision

Each of us holds inside of us a heartfelt longing for an ideal relationship with a life partner. It is one of our most precious dreams. Sometimes we know what it is; sometimes we have even talked openly about it to each other. Often it lives inside of us only partially guessed at.

We often are most aware of this vision when we fall in love or decide to get married. In my work with couples I have often heard the story of them giving up on such a vision as being naïve and unrealistic. They have encountered the demands and difficulties of being in a committed relationship and have decided that real relationships aren’t like their heartfelt hopes that inspired this level of commitment. They look around at others’ relationships and see confirmation of this. How many people do you know that have the relationship you would most like to have?

Having a committed intimate relationship is a lot of very hard work. Too hard to sustain without exhaustion and resentment if what you are aiming for is something acceptable, but something far less than what you really want.

The fact is that in order to do all of the hard work and hanging in there that a committed, intimate relationship requires, we need more than perspiration, we need inspiration. Your vision of what you really want in your relationship provides that inspiration.

The secret to a great relationship is the ability to hold simultaneously the excitement and inspiration of the vision of the ideal and compassionate acceptance of your currant abilities to achieve that.

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