Sometimes on this blog, I am going to tell you stories. Stories of couples getting stuck in loneliness and frustration, as we all do, and stories of couples shifting gears and taking the steps to create lasting connection in Hold me tight conversations. My 30 years of working with love relationships has convinced me that, if we only know the path we are on, more and more of us can take those steps. In fact, in our research says that given the right help, 7 out of 10 couples do just that!
Sometimes, I will share new ideas or research findings. The world of relationship science is exploding. At last social science researchers are actively studying and learning about love and how to make it work. This isn’t science for the university lecture hall. This is science that you can use in the kitchen and the bedroom.
Sometimes I will comment on something in the news and tell you how I react as a scientist, as a psychologist and couple therapist, as a trainer of therapists, and just as me, Sue, a wife and a mum.
But whatever I am chatting about you will probably pick up that I think we have finally cracked the code of love. I think this is BIG NEWS- this is a NEW ERA here. This is at least as important as going to the moon and back.
To come back down to earth, this week let’s just take one study and chat about what it means for YOUR relationship. James Gross, a scientist who studies emotion, found that when we try to suppress emotion this is what happens:
- It’s very hard to do. Basically it doesn’t work. We have to work very hard to shut an emotion down once it is up and running and in the process we often get MORE agitated and tense. This is especially true in close relationships when the trigger for the emotion, the other person, is still there giving us signals that get us all fired up.
- Emotion doesn’t stay inside our skin. When we try to shut feelings off, the people we are relating to get more and more tense as well.
When we are denying our feelings, our partners probably get tense because our faces register our feelings way faster than the thinking part of the brain can shut them down. So our partner knows there is something going on when we say “Oh, nothing is wrong. I am fine.” This partner also knows that we are shutting them out. When partner’s can’t read out cues, they can’t predict our behavior. We say one thing but they see another. It makes sense that they get tense. Probably this uncertainty puts everyone off balance and adds to the likelihood that the conversation, or even the whole evening, goes sour.
Emotions are fast. It takes about 100 milliseconds for out brain to react emotionally and about 600 milliseconds for our thinking brain, our cortex, to register this reaction. By the time you decide that it’s better not to get mad or to be sad, your face has been expressing it for 500 milliseconds. Too late! The emotional signal has been sent. It’s like pressing “send” on your email. Not only that but when you deny the message, this makes you puzzling for your partner and makes it harder for your partner to feel relaxed and safe with you. You are suddenly someone who can shut them out like they don’t matter!
What does all this tell us as lovers and partners? It tells us that the shut down and suppress strategy should be used with care. That it doesn’t do what we usually hope it will do, namely calm us down, lower the tenor of a conversation or bypass a fight. Most of the time, we shut down out of habit. We do it because we don’t know what else to do. What I see, as a couple therapist, is that it really isn’t so dangerous to just say that you are mad, sad, scared, surprised, somehow ashamed or full of joy. This list is about it for the real core universal emotions. When we name our emotions we often feel more grounded, more in control. And we give our partner the chance to respond – to empathize.
And in the end giving our partner a chance to show us they care, that they can be with us and for us is one of the magic ingredients of a loving relationship.
See you in two weeks or so,
Dr. Sue Johnson