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How Meta-Emotions Can Escalate Conflict in Your Marriage

Published:
December 14, 2023
July 10, 2023
Learn about meta-emotions and how they can help improve your marriage.

We were both standing in our kitchen. I made a gesture as if I was about to speak. My husband waited, but the words felt stuck in my throat. I got a queasy feeling in my stomach that was for once not related to being pregnant.

“I… really… need you… to stay home with me this weekend.” I forced the words out in a near whisper.

Why all the fuss over such small words? Up until that point in my 20-something years, I had made sure that I hadn’t really needed anyone. I prided myself on my independence, flawless work-ethic, and frank indifference to the plans of others. I wanted others, particularly my husband, to want to be with me, but I looked down on the word “need.” It meant vulnerability, and therefore, an intolerable weakness. Just expressing that I needed my husband to stay home with me rather than visiting his family for the weekend felt humiliating. 

I was fighting against not just my emotions, but also my meta-emotions — how I felt about my feelings. Meta-emotions are the reactions we have to certain emotional states and expressing them. Most of us have strong feelings about some of our feelings, but rarely recognize how much they influence our lives — and by extension, our marriages. World renowned marriage therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have named meta-emotions to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to attunement, which is their term for the positive, intimate emotional exchange between spouses. 

A partner could possess the ability to navigate conflict well, make fun conversation, and even be an active listener, but if their response to certain emotional states is restricted, they will not be able to navigate the kind of complex emotions a marriage inevitably encounters over time. They’ll either withdraw or offer harsh judgment, shutting down any opportunity for intimacy to grow. 

Some of us think it’s not okay to cry, while others think expressing anger on any level is a failure. Some, like me, may think expressing any sort of physical need beyond a positive desire is not allowed. Until we address how we feel about these feelings, we may not realize we are building an invisible brick wall between ourselves and the person we’ve promised to share our lives with. 

The first step to becoming more at peace with all emotions is to step toward the emotion that makes you uncomfortable with an attitude of acceptance. Then try to identify and label the feeling. This may be difficult as we are not usually in the practice of naming our feelings with precision. You may fumble to find the right words, but keep trying. 

Once you are able to label the correct feeling, allow yourself to feel it, accept it — and refrain from judgment. This feeling isn’t going to last forever, so there’s no point in “shoulding” it away with negative, fearful thoughts. Letting go of control and sitting with the emotion often leads to a heightened awareness of our own general emotional needs — and by extension, the ability to be present for our partner’s needs as well.

When I shared what I needed with my husband, he stayed with me. He wanted to help me and didn’t mind that I had expressed a sincere need for him. It made him feel like he mattered a bit more in my life and that I was sharing something with him that I wouldn’t be able to share with anyone else. These sorts of moments create real intimacy and develop what the Gottmans call attunement. 

In the book What Makes Love Last, John Gottman explains why: 

Practically every therapist — and self-help book — emphasizes communication and the power of words to resolve differences. Many offer excellent advice. But if the right vocabulary were enough to prevent a severed relationship, by now we would have talked our way out of a punishing divorce rate. Too often, couples learn to parrot the right words, but don’t anchor their talks in a profound understanding of each other. When couples can understand each other at a deep level and lovingly express that knowledge to each other, real intimacy exists.

By speaking up and leaning into the scary emotion when my voice wanted to falter the most, I was finally allowing my husband to possess a profound understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. It would take some practice for sure, but attunement was starting to come into focus for us. 

Creators:
Amelia Ruggaber
Published:
December 14, 2023
July 10, 2023
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