Couples Work: Emotional Context and Problem Solving

If you’re in a committed relationship, you might wonder from time to time why you can’t get through to your partner or why you struggle so much to get on the same page. I should say, like most everything in life, there is not a perfect algorithm to resolve this challenge. However, in a couples counseling setting, I often observe a common tendency– the failure to consider emotional context.

It might help to discuss what I mean by “emotional context.” In basic terms, I’m referring to how you AND your partner feel. Emotions can be like one of those photo filters on Snap Chat or Instagram. They have a tendency to distort reality, sometimes making things seem much better or worse than what they actually are.

The problem is if we are not in a mindset conducive to dealing with reality, then we probably aren’t dealing with reality. And if we aren’t dealing with reality when attempting to solve complicated relationship problems, then our problem solving won’t be very effective.

So here is a general rule of thumb. When possible, work through and de-escalate emotions first. This may take 30 minutes, a few days, weeks, or longer depending on the severity of the emotions involved. The key is to remove the filter of emotion as much as reasonably possible before engaging in the problem-solving process.

Now, you might say, “but dealing with feelings isn’t my strong suit.” Or, “dealing with feelings isn’t [insert partner’s name]’s strong suit.” I understand that. The good news is that people can get better at this skill set. I see it happen all the time in session. You may not be a believer now, but you can and will get there if you’re willing to do the work.

I should note that this may take professional help, so consider seeking couples counseling if needed. The job of a couples therapist is to be an advocate for the conversation, not to pick sides. But if you are looking for a place to start, here are a few strategies:

  1. Distinguish between emotion-focused and solution-focused discussions: It’s helpful to clearly define the goal of communication. Are we processing emotions? Or are we problem solving? Some people can walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s harder than it sounds. If the goal isn’t clear, premature problem solving can come across as dismissive of feelings, while emotional expression can come across as self-centered. This disconnect will lead to bigger blow ups. So ask yourselves: what are we trying to accomplish here?
  2. If needed, tap out: This is one of the most effective strategies when learning to consider emotional context. Tapping out of a conversation when emotions get too heightened can break maladaptive communication patterns. It also can improve self-discipline and the ability to observe emotional cues in oneself and others. Tapping out works best if it is coupled with a statement of commitment to resume the conversation when BOTH partners are ready. In fact, this extra step helps prevent avoidance and power imbalances.
  3. Reflective listening: So you say you’re listening, but how does your partner know that? Facial expressions and head nods can be faked, but accurate verbal reflections of your partner’s statements cannot. Reflective listening is more than just regurgitating what has been said, and to be effective, it must be done without engaging in “straw man” arguments (making your partner’s point of view seem as weak as possible). The key is to summarize your partner’s feelings in your own words and when you’re finished, calmly ask, “did I get that right or did I miss something?” This is not easy to do, but it will force your mind into a state of understanding rather than a state of competition or debate.

Difficult feelings and problems in relationships are not going anywhere. They are inherent to being with someone that is different from yourself, which is everyone. That said, the strategies above have the potential to be a game changer for your relationship, leading to more fulfilling emotional experiences and more effective problem solving with your partner. Yes, it will take practice, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

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