Couples often come to me for marriage counseling because they find themselves stuck in a pattern of arguing. Every conversation seems to lead to a fight, and it creates stress and an emotional energy drain on both partners. The couple feels trapped and hopeless and they long for the love and connection they once had. It IS possible for distant couples to learn to reconnect. But first, we must discover the fawn in a gorilla suit.
Understanding Emotions Under the Surface
It’s very clear when our partner is angry – they are yelling, using hurtful words and harsh facial expressions.* But what is less obvious, and what our partner likely isn’t sharing, are the emotions under the surface of the argument.
It’s been my experience that anger is what’s called a “secondary emotion,” meaning that it sits on top of a more vulnerable emotion that people have learned not to share. If you start to unpack and understand the emotion that someone is expressing through anger, you’ll discover that it could be sadness, a fear of rejection, or even the need to protect themselves from harm. A starting point for getting back on track is to get curious about the emotional experience that your partner is having that they’re not sharing with you.
A Fawn in a Gorilla Suit
In child counseling, we use the metaphor of a “fawn in a gorilla suit.” We picture a gorilla – aggressive, full of bluster and beating its chest. But when we look closer, we discover that the gorilla isn’t a gorilla at all – it’s a vulnerable baby deer dressed up to protect itself from harm. Children who have experienced trauma often cloak themselves in a metaphorical “gorilla suit” to hide their hurt as they struggle to try to get their needs met in a difficult world. I believe that this metaphor is appropriate for couples who find themselves in frequent arguments. Beneath the bluster, beneath the “gorilla suit,” is a real vulnerability.
Ideally, both members of the couple should get curious about their partner’s emotional experience, but it’s been my experience that even if one person can change their stance, it can shift the dynamic in the relationship, causing something that would normally morph into an argument to take a different direction.
Get Curious Instead of Furious
So think about a recent argument or conflict that was really hard for both you and your partner. Then, get curious about your partner and what might be behind the anger, or even behind the withdrawal. (As an aside, withdrawal can be as destabilizing as anger because if somebody has really shut down, they’re not engaged, they won’t give feedback about what they’re thinking or feeling and so you often fear the worst. The Still Face Experiment provides a visceral picture of how coldness and distance affects us as humans.)
Did your partner feel dismissed or misunderstood and not heard? Is it possible that they are experiencing a sense of loss, or a fear of losing the relationship? Could they be hurting or feeling vulnerable and they just don’t know how to express it?
We certainly aren’t able to read our partner’s mind – we can’t know what they are thinking and feeling unless they tell us. But getting curious about the emotions behind the anger can help us start to unzip the gorilla suit and understand our partner’s emotions, which is a first step toward healing.
Discovering the fawn inside of the gorilla suit can be deep work. This article is intended to help you understand this concept and begin to unpack the emotions behind the conflict you are experiencing. If this resonates with you, I strongly encourage you to seek the help of a trusted therapist to work toward true understanding and healing with your partner.
*NOTE: the displays of anger I’m talking about here are different from expressions of physical or emotional abuse. If you think you may be experiencing abuse in your relationship, learn about the types of abuse from the National Domestic Violence hotline and how to get help.