A common struggle I see in couples that I work with is being able to share their feelings with each other in a direct way. The truth is that if they were able to do this, they probably wouldn’t be seeing me for couples therapy.
Sharing feelings and needs directly with someone you love (and being able to receive them in return from your partner) is a rare skill, and is a foundation for a close, bonded relationship. Yet so few couples are able to do it well. Why is that?
Open Communication is Risky
I think for most people they’ve rarely seen it modeled, and perhaps have never been on the receiving end of someone taking that kind of emotional risk with them. Very few of us grew up in homes where there was clear, open communication of feelings. Consider this quote from Virginia Satir, one of the founders of family therapy:
In the nurturing family…parents see themselves as empowering leaders not as authoritative bosses. They see their job primarily as one of teaching their children how to be truly human in all situations. They readily acknowledge to the child their poor judgment as well as their good judgment; their hurt, anger, or disappointment as well as their joy. The behavior of these parents matches what they say.Virginia Satir
So if this is a crucial habit and practice for successful relationships, yet so few people learned how to do it, what do we do?
Well, I think it can be helpful to identify what feelings are, and what they’re not. It sounds simple, right? Let’s look closer.
Feelings vs Perceptions
Let’s just take the phrase ‘I feel…’. Many people assume that if they are saying this, then they’re actually sharing feelings. But oftentimes they’re sharing perceptions (thoughts) rather than feelings.
For example, have you ever found yourself saying, ‘I feel that you…’. This is a common phrasing people use in American English to describe their thoughts and perceptions of a relationship. ‘I feel that you don’t care about my preferences’. One way to tell if you’re sharing a perception rather than a feeling is if you can drop off the ‘I feel that’ part and have it still make sense.
A feeling, on the other hand, gives you as a person more clarity about your inner experience. And it also lets other people know about our experience. ‘I feel mad at you right now’, or ‘I feel irritated when you use that tone.’
So Why is Naming Feelings So Important?
Well, perceptions about how our partners see or feel about us can only be explored in dialogue, and it’s important we be open to clarifications about how our partners see us and their intentions. Often when couples get stuck in cycles of conflict and disconnection, there are a lot of negative perceptions that go unchecked and unclarified. And there are a lot of feelings that go unshared.
When people are in touch with, and then take the risks to share their feelings, then there’s a vitality and freedom in the relationship.
This is where couples counseling can be helpful. When I’m helping a couple untangle from an argument, I’m often helping them get in touch with unnamed (and therefore unshared) feelings. When these can be shared in a more direct way without attacking, the partner can hear and receive them and respond. And part of the benefit of couples counseling is to facilitate the sharing of these more vulnerable parts. And when that happens, healing and closeness in the relationship becomes much more possible.