For the Recorder
Published: 11/4/2022 2:33:22 PM
Last month’s column focused on the importance of emotional availability, which I describe as “creating an emotional connection through open, authentic and vulnerable communication.” Emotional availability is an essential ingredient in fulfilling, thriving relationships. Readers might wonder, “how can I be more emotionally available?” This month’s column aims to answer that intriguing question.
We are all emotional beings. Part of being human is to experience emotions throughout our entire lives. We see children displaying emotions on an ongoing basis. They let us know when they are happy, sad, fearful, excited, angry, etc. Although we mature as we age, we never grow out of our innate need to both experience and express emotions. Emotions play a crucial role in guiding us through our lives by influencing how we engage with others day-to-day, and the decisions we make. For example, if we experience happiness when receiving loving attention from someone we care about, this emotion guides us to continue our connection with that person.
Key points about emotional availability
Every one of us is born with the capacity to experience many different emotions. Each primary emotion (such as happiness, sadness, fear and anger) has many variations. For example, happiness can be experienced as joy, contentment, or satisfaction; sadness as disappointment, grief, or hopelessness; fear as worry, panic and distrust; and anger as resentment, frustration and fury. The better we identify and understand our own emotions, the better we are able to clearly communicate to, and be understood by, others. In fact, we have forty-two (!) facial muscles that exist solely to help us express the wide variety of emotions we experience at different times.
Both empathy and emotional regulation are at the heart of emotional availability. An impressive study involving brain scans of spouses, who reported still being in love after an average of 21 years, showed significant activity in the parts of the brain associated with these critical skills. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes without judgment or criticism. And one has to be able to regulate their own emotions, so they don’t get in the way of truly listening to and understanding the other. For example, we all might feel angry at times, but it is important to express that emotion without resorting to unregulated alienating behaviors such as yelling, criticizing or withdrawing.
The study mentioned above corroborates what I have seen in my direct experience working with couples: that offering and receiving empathy, along with managing emotions, greatly contribute to healthy bonding and longevity in relationships. The good news is, even if we don’t consider ourselves to be highly empathic or able to handle emotions such as anger well, every human being, with practice, can develop these capacities.
What did your early environment teach you about emotions?
Your family of origin, the schools you attended, and your childhood peers, along with living in a culture filled with gender role expectations, have all had an enormous influence over how you have learned to engage with and express your emotions. I invite you to do some self-exploration by asking yourself the following questions: How did your family express love, anger, sadness, fear and happiness? Were there certain emotions that were okay to experience and express in your family, while others were not “allowed?” Are there emotions you presently find difficult to express, or hear your partner express? There could very well be a correlation between how you were introduced to the “rules” of emotions early in life, and how these “rules” impact how you navigate through your emotional experiences in your relationships today.
Doable steps for greater emotional availability:
Make a conscious decision to work on becoming more emotionally available.
Consider “making friends” with all of your emotions, by approaching them with acceptance, no matter what they are.
Begin to reveal more of your true feelings to some people in your life, who you experience as accepting and nonjudgmental.
Respect that your partner has a right to their own feelings, even when you feel uncomfortable (for example, if their complaint is about you).
Get curious: Instead of shutting down or interrupting with your own complaints when your partner is upset about something you did or said, keep your focus on what your partner needs you to hear. Say “Tell me more so I can fully understand” and resist the temptation to get defensive.
Support the Recorder. Subscribe Today
Truly listen: put away any tech devices, make eye contact and fully engage.
Don’t dismiss or minimize the other person’s feelings by saying something like, “Don’t feel sad.” Instead, be supportive of their emotional reality by saying something along the lines of, “I see you feel really sad.”
Express a genuine interest in your partner’s happiness, joys and accomplishments.
Don’t offer advice unless it is asked for. This can be hard, since we often want to help by offering suggestions. The other person, however, may not be in a space to think about solutions; and also, as good as your ideas may seem, they may not be a true fit for the other person.
Get in the habit of sharing what you appreciate about each other often. Whenever you feel warm and affectionate toward your partner, let them know.
Do some self-inquiry: When experiencing unpleasant emotions, ask yourself “What are my emotions telling me? What might I be needing/wanting right now?” Once identified, you can express yourself by using the “language of feelings and needs”, saying, for example, “I am feeling really sad, and would like more time and connection with you.” For a helpful list of universal feelings and needs that could help you know and communicate what’s truly going on for you, click on: https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/feelings_needs.pdf
Find a psychotherapist to help you to learn more about your emotions and how to express them in a better way. While it is entirely natural to have intense emotions, if we experience either frequent emotional outbursts or a lack of emotional expression (“shutting down”), such behaviors inevitably hurt our relationships. If you struggle with either of these challenges and wish to pursue the idea of working with a psychotherapist, Psychology Today’s website is a good resource.
Pause and take a step back whenever you feel so angry or frustrated that you cannot engage in a respectful and kind way. Let your partner know that it’s important to you to work things out, but that you need to take a break to calm down; make a plan with them to continue the conversation when you are calmer. (Always agree on a timeframe; for example, in two hours.)
Restart a conversation that is going badly. Say: “I want to start over. What I really want to say is … ” Then strive to talk in a calm manner, without criticism or blame.
View a simple and helpful 7-minute video about emotions here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJOjpprbfeE
I’ll close with a quote from Sue Johnson, psychotherapist, author and founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy. “Becoming more emotionally aware is not a race, nor is it about perfection. Even small changes can have a significant impact.” I invite you to take one step towards becoming more emotionally available to your partner and/or others. Choose one of the suggestions on the above list, and try it out this week. As always, I’m cheering you on!
Next month’s column: Is it possible to not take things personally?
Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.