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Emotions are contagious (1). It’s like your feelings create an orbit with a gravitational pull and once your spouse/partner is pulled into your emotional orbit, s/he will begin to feel what you are feeling (to some degree).
You might already be aware of this happening:
When you offer comfort to a friend who is having a difficult time, your emotional energy levels start to match his/hers as you emotionally tune into what s/he is experiencing;
Your mood is lightened whenever you spend time with someone who is jocular;
You feel exhausted and blue after being with someone who is always complaining about the unfairness of life.
In these instances, a channel of connection is opened that allows for mutual contact and influence. In the example of a friend who is struggling, s/he may feel less distressed because of the attention and compassion you offer.
These channels are important for our marriage/relationship as well as our emotional wellbeing. Once we open ourselves to one another, these channels help to feed emotional connection; they allow us to directly experience each other’s presence; they nurture a sense of we-ness, the deep feeling of being there for each other; and, they help to sever the pain of loneliness.
We feel most alone when we’re in pain.
When we struggle, our separateness comes into greater focus. For some of us, reaching out for support may be more difficult in these moments. Somewhere during the journey of life we may have learned that others aren’t there for us when we need them most. So instead of reaching out, we go inward when faced with emotional pain. It’s as if we fall into ourselves and in doing so we become unfindable to our partner (even when s/he is trying to offer comfort).
Are You Opening Channels to Emotional Connection?
Feelings are the centerpiece of intimate relationships.
To be in love is to feel in love. To be close to your partner is to feel close to him/her. To want him/her is to feel desirous. When things are going right with your marriage, things feel right (peace, contentment, happiness, joy); and conversely, when you and your partner are struggling with each other, you feel pained.
To be in relationship is to feel on many different levels. You might accept and/or embrace these; or you may deny them (or some of them). You may turn away from them or grow numb to their influence, but despite what you do with these feelings, they exist.
Since emotions play a central role in your marriage (or intimate relationship), how you handle feelings directly impacts the level of intimacy you and your spouse/partner can achieve.
For intimacy (emotional connection) to flourish, a mutual openness must exist. An openness to your own emotional life as well as the emotional world of your partner. And, as some of you may know, this level of openness can be a real challenge at times.
- Are you comfortable with experiencing a wide range of feelings?
- Can you stay with difficult emotions or do you quickly distract/close yourself off to them?
- Why does creating mutual channels of openness feel so challenging for you?
- Do you feel connected to your own emotions (can you identify and name them)?
- Can you use your emotions as messengers reflecting back to you what you’re needing/wanting?
Don’t worry if you draw a blank while reflecting on the above questions. Taking that first step in considering these questions (as well as others) can help you become more attuned to the role of emotions in your relationship and your life in general.
You and your partner might also use these questions to start a discussion about how to build a more intimate connection. To do so, it will be necessary to create a judgment-free zone that allows you each to feel safe in order to share your experiences.
Emotional Intimacy: Why Intimacy Shuts Down
Frequently, intimacy shuts down when you (or your partner) reach an emotional limit or threshold that prevents you from:
1) Connecting and staying with your own feelings;
2) Remaining open to receiving the emotional experiences of another.
We all have our own emotional ceiling — a cap that demarcates where our comfort zone lies and where discomfort begins. When your limit is reached it can feel like you’re unable to give of yourself and remain open to your partner. In these moments, you may pull away or shut down or become defensive in some way. Each of these interpersonal maneuvers is an attempt to remove yourself from the interaction that feels like too much for you.
Couples are often unaware of their emotional limits and how these play out in their marriage/relationship. While our emotional capacities aren’t set in stone (there is room for growth and emotional expansion), knowing about their existence is an important first step in learning about each other and how to understand the connection-disconnection dance that plays out in your relationship (this dance plays out in all relationships).
So rather than automatically short-circuiting intimacy (without awareness of this occurring), the ideal would be to name the times you are unable to keep your side of the intimacy-channel open. In these instances you might say something like:
✓ “I’m too tired right now to continue this conversation. Can we continue later?”;
✓ “When you’re sad like this (or angry or mistrusting) I find I want to pull away from you because I end up feeling so helpless (or attacked)”;
✓ “Talking about these feelings makes me so uncomfortable, I’m not sure why. I feel myself wanting to pull away, but rather than doing that I wanted to let you know what’s going on for me.”
Can you think of other things you can say that can let your partner know that you are struggling to remain emotionally available to him/her?
And don’t forget, for these important discussions to be effective, they need to occur in a safe environment, one without criticism, mockery, harshness, and the like. Remember, the seeds of intimacy can only take hold in the soil of mutual acceptance and respect.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Georgetown, Texas.
(1) For research on emotional contagion see Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. 1994. Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press).
(Featured image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)