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Regardless of who we are, our age, or which part of this big blue planet we come from, most of us have a desire to live having experienced the joy of truly loving and meaningful relationships.
Throughout our lives we invest an enormous amount of time and energy into creating and maintaining connections with others. Over the years, we will create an assortment of relationships in a wide variety of shapes, colors and flavors in order to satisfy our need of feeling connected and secure. Some relationships are constant and inseparable (i.e. our own families) and others are fluid and varied.
However, one universal truth remains; there is no escaping the innate need for safe, secure emotional connection with others. It is an essential part of the human condition. Yet, with this consideration there is one question that always surfaces.
If this innate need is intricately part of our human nature, then why at times do we suffer the irony of hurting or disappointing the ones we love the most?
This paradox occurs when the person we love the most is both a source of love, comfort and safety and during times of conflict, the source of emotional and/or physiological risk. (Gerhart, 2016). In moments of high conflict with the one’s we love, we seek to protect both ourselves and the relationship that we have established. In an attempt to protect ourselves emotionally, we react. When we react, we often become angry, frustrated and in some instances we withdraw altogether in order to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
The challenge with this dynamic is the way in which these emotional defenses are communicated to and received by the person we are trying to connect within those moments of heated exchange. Our real emotions become quickly lost in translation and our relationship takes a hit.
What can we do to navigate this dilemma?
Firstly, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge your experience. Take time to reflect on what’s happening inside of you when faced with a relationship problem. Try to identify the underlying emotions of your response/reaction and how you both interacted with and towards each other in the heat of the moment. Take a few moments to understand the connection between your experience and what you deeply need from your partner, parent, loved-one, etc.
Secondly, identify and communicate the emotions that occur in the immediate moment of your experience. For example, if our partner forgets to fulfil a promise, we communicate our primary emotion of feeling unappreciated as opposed to expressing anger or frustration. If we’re the one who may have forgotten to fulfil a promise, we express our emotions of inadequacy or even shame as opposed to withdrawing or defending our actions.
Exploring and communicating our underlying emotions doesn’t come natural at first. It takes tremendous courage and practice. It requires an agreement to honor and respect each other in expressing the most basic of emotions that occur when things don’t go well within the relationship.
If the right conditions are created, our emotional needs can be safely expressed in a way that reduces the need to react defensively, thereby improving the quality of our relationships.
Learning how to interpret and communicate your emotional needs successfully can feel like learning another language. Learning this valuable skill increases the potential to translate your needs, hopes and expectations in an authentic and constructive way. It allows you and your loved ones to successfully navigate the toughest of times, while developing strong, loving relationships.
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Reference: Gerhart, D (2016). Theory and treatment planning in family therapy. A competency based approach. Engage Learning. Boston, MA.