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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Relationships: Is There Room in Your Relationship for Your Feelings?

As a psychotherapist in NYC, who sees both individuals and couples, one of the most common problems that clients bring to therapy is that they feel there isn't room in their relationships for them to express their feelings.

There can be many reasons why this problem occurs.  Often, it goes beyond a problem with communication, although this is usually a factor.  The more challenging factor is that there has usually been a dynamic in the relationship where one person, who tends to be the more dominant person in the relationship, has more control over the emotional tenor, how the couple spends time, financial decisions, and other aspects of the relationship.  In other words, there's a power differential between them.

When I see individuals or couples where this is a problem, the person who is less dominant in the relationship often complains that whenever s/he tries to talk about unpleasant feelings, like feeling ignored or unmet emotional needs, the partner either refuses to hear it or minimizes the feelings.  For the person who feels unheard, over time, this often causes hurt, anger and resentment. If the dynamic persists, it can erode the relationship.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates this relationship dynamic:

Dan and Sue:
Dan and Sue, both in their late 30s, were married for 10 years.  They had two sons (6 and 7).  They got married while Dan was in law school.  In the early years, Sue worked as an office manager while Dan completed law school.  They were very in love and had common values.

The main problem that brought them into marriage counseling, from Sue's point of view, was that she felt Dan wasn't open to hearing her talk about her unmet emotional needs.

Relationships:  Is There Room in Your Relationship for Your Feelings?

She felt he tended to shut her down or, if she persisted in trying to talk to him, he would get angry and they would argue.  Lately, these arguments were becoming more frequent, and they were starting to erode the relationship.  From Dan's point of view, Sue was making unreasonable emotional demands on him.  When he got home from his stressful job, he didn't want to have these discussions.  He didn't want to be confronted by Sue's emotional demands.  Sue countered that, even when she tried to find a better time to talk, Dan was still dismissive of her feelings.

As they talked about their relationship, it became apparent that this dynamic began early on.  In the beginning, when Dan was in law school, he had a lot of time constraints. Sue learned to be emotionally accommodating, keeping most of her concerns to herself.  She thought this dynamic would change once Dan completed law school and became an attorney.  But once he became an attorney in a top law firm, he had to work very long hours.  When he got home, he was exhausted.  He often spent most evenings and weekends working, leaving Sue feeling  lonely. Whenever she tried to talk to Dan about it, he got angry and felt unappreciated. From his point of view, he was doing all of this for them.

By the time they had their two sons, Sue felt even more lonely.  Dan relied on Sue to make most of the decisions about the children.  He spent time with their sons, but there seemed to be less and less time for Dan and Sue as a couple.  Over time, Sue began to wonder if she would be happier with someone else.  Lately, one of her male colleagues began flirting with her.  Sue was flattered, and she began fantasizing about what it might be like to have an affair with this man.  When she realized that she was having these fantasies more often, she became concerned.  At that point, she told Dan that she thought their marriage was in serious trouble, and if they couldn't work out these problems, they should consider divorce.

When Sue discussed how the male colleague's attention made her realize that she could, possibly, leave her marriage for a more satisfying relationship (although not with her colleague), Dan was shocked.  He has to reassess how preoccupied he was with work and his unwilingness to listen to Sue's concerns.  He didn't want to lose his marriage and his family.

Over time, in marriage counseling, Dan and Sue learned how to prioritize their relationship. It wasn't quick or easy. They learned how to be more empathic towards each other's emotional needs.  Dan no longer dismissed Sue's feelings.  Sue learned how and when Dan would be more receptive to hearing her.  Dan became more emotionally attuned towards his own feelings, which he realized he was ignoring.  Overall, they developed a more satisfying relationship and they enjoyed children more because they were happier with each other.

The case example above presents one possible dynamic, but there are many variations on this theme.  Men often come in complaining about women who are not emotionally attuned to their needs.  Gay and lesbian individuals and couples come in with similar issues.  This type of problem isn't about gender or sexual orientation.  It's a common problem for many couples.  It's also often a dynamic that can be changed in couples or marriage counseling, especially if he couples come in sooner rather than later and if both people are motivated to make changes.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're in a relationship where one or both of you feel your emotional needs aren't being met and there's no room to discuss this between you, you owe it to yourself and your partner to seek professional help from a licensed therapist who has expertise in this area. It's possible to have a more emotionally satisfying relationship with the right help.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist who sees individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: