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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Could Save Your Relationship

In prior articles, Anger as a Secondary Emotion and Boredom as a Secondary Emotion: Understanding the Underlying Emotions in Therapy, I wrote about anger and boredom in terms of secondary emotions.  In the current article, I will discuss focus on how understanding and expressing primary emotions could save your relationship.

How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Could Save Your Relationship

Understanding Primary and Secondary Emotions in a Relationship
In a relationship where one person has an anxious attachment style and the other partner has an avoidant attachment style, each person will probably express their dissatisfaction and frustration with the relationship in different ways (see my article:  How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

If one or both people in a relationship misunderstand what's being communicated, it could jeopardize the relationship, especially if both people are locked into a rigid, dysfunctional way of relating.

This is why it's so important to look beyond the surface of what's being expressed to understand the possible hurt and longing that is hidden beyond the surface.

Couples therapy with a licensed psychotherapist, who understands attachment styles and primary and secondary emotions, can help avoid misunderstandings and a possible breakup.

Fictional Vignette: How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Could Save Your Relationship
The following fictional vignette illustrates how couples, who are locked into a dysfunctional interactive pattern, can learn to understand and express primary emotions by seeking help in couples counseling:

May and John
May and John, who were married for 10 years, decided to seek help in couples counseling because their relationship had devolved from a loving, nurturing relationship to an ongoing battle of accusations and counter-accusations.

May explained to their couples therapist that the problems began a couple of years ago when John took a new job where he had to spend a lot of extra hours at work.  When he came home, she said, he was exhausted, and all he wanted to do was eat supper, watch a little TV and then go to sleep.

She told the couples therapist that John was frequently asleep on the couch by 9 PM.  She said that, while she understood that he was tired from a long day at work, she often felt lonely because he was barely communicative during the week and when she wanted to go out on weekends, he just wanted to lounge around the apartment.

She also explained that whereas they used to have an active sex life, their sex life now was practically nonexistent.  Since they were only in their mid-30s, she felt this didn't bode well for the survival of the relationship.  She said that whenever she complained to him that he wasn't paying enough attention to her, he would remain silent and turn away from her, which infuriated her so much that she would lose her temper and begin yelling.

When he didn't walk into another room to avoid her, she said, he would sometimes also lose his temper so that they were then involved in a shouting match, both saying things that they regretted later.  Then, she said, they would usually each retreat from one another for a while--until the next argument and the cycle began again.

May said that they both wanted to have a child within the next year or so, but she didn't see how their relationship could survive.  So, on the one hand, it made her hesitant about having a baby and, on the other hand, she was aware that if she didn't have a baby soon, she might not be able to conceive because of her age.

How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Could Save Your Relationship

The couples therapist noticed that while May was speaking, John sat silently looking away.  She could see that John was feeling annoyed and defensive, and he had "checked out" of the session as soon as May began speaking.

She would need to get to know May and John better over time, but her first impression was that, in terms of their attachment styles, May was in the role of an anxious "pursuer" and John was in the role of an avoidant "withdrawer" in their dynamic.

When the couples therapist invited John to speak, he shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know what to say.  May knows that I'm working these crazy hours in order to advance my career so we can eventually have a house and other things that we want.  It's not that I like working long hours--it's required of me.  Then, when I get home, I need space to breathe and relax, but I feel verbally assaulted by May as soon as I walk through the door.  All she does is nag me, which is such a turnoff so, yeah, I'm not usually interested in having sex because I'm tired but also because I'm turned off by how May speaks to me.  She's just so angry all the time.  It makes me feel like a failure as a husband.  Then, I just want to be alone.  Who wants to come home to an angry person who yells at you everyday?  Not me."

The couples therapist could see that May and John were locked into a rigid negative way of relating, and neither of them were able to express the love and longing that they felt for each other.  She started by reflecting back and paraphrasing what May said and included that it was clear that, underneath her anger and yelling, was love and longing (the primary emotions) to be with John.

May nodded her head and looked over at John, who seemed a bit more engaged when he heard the couples therapist express May's primary emotions, love and longing, that were being covered over by the secondary emotion of anger.  John looked over at May and took her hand.

Then, the couples therapist paraphrased what John said about actually wanting to spend more time with May, but being required to work long hours at the office.  She paraphrased how tired he felt when he came home and that he needed a little time to unwind before interacting with May.  She also paraphrased that when May got angry and yelled at him, he didn't know what else to do, he felt like a failure as a husband so he withdrew from her.  But, in fact, he really loved her and wanted to be with her (the primary emotions).

As John listened to the couples therapist, he nodded his head to indicate that this is how he felt.  Then, he smiled at May, whose demeanor had softened as she listened to the couples therapist paraphrase what John said.

Then, May squeezed John's hand and said to him that she would be more than willing to give him time and space when he got home if she knew that he would pay attention to her after that.  In response, John gave May a hug.

This was the beginning of weekly six month couple therapy where John and May learned about each of their attachment styles and the primary emotions underneath May's anxious anger and John's defeated avoidant withdrawal.

The beginning stage of couples therapy involved helping May and John to de-escalate their emotions.  May allowed John to unwind and, rather than expressing anger and criticism, she learned to allow herself to be vulnerable enough to express to John the love and longing that she felt.

When May allowed John time to unwind when he got home and she was no longer yelling at him, he felt more comfortable approaching May and being closer to her.  He understood that, even during those times when she would occasionally yell at him, that her anger was a secondary emotion that covered over her love and longing for him and her fears that he was emotionally abandoning her.

May also began to understand that John's withdrawal didn't mean that he didn't care about her.  It meant that this was his secondary, defensive emotion in response to her anger.  She realized that underneath his withdrawn demeanor, he still loved her, but he  felt emotionally overwhelmed by what he perceived to be her angry demands (see my article:  Relationships and Communication: Are You a "Stonewaller"?).

How Understanding Primary Emotions and Attachment Styles Could Save Your Relationship

They both realized that if they were going to repair their relationship, they each needed to make it safe for each other to be emotionally vulnerable enough to express their primary emotions. This wasn't easy because they each feared getting hurt.  But over time, they allowed themselves to express their primary emotions of love and caring and their relationship improved.

Secondary emotions usually cover over the core primary emotions, which is related to each person's attachment style.

The secondary emotion of anger, which was demonstrated in the vignette above with how May responded to John, often covers over hurt, fear and longing.  And what appears as nonresponsive withdrawal, demonstrated by John when May got angry with him, often covers over the primary emotion of fear and feelings of inadequacy.

In the role of the "pursuer" and with an anxious attachment style, May felt exasperated by John's nonresponsiveness so her anger escalated.  In response, John, who was the "withdrawer" with an avoidant attachment style wanted to withdraw even more.  Underneath what appeared to be a non-caring stance, John was fearful and feeling inadequate.

So, they were caught in this rigid negative dance with each other and neither of them knew how to change that dance until an empathetic couples therapist helped them by allowing them to see the love and longing behind their secondary emotions and feel safe enough to express their more vulnerable emotions (see my article: Relationships: Creating a Safe Haven For Each Other).

Getting Help in Therapy
The dynamics in the vignette that I presented above are common, and it's often very difficult for a couple to overcome these dynamics on their own.

A skilled couples therapist can help each partner to feel comfortable enough to de-escalate their emotions, understand their primary emotions (as opposed to the secondary emotions that are on the surface), and express their more vulnerable feelings of love and longing for each other (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you and your significant other are stuck in a rigid negative cycle, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who works with couples.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.

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