10 Myths About Emotion and Marriage Couples often labor under misunderstandings about the feelings that drive them to make serious and sometimes irrevocable decisions about their marriage. Avoid belief of these 10 myths. BY DR. BRENT BRADLEY AND DR. JAMES FURROW
Don't fall into the trap of these emotional myths.
“ The funny thing is, if you refuse to feel your pain deeply, you also make it impossible to feel your happiness and joy deeply. You can’t have one without the other.”
"So…how’s your relationship?" If someone asks you this question at the right time (after a big fight, for instance), it will unleash a flood of frustration: She’s too sensitive. The other day I suggested she forgo a second piece of cake—just because I care about her health, mind you—and she fell apart like a $2 watch!
Or, he’s like a robot. He doesn’t care about how I feel at all! Every time I try to talk about our marriage, he just shuts down. That makes me mad, so I keep pushing and pushing until we’re screaming at each other.
Notice how at the heart of all this maelstrom of emotion is the subject of… well, emotion? That’s because the E-word is the glue in all romantic relationships. So, while emotions can pull couples together, they can also push couples apart.
This is actually true of all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. The first step, though, is separating fact from fiction. Here are 10 glaring, outdated misperceptions about emotions that may be hampering your marriage:
Myth #1 Happy couples don’t argue. This myth should have been dead 20 years ago. John Gottman, a leading couple researcher, found that even his "master" couples—those who stayed happily married over many years—argued with each other. His couples who divorced argued. In fact, the only couples who didn’t argue had grown distant, and even though they never argued, they were headed for divorce.
A pivotal difference between happy couples and divorcing couples is the way they argue. Happy couples argue without criticizing each other’s character. These couples don’t fall into the extremes of what Gottman refers to as "The Four Horsemen:" criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Extremes in these categories were found to reliably predict divorce. Arguing without falling into "The Four Horsemen" categories was a common trait of the "master" couples Gottman followed over two decades. In fact, he noted that some "master" couples were arguing about the same exact issues 20 years after he had initially interviewed them!
Myth #2 Men don’t do emotions. This sentiment is taught to many boys very early in life. Statements such as "Boys don’t cry," "Dry it up!" and "Don’t be a sissy!" can begin a trajectory of dissociating from emotion for males, making it difficult for them to intimately relate to their partners as adults. The truth is, men need to become aware of their emotions and integrate them into their daily lives rather than trying to change them. Men need to learn the difference between secondary, reactive emotion and primary, adaptive emotion. Men who incorporate this approach into their lives become better partners, better dads, and better employees.
We’ve seen many men in therapy learn the truth about how important emotion is, and as they begin to tap into their own emotions they’re stunned to learn that an entire world exists that was previously outside their awareness.
Women sometimes don’t understand the lengths that some men go to in order to avoid emotion—as seen with one couple we talked to. Ali was shocked at how little Geoff knew about emotion. "When things got sad or vulnerable," she said, "it was like he suddenly didn’t even speak English. It’s like the way I talked with my girlfriends at age seven was beyond any level of emotional conversation he had experienced. He was so shut off from my—and his own—emotional worlds. It was killing us."
Myth #3 Women are more sensitive than men. Women are often socialized to be more emotionally aware and demonstratively sensitive than men (which explains the Ali/Geoff dynamics). Researchers have consistently found that even young girls are much more concerned with how others feel, whereas boys are more concerned with competing. But too often society accepts this as an inborn genetic reality when this isn’t always the case.
We’ve worked with plenty of women who struggle with effectively integrating their emotions. The good news is that everyone can learn to better integrate emotions into everyday awareness. What’s commonly thought of as women being "more sensitive" than men is more a case of women being more in tune with their emotions. That’s healthy.
Myth #4 Emotions are irrational. Usually what is referred to as "irrational" is someone who’s had a secondary emotional meltdown. For example, John finds his partner in bed with someone else, and John goes berserk, loses his temper, and does something stupid. If you’re reacting to something deeper—some kind of emotional pain, for example—but you aren’t aware of what the deeper emotion is then you are, in effect, responding from your secondary emotion.
You can trust your primary emotions. When you ignore them and, instead, react out of your secondary emotions, you may get yourself into trouble. If John had the personal maturity to listen to his primary emotion when he saw his wife in bed with another man, he would’ve slowed down and felt that he was in a world of hurt too. This would’ve allowed his thinking to catch up to his primary emotions, and he would’ve stopped himself from charging in and playing the fool.
Myth #5 Emotions get in the way of making good decisions. Statements such as "Don’t be emotional when making decisions" and "Take the emotion out of it" are common. They stem from not understanding the different layers of emotional processing. When people talk like this, they’re almost always referring to secondary emotional reactions, like anger and frustration.
But heeding primary emotion has the opposite effect. It helps you get clear on your needs and wants. And you get clear on when you feel you’re being taken advantage of or when a business decision just isn’t good. These gut-felt responses or intuitions can be streamlined into immediate awareness and used to help guide you.
You don’t need to "control" your primary emotions. Just the opposite: You need to learn to let them guide you more. That’s why primary emotions are there—and why they’ve remained there across time. Ignore them at your own peril!
“ Arguing can mean that vital emotions are being expressed. In fact, couples who never argue are those who no longer care enough to argue—a terrible sign for the future of the relationship.”
Myth #6 Your thoughts are in charge of your emotions. Actually, the opposite is true. We cannot control our emotions with our thoughts. In fact our emotions set up our thinking. They arrive in lightning-fast fashion and set the stage for the later-occurring thoughts. When we’re in danger, for example, we simply don’t have time to think it out. Your emotional system sends you signals of fight or flight before you can consciously think and reflect on the situation.
We need both emotion and cognition to function at our best. Trying to love and make decisions without both can be dangerous. But cognition has been so overemphasized that it’s the emotional part of the equation that many people simply don’t yet understand and use. We could give many examples of clients who "know" how they should be thinking and behaving differently, however so many of them report, "I know what I should do in my mind—I know it—but when I get afraid or worried, I just can’t do it. My emotion is too strong. It stops me."
When you ignore emotions and push them away, they can leave you paralyzed to behave in ways that you know you should. When you can clearly experience what your deep, primary emotions are telling you, you can act instead of being stuck in fear or worry.
Myth #7 Painful feelings are always bad. Consider funerals: They are sad, depressing, painful, and sometimes cruel. But funerals aren’t all bad and neither are painful feelings. They can remind us of what life is really all about and can provide clarity into how you want your future to look. When you allow yourself to feel painful emotions—when you don’t run away from them—they can remind you what’s important in your life. When you hurt emotionally, you feel firsthand what’s important to you. You don’t get sad and cry over something that doesn’t matter.
When you say something you regret to your partner, for example, it’s not long before it begins to emotionally tug at you. As you feel emotionally disconnected from your spouse, your primary emotions of hurt and loneliness emphatically tell you that your current state isn’t good. The pain is washed away by the equally powerful emotions of happiness and joy, stemming from acceptance, connection, and emotional harmony with your husband or wife.
The funny thing is, if you refuse to feel your pain deeply, you also make it impossible to feel your happiness and joy deeply. You can’t have one without the other.
Myth #8 Experiencing emotion makes it worse. Some people think that if they let themselves feel their painful emotions, it will make the situation worse and make their pain more painful. In more extreme cases, these people may turn to alcohol and drugs to ward off their emotions. Yet the opposite of this myth is true: When you face and fully feel your emotions, they get their message across to you and they begin to dissipate. Mission accomplished.
It’s like putting hydrogen peroxide on a wound. When you first apply it, it hurts a lot, but as the hydrogen peroxide does its job of cleaning the wound, the stinging goes away. If you ignore your emotion, just like refusing to clean a wound, the pain only grows and returns another day, with more strength.
Myth #9 Emotions get in the way of business decisions. When people say, "You have to remove emotions when making business decisions," they’re usually referring to someone’s secondary emotional response of aggression or defensiveness. Sure enough, someone caught in secondary emotion can be difficult to work with—and it’s not a good idea to make decisions when you’re feeling the effects of secondary emotions like anger or frustration. However, that isn’t helpful in intimate relationships, parenting, or friendship either.
Being aware of your own and others’ primary emotion is a great asset when making business decisions and in being an effective leader. Effective leaders—those who garner loyalty from others—are most often the ones who are well tuned in to their own emotional worlds and those of others. People can tell that they care because they show genuine empathy, which is possible only by demonstrating emotional sensitivity.
Myth #10 Anger is always bad. Like all emotions, anger is a signal with a message. It tells you when something is wrong and it prepares you to make it stop—to protect yourself. Anger, in the right context, is there because you need it. When you feel infringed upon, your boundaries crossed, taken advantage of, and so forth, anger immediately organizes you to protect and assert yourself to stop the intrusion. Anger, in and of itself, is helpful.
It’s how you respond to your anger that leads to the myth that anger is always bad. Couples can learn to recognize their anger with each other and discuss it without attacking each other’s character. Often, simply naming the anger as it’s happening ("I’m angry right now") can help you contain it.
Recent findings in affective neuroscience and a greater understanding of marriage and family therapy and psychology now have lots to say in erasing old misunderstandings. Sometimes misbeliefs can hamper progress in many areas of your life. As you move toward a fuller life emotionally, these errors no longer need to impair your progress.
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are co-authors of "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies." Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy. Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.