The Importance of Emotions For Healthy, Happy and Connected Relationships

“Emotion has control precedence neurologically” – Ed Tronick

Quite a few of my couples get uncomfortable when I encourage them to get into their emotions.

Often questioning why it’s necessary when it frequently seems – on the surface – that part of the problem they’re facing is caused by their emotions.

Well, here’s the short answer:

Your logical brain is nowhere near powerful enough to talk your emotional brain out of its experience…

…That’s just how the human nervous system is wired. So if you want to change your experience you have to get up close to your emotions. Specifically your softer, more vulnerable emotions.

In my experience, you can’t talk someone out of what they’re feeling.

How come?

Because emotions are a powerful part of your survival kit.

Survival is hard wired into your brain and evolution has discovered that the best navigation device for survival is your emotions.
All of which means in order to survive; you have to make friends with your emotions.

Contrary to what you might have read, mental toughness doesn’t mean you have to avoid emotions.

…Your emotions are sending you important messages that something needs to be looked at.

Let them guide you and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at where you end up.

But you need to do it right.

Let’s look into your emotions a little deeper…

…To feel connected to your partner, it’s vital you learn to share your emotions in a way your partner can accept.

Especially when things start to get heated.

And I don’t care who you are…

…If you’re sharing your life with another human, things are going to get heated at some point.

In fact those heated, painful emotions can be a very powerful signal that you’ve lost connection with your special person.

They can also be used to help you reconnect.

Easier said than done though.

Because it’s common when you’re arguing to share a whole mishmash of what’s called: ‘Secondary Emotions’, the most common being anger or emotional shutdown.

Both of which have the effect of pushing your loved one further away.

However, if you can switch from the volatile secondary emotions to the more helpful, softer ‘Primary Emotions’ your relationship will be better for it.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Hold on a second.

Primary emotions?

Secondary emotions?

You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m on about?

Which is a good question, sometimes when I’m writing, I forget you’re not a couples only counsellor.

So here’s a quick look at:

Primary emotions – These are your most vulnerable emotions, they’re below the surface and you’re likely to be less conscious of them. They’re typically related to attachment needs and fears like:

  • Not being valued
  • Feeling invisible or unlovable
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Feeling alone

Primary emotions are your first emotions (hence the name) and they’re usually felt within your body in response to your immediate situation. They appear quickly and often before you even have time to think about them. They have the power to set your mood and the thoughts that follow. Here are some examples of how you might experience primary emotions in your body:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Butterflies
  • Increased beating of your heart
  • Tightness in the back of your neck
  • A sinking feeling in your stomach
  • Heaviness in your chest
  • Cotton wool in your mouth
  • Hot breath

Secondary emotions – Are expressed in response to primary emotions, such as becoming angry when you’re scared. Secondary emotions are your less vulnerable emotions. They’re above the surface and operate in real time as a way to cope with your more vulnerable primary emotions.

For example: A person may feel ashamed (primary emotion) but act angry and defensive (secondary emotions) in response.

Examples of secondary emotions include:

  • Anger
  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Frustration
  • Guilt

Primary emotions fire immediately and if you can catch them they can give you incredibly helpful insights and guidance to navigate healthily through your present situation.

Secondary emotions are a reaction to your primary emotions.

As a result people are typically more conscious of and able to name secondary emotions and less aware of their primary emotions. Which is a pity because the ability for partners to share and to listen to primary emotions, to be able to ask for and receive reassurance and comfort creates Bonding Moments.

And it’s Bonding Moments that help couples stick together through thick and thin.

When most couples argue it’s usually like a game of what I call: Escalation Tennis.

With each partner throwing increasingly harmful secondary (reactive) emotions backwards and forwards at each other.

It usually looks something like this:

You throw a rock at me.

I catch it and I throw you back a bullet from a gun.

You catch my bullet and send back a rocket.

I catch your rocket and send you back a missile from a tank.

This goes on until one of you goes for the Nuclear, scorched earth solution or walks away.

When you play Escalation Tennis this outcome is inevitable.

How come?

Well sharing your primary (vulnerable) emotions whilst your partner is verbally throwing secondary emotions at you will feel very threatening and leave you feeling even more vulnerable.

All of which means you’re more likely to react with secondary emotions of your own and so it goes on and on.

Here’s the take away message from what we’ve looked at:

Being able to share your vulnerable emotions with those you love is essential for promoting harmonious, loving and connected relationships.

But you have to do it in a way your partner feels comfortable with.

Fortunately this can be taught.

So, if you’re sick of escalating, secondary emotion fuelled conflicts…

…The good news is there are tried and tested tools to help you and your partner learn how to connect with your primary emotions and to express them in ways that promote healthier and happier relationships.

It’s a big part of the work I do with couples and I’d love to share it with you.

You can get started here:

Face to Face Sessions
2 Day Intensive Session