Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

Sailing the Emotion Ocean: A Couple’s Guide

sailboat photo

High Emotions in Familial Relationships is the Norm

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have emotional vulnerabilities that often drive our behaviors, for better or worse.  Nowhere is this truer than in our close familial relationships.  Our emotional reactions often harm those relationships, but we can learn to recognize emotions and utilize them in positive ways that promote relationship connection.

Several months ago, I noticed an incident like this on a trip to South America.  I flew with my husband to Santiago, Chile, to pick up a son, after which we flew over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina where my husband met an old friend.  We had a plan to drive across the country of Argentina to Buenos Aires, allowing my husband and his old friend to get reacquainted.  I sat in the backseat of the car between my son, and the spouse of my husband’s friend, who didn’t understand any English.

My Spanish has been cobbled together from years of helping children with elementary Spanish immersion homework, a few online classes, and four years of studying its Latin sister, French.  I could understand some verbal conversations, but I was incapable of fluidly expressing myself.  As a result, while driving across Argentina, I carried on a conversation with my new Argentine friend through my son and husband.  I understood just enough of what she was saying that she would feel encouraged to talk to me more.  I became overwhelmed at the experience of having to concentrate and stay attentive to the possibility that she might be trying to converse, at which point I would check in with my son to see if I interpreted her correctly.  I began noticing the same disorienting feeling I had had in Beijing, over a year earlier, when I didn’t understand anyone around me and couldn’t communicate. I was becoming annoyed at my husband, in the front seat, chatting away in Spanish and laughing hysterically at his friend’s jokes, completely unaware of my distress.  In short, I felt alone.

Six hours and one police bribe later, when we stopped for gas, I cornered him.  “You keep ignoring me!” I hissed.  His lips said, “What are you talking about honey?  You’re doing great!  You understand almost everything we are saying,” while his eyes said, “Ok Crazy Sauce, what have you done with my wife?”  I immediately realized that I was flooded because of all the feelings I was having, and I was being triggered by other uncomfortable language-related memories.  I could see that in the moment that I wanted my husband to comfort me, I was pushing him away with my tone of voice because I had allowed my distress to develop into anger, which almost always functionally distances people from us.  I took a deep breath, and calmly told him I just needed him to check in on me because I was really feeling uncomfortable.  Later that night, I told him about how I had been experiencing the same claustrophobic feelings I had in China when I couldn’t communicate effectively with anyone, in a way that helped him understand.  For the rest of the trip, he took the time to frequently check in with me.

Attachment Relationships ProvideSoothing and Comfort

We all have distressing emotional experiences for which we need compassion, soothing, and comfort.  Unfortunately, many of these emotions originate in the relationship, so partners potentially trigger each other continually.  It is impossible to interact with your partner and not have your brain recognize previously threatening interactions.  Additionally, frustration and anger are common immediate byproducts of uncomfortable feelings and are outwardly expressed more often than riskier, vulnerable emotions.  However, these expressions result in more distance, since none of us has an easy time approaching someone who is frustrated or angry.  Even if partners stay physically present in an angry conversation, they can immediately erect invisible walls to shield themselves from the emotional storm.  The wall can be defensiveness, silence, or numbness, but it functionally protects individuals from feeling the pain of disappointing an attachment partner, and the end result is relationship disconnection.

To Manage Emotion, Express it Early

Part of the trick of resolving uncomfortable emotion is to understand it and express it early.  More than once, I have had a client describe expressed emotion as that of a “volcano that erupted,” leaving a trail of relationship devastation in its wake. Several times, if I have had a spouse outwardly expressing anger, I will ask about the pain or fear or helplessness that is associated with the anger, and when that is expressed instead, a compassionate response from the partner is more likely. An easy way to think about expressing emotions is to ask, “Am I about to express my emotion in a way that can draw my partner closer to me, or am I pushing him or her away?”  When emotion is expressed in a way that partners can respond to effectively, bonding moments occur, understanding is achieved, and the relationship is strengthened.

Then, it’s smooth sailing all the way…until the next storm…

For more information about how emotional reaching trumps a communication skill set, check out Dr. Sue Johnson’s blog post at:


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