By the time I was 20, I already understood that there was more to this thing called love than meets the eye. While falling in love was easy, the staying there and making it work proved elusive.
While my relationships would start off well, they’d soon become challenging in all-too-familiar ways. They’d go from a sense of playfulness to it seeming harder and harder to get emotionally in sync and feel as though my partner and I were on the same emotional page. Our interactions were often fraught with tension, and conflict always seemed to be right around the corner. Invariably, things would fall apart, and I’d wonder, what am I doing wrong? Is there something deeply flawed in me?
Every day in my work as a psychologist I see clients who also struggle. They describe relationships that are riddled with fighting, animosity, conflicts or insecurity, and ones that have become numbingly lifeless or distant over time. While they’ve often tried hard to fix things, they can’t seem to get to a better place.
In my years of studying psychology, I’ve come to understand that, while our specific relationship problems are different, the underlying issue for most of us is that we’re afraid of being emotionally present and authentic in our relationships. We’re afraid of our feelings.
The science of attachment explains how early childhood experiences with our caregivers shape our emotional development. When our caregivers are emotionally open and reliable, we learn how to be expressive and connected to others, which is fundamental to having healthy relationships.
But some of us had caregivers who reacted negatively to our emotional needs. Maybe they became frustrated when we felt afraid and needed reassurance, maybe they withdrew instead of soothing us when we were hurt, or maybe they scolded us when we asserted ourselves.
While they likely were just doing the best they could, their reactions taught us lessons that became part of our emotional programming. We learned that expressing our feelings is dangerous, that it will cause problems, and that we may be rejected or abandoned. As a result, we avoid opening up to people close to us or hold certain feelings back out of fear of disconnection.
Do you find yourself repeating patterns that aren’t helpful? Do you feel afraid to open up to your partners? Do you react defensively or angrily when there’s tension or conflict? Do you choose partners who also have a hard time being emotionally present or coping in healthy ways with discomfort?
If you recognize this behavior in yourself or your partners, and if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why can’t I have a satisfying relationship?” you’re in luck. With the right tools, you can overcome your fears and get better at developing and nurturing strong, healthy, and supportive romantic relationships.
I’m living proof.
Based on my own personal work and my work with clients, I’ve developed a four-step approach to overcoming fear and connecting more deeply with yourself and others. If you normally shut down, lash out, or disconnect when strong feelings arise in your relationship, developing the skills of emotion mindfulness can help you to get centered, understand what you’re feeling, and better communicate to your partner about what you need, as well as listen to their needs.
Step One: Recognize and Name
The first step is to learn to identify where you’re getting triggered. Practice observing when you feel anxious or get defensive and name it as such. Identify what sets you off.
Step Two: Stop, Drop and Stay
When we’re triggered, we feel like there’s no choice between the moment we feel strong feelings (such as anger, rage, hatred, or fear) and our response (yelling, becoming violent, shutting down, or running away). But in order to understand what’s going on, we need to learn to stay with our emotional experience.
Rather than react the way you normally do, stop. Pay attention to how the emotion feels in your body. Listen to what may be hidden beneath your reactivity. Feel your feelings without needing to do anything about them.
Step 3: Pause and Reflect
Then, take some time to reflect on what your feelings are telling you. If you’re feeling angry, is there more to it? Are you actually feeling hurt, disappointed, or afraid of losing connection with your partner? Get a sense of what your feelings are telling you and what you want or need in order to make things better.
Step 4: Mindfully Relate Your Feelings
Once you’ve gotten to the core of your experience, try to find a way to reveal some of it to your partner. If you can, calmly and respectfully let them know how you feel and what you would like them to do. Opening up in this new way will help you connect with one another more constructively. It may feel scary, but vulnerability actually helps to create connection. And by doing things differently, you’re finding a way out of the old patterns and creating new ways of being in your relationship.
As I worked at being more emotionally mindful in my own life, things started to shift for me. Eventually I met my husband who joined me on this journey. Twenty-two years later, I can say with confidence, it’s possible to make love work!