Have you ever sat in front of your couples therapy patients and watched them talk past each other?
Maybe one partner in a session starts describing how a particular event makes them feel, and the other rushes to try to resolve the problem without acknowledging any of their partner’s negative emotions?
These are normally signs that you need to temporarily stop talking about the conflict at hand, and start addressing how your couple communicates.
At the Couples Training Academy, we help clinicians with Level 1 and Level 2 training in the Gottman Method.
One of the unique aspects of the Gottman Method is its intense focus on meta-emotion.
What Is Meta-Emotion?
Meta-emotion is essentially how people feel about their feelings.
How we handle and process our emotions typically evolves from what makes up our emotional histories. That’s predominantly the culture of our family homes.
For example, were children in the family home encouraged or even allowed to show emotion? Were those emotions validated?
If so, this would be an example of an “emotion coaching” environment. Adults from such a culture usually feel okay with sharing their feelings, as well as supporting how their partners feel.
Contrast this to an “emotion dismissing” family home, where attempts are typically made by parents to stifle or dismiss negative emotions. Phrases like “don’t cry” or “you shouldn’t be upset about that” may come to mind.
For those raised in emotion-dismissing homes, negative emotions may overwhelm and cause them to shut down.
Why Is Meta-Emotion So Important In Couples Therapy?
Meta-emotion should actually come before conflict resolution.
That’s because when it’s addressed, couples can better understand and empathize with each other and feel like they’re working on a problem together. In fact, meta-emotion can even prevent conflict from occurring within relationships.
You see, when couples are a mismatch in how they process emotions, it’s a lot easier for misunderstandings to occur. These misunderstandings build up and lead to the eventual obliteration of an intimate bond.
Partners from “emotion coaching” backgrounds may feel unheard and unsupported when their feelings aren’t acknowledged. This shuts them down and makes them feel like their partner simply isn’t “on their team.” And so, the distance between the couple becomes even greater.
Partners from “emotion-dismissing” backgrounds don’t even examine or know what their feelings are. They can’t get to the bottom of what’s going on to resolve the issues.
Conversely, when a couple reflects on, understands, and empathizes with the feelings of their partner, they create a healthier, stronger bond within the relationship.
How Can You Set Your Couples On The Path To A Stronger Relationship Through Meta-Emotion?
Dr. John Gottman believes couples become stronger when they understand why and how they process negative emotions as a result of their emotional histories.
Dr. Gottman proposes that clinicians help couples with this by employing “the art of intimate conversation,” a four-step process that looks like the below.
Step #1. Ask each partner to put their feelings into words.
It can actually be pretty difficult for patients to know what emotion it is they’re really feeling. Is it jealousy, anger, resentment, or fear?
Providing patients with a list of emotions and asking them to “try them on for size” at any moment allows them to really get to the bottom of what’s going on inside them.
Step #2. Each partner should ask open-ended questions of the other.
If you’re familiar with theater and improv, you know that yes-or-no questions are dead-ends. They don’t allow the other partner to contribute.
The same goes for couples in conflict. Just asking whether someone is upset will elicit a yes or no response. It’s far better for the partner to say, “You seem upset. What’s wrong?”
This open-ended question gives the other person freedom to elaborate.
But it isn’t enough just to be able to vent. A person must also feel heard. And that’s why we have the following two steps.
Step #3. Partners should follow up with statements that deepen connection.
Here Dr. Gottman suggests the listening partner repeat back as best as they can what the other partner is trying to communicate.
This step requires some practice, because oftentimes partners summarize and make assumptions or put words into the sharing partner’s mouth.
Step #4. Partners should express compassion and empathy for each other’s feelings.
It’s important for your couples to understand and empathize with one another to build a “togetherness,” regardless of whether one partner thinks the other is blowing something out of proportion. Validating feelings is an important aspect of this.
By enhancing how your couples communicate through Dr. Gottman’s “art of intimate conversation,” you can stop conflict from cropping up at all and facilitate your couples on the road to relationship success.
Interested in hearing more about Gottman Method Couples Therapy?
We created the Couples Therapy Training Academy for clinicians committed to learning more and gaining confidence in their practice.
Find out how the Couples Therapy Training Academy can help you improve your clinical skills by clicking here