by Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D., MFCC
Couples who are in very intense relationship pain can be carrying so much trauma with one another that any additional honesty will appear to be negative and harmful to the relationship. These couples face a curious paradox. On the one hand, they are experiencing the negative emotions of hurt, anger and rage and feel the need to express those emotions. But, on the other hand, the very expression of those emotions can further deteriorate the relationship. This is a classic double bind that requires a shift from the expression of negative emotions to a more positive frame of communication.
A framework for presenting negative emotions in a positive way breaks up the cycle of one partner expressing a negative feeling and then regretting the expression of that feeling because the other partner responds reactively in a rejecting and defensive fashion. The destructive communication cycle goes like this. [A] expresses a negative, painful emotion to [B]. [B] feels threatened and rejected by [A's] expression. [A] does not like [B's] reaction and regrets the expression of those emotions. [A] turns off, withdraws, numbs out and does not want to communicate anymore. [B] becomes hypersensitive to [A's] lack of love, distance and rejection. [B] looks for any sign of affection and encouragement for staying in the relationship. [A] reactivates the cycle by trying to communicate complaints again to [B]. [B] reacts in the same old way. Hence, the cycle gets perpetrated over and over again.
[A] can interrupt that negative interaction loop by prefacing negativity within a loving framework. Thus, [A] sets up a context in which [B] will not react in the usual, stereotypic fashion. [A] prefaces communication in a positive way by saying, "I'm really concerned about our relationships and I want to find ways to strengthen it. I care for you and the relationship and I don't want it to end. I want to make our life better together."
By framing the complaint (the negative emotion) in a positive way, the partner's predictable responses are short circuited. Stating concern about the relationship and the need to improve it, [A] communicates a positive concern for the welfare of the relationship. In essence, [A] is saying, "Don't worry - relax - I don't want to reject or be cold towards you. I want to be loving and affectionate, but I am having a difficult time being positive in a relationship when I am very angry and hurt by your behavior. I'm afraid to express my emotions because when you react to what I'm feeling and saying, your reactions are not what I want. Please don't respond in your usual way because you'll reinforce my silence and holding back of my feelings. I don't want to hurt you, I just need to express my feelings and have you listen. So, I'm requesting a dialogue that can create change for both of us. Now, how can we talk about building more trust and heal the wounds of the past? " [B] might respond with, "I could feel more trust in our relationship if you initiated more affection and conversation like this. I don't like having to be the one who always initiates communication and affection. I want a more equal relationship with you. Now can you respond to that without making excuses or maintaining your old position?"
The Need For Ventilation
If the discussion is framed in a positive way, then the initiating partner should make it very clear that he or she needs to ventilate a lot of thoughts and feelings that may seem unfriendly to the other partner. The initiating partner should suggest that the receiving partner should not take what is being said as anything personal. It could go like this, "I need to get some things off of my chest and I don't want you to take what I say as personal and against you. I just need to ventilate in order to get my negative feelings and thoughts out of the way, so that I can get to the real underlying feelings and issues. I just need you to hear me, observe and listen to what I am ventilating. After all, you are the most important person that I can go to in order to air out my grievances and get clear. Please do not react! Just observe and listen and I will get through this. I know that you want the both of us to get to the bottom of our problems. If you reject what I am telling you, I will feel rejected and will go away with even more negative emotions. Please, let me ventilate and I promise not to attack. Please give me a chance to get things off of my chest, so that both of us can feel better about our relationship. After all, whom else should I go to when I have negative feelings!?"
TIP: When one of you recognizes that the other partner is harboring negative feelings, you could invite your partner to a ventilation session with the above ground rules and positive reframing. In this way you show that you are concerned about your partner's emotional well-being and the health of the relationship. If you let your fear of your partner's negative feelings control you, you'll only reinforce your partner's dangerous suppression of feelings. This only adds to and perpetuates the cycle of conflict. I also suggest that you conduct periodic checks for negative feelings to see if anything has accumulated. You could say, "What's going on? Do you need to ventilate any feelings? Please feel free to express what's going on with you, without harming me!" With this approach, every invitation to express is done with permission. Learn how to express and receive safely and with the purpose of clarification and communication.
These expressions should be self owned: "I'm angry, I'm hurt because…," and not, "you did this and you did that…You S.O.B."
This strategy should not be attempted until both partners agree to the value of such an assignment. Any attempt to expressing painful emotions without the consent of the other partner should be avoided. Both parties should see the value of such an interaction. The expression of negative emotions should not be attempted unilaterally. The strategy must meet the criteria for mutual agreement. Otherwise, imposition of negative emotions will result in further conflict and could jeopardize the well-being of the relationship. If both parties are afraid of the potential result of such a communication, than a third party therapist should mediate the exchange. Safeguards need to be in place. We do not want a free for all, where both parties attack, counterattack and head for the hills.
Relationships that possess inequities in communication, affection and other areas, usually resist changing the dysfunctional status quo. The old abusive patterns are highly entrenched and reinforced in many subtle ways. Couples who are in extreme pain need enormous patience when attempting to change their system of relating. Each partner may not be aware of his/her contribution to maintaining the status quo. Stress in the relationship needs to be reduced. Too much negativity in a relationship stretches an already overloaded frustration tolerance level. This is best accomplished by positive reframing, remaining calm, and making efforts to move into a direction of recovery. Failure to reframe the negative into a full positive will eventually lead to relationship destruction.
I advise each partner to recognize and acknowledge how you reject the other partner’s opinions, perceptions and views of reality. This is a difficult task and will require getting used to. The ultimate goal is to make a commitment to remove all forms of rejection out of the relationship. This might require that you think before you open your mouth to reject and judge.