Emotional distress in relationships and what to do about it

Emotional Distress in relationships and what to do about it

Why do we get so emotional at our partner when things are not going right?

How do we know when a relationship isn’t working?

Usually, we know when relationships aren’t working when we feel bad. We often feel emotional pain before we can even pinpoint what the problem is. It’s like you instinctively pull your hand away when you touch something hot before you even realise it. In the same way, we react automatically when we get triggered. These triggers usually tell us that we are in danger or under threat.

Emotions give us signals and information to alert us that something is wrong and so that we can do something about it. 

It’s painful to feel disconnected from our partner. We can understand relationships better through the lens of ‘Attachment Theory’. You might have heard or read about attachment theory, or attachment styles. You might have heard of such things as ‘avoidant attachment style or anxious attachment style’ etc. In order to understand the strong emotional pain we experience in distressed relationships, we need to understand Attachment Theory.

Adult Attachment  

Attachment Theory was developed by John Bowlby when he began investigating the reason why children in orphanages fail to thrive or are ‘dying from sadness’ even though they were provided adequate care, deprived only of touch and emotional contact. Bowlby believed mental disturbances were more closely related to real issues, mainly relationships with others past and/or present. 

Attachment needs are in our DNA for survival. Darwin described evolution as ‘survival of the fittest’, but it should actually be ‘survival of the best nurtured and connected.’ Humans need other humans to survive. Human babies are so vulnerable that they rely 100% on the care of their mothers. 

So what does all this have to do with relationship triggers?

What my clients tell me is that they can’t control what they say or do in the heat of the moment. When we are not able to act rationally, that means that our thinking brain has been hijacked by our monkey brain. Our monkey brain has only one thing on its mind. SURVIVAL!

So even though you are not fighting a bear or running away from a predator, when you feel disconnected from your most significant person, your monkey brain steps in and fights for your life. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always turn out well. You forget you are fighting for the relationship and start FIGHTING EACH OTHER!

What do you do when you feel unhappy about your relationship? 

  • Understand your triggers

When I ask my clients to tell me about their relationship troubles, they often give me a long list of what their partner is or isn’t doing right while their partner either sits there with their head down numbing out or getting angry and defensive. It is true that your partner did or said something that upset you. But that is not something you can control. You can only try to influence it through nagging, threatening to leave, shouting, ignoring, rewarding and punishing. But it will lead to burnout and resentment when the partner does not meet your expectations and standards.

Then what do you do? Focus on your own response and gain an understanding of what it is about their words or behaviour that is hurting or upsetting you. What’s happening to you? What are you feeling? What goes through your mind. What do you feel like doing? Now connect how that feeling is driving you to do something. Is it being critical, defensive, walking away, raising your voice, saying mean things? When you feel triggered and upset, perhaps consider going away and reflecting on these things instead of doing what you feel like doing that you will regret later.

  • Communicate your feelings

Often relationship troubles are about how we communicate our needs. We often focus on the behaviour. We think if he or she would only do or stop doing A, B, C, D, then everything will be fine. Changing behaviour can be effective but often does not last. We, humans, are more complex so it takes more than reward and punishment to truly motivate us. We can inspire each other to change, but we can’t guilt-trip, manipulate, threaten, or nag each other to change.

Try to communicate your feelings, not your partner’s behaviour, or worse, judgment of his character because that would only trigger defensiveness. For example, instead of, “You never take out the rubbish, you are so lazy and unreliable!”

Say, I feel {sad/upset/let-down /taken for granted/neglected (insert your feelings here)} about what (e.g. you not taking out the rubbish). It would help me a lot if you could take out the rubbish regularly. I would feel more cared for if you took out the rubbish.”

This example moves away from criticism, judgment and blame and expresses why you are upset about the behaviour, and also clearly states your needs and corrective behaviour.

  • Repair

If your partner does love and care for you, they will usually respond to your honest feelings and blameless requests with willingness. If you feel your heart is unforgiving and hardened, perhaps there is deeper hurt there that needs to be addressed and healed with the help of a therapist.

Most other times, once you’ve cooled down and had another shot at speaking to each other to resolve issues, forgive and repair the hurt. If you hurt your partner, take accountability and apologise. If your loved one has hurt you, forgive them.

For more serious issues that need to be resolved, please seek professional support. It is not ok to forgive or excuse abusive behaviour in relationships.