November 12, 2019

Beyond Anger, Neutral & Smile: How learning to Express Emotions Saved my Marriage.

I used to think there were only three different feelings.

In couple’s therapy, I referred to them (only half-jokingly) as “anger, neutral, and smile.”

I had at least some vague awareness of a richer world beyond my childlike view. I could probably have named dozens of more colorfully nuanced feeling words. But when it came to actual expression, especially in my most important relationship, it was a world of grey.

As you may have guessed, I am a man. I could go on about the reasons and ways that males in our society have been programmed to withhold feelings, or bottle and suppress them. My parents came of age in the groovy 60s and early 70s and were reasonably progressive. I can’t recall ever being told (directly) to apply blunt filters to the feelings that surfaced through the normal course of growing up. But obviously, the subtle effects of modelled behavior and quiet disapproval inside and outside of the home can still have a deep effect.

I wish that I woke up one day and thought: you know, I am going to get in touch with my feelings. I think I will try to be a more expressive husband and build the kind of intimate communication that my wife truly deserves. Nope, inertia is a bitch. If something isn’t a crisis, does it really need attention right now? Plus, we don’t always know what we don’t know.

Well, terrible communication about feelings became part of a full-blown marital crisis. As my wife described it to me on our walk this morning, she was bone-tired of “talking to a wall.” She had no idea what was going on inside my head and heart, or if I understood and appreciated what was in hers. She is not a violent person but understandably, even reflecting on the past made her want to punch me.

We ended up on the therapist’s couch. We discussed more feelings in the first two weeks than we had in 20 years. That is kind of the “royal we,” considering one half of the partnership was already much more skilled in expression.

I had reinforced the lid on all my tamped down feelings. I wasn’t so much letting them out as getting them out. It did not feel liberating, certainly not at first. It just felt like sh*tty, heavy lifting with muscles atrophied from disuse. Identifying the feelings, acknowledging them, and accepting them—that was exhausting enough. But bringing them out into the world? Airing them to my partner?

If we have a fear of conflict, that can be terrifying—more so if we have not developed a good concept of the boundaries between individuals and are convinced on a deep level that we are directly responsible for the feelings of others.

The early stages of this slow education were incredibly hard for both me and my wife. It would have been easier just to step back behind the wall, but then I would not be writing about my relationship in the present tense.

Ultimately, glimmers of liberation arise as we develop the self-awareness that allows us to get to the root of our feelings.

We can start dealing with the issues instead of hobbling around in various degrees of brokenness. It is a mixed blessing that we get to tune into all of our partner’s emotions and feelings, even when the source may be far outside of the partnership in both space and time. Perhaps the issues at the root of our feelings include some sort of trauma or resentment related to a past relationship that reverberates to the present.

The more we understand, the more we can be allies to each other in the healing process—both the inner work and the relationship work. If we steel our nerves and take several deep breaths we can even break through the fear of conflict and own our part of a problem without taking on someone else’s part.

The good thing is, once therapy is over, life resumes and we never have to think of all those things ever again. The hard-won skills will magically manifest every time we need them.

If only! Therapy is like an iceberg, or like my feelings used to be: 10 percent above the surface and 90 percent beyond the superficial. The work never ends, if we truly care about our relationship. It is a practice, not a miracle cure.

We won’t get it right all the time. My wife was a kindergarten teacher for over a decade. When she sees me struggling in silence to make sense of a feeling, she reminds me to “use my words.” That is a gentle prompt that usually makes us chuckle, pause, and resume the conversation on a much more positive footing.

As a couple, we also have a sacred morning routine where we chat over a long walk. Then we read reflective, provocative, or helpful articles on love and life (Elephant Journal is a great source), and share our thoughts and feelings.

In the end, all good things are worth fighting for. We may be do-it-yourself fixers in other aspects of life, but that doesn’t always work. We may need to find a suitable therapist or relationship coach to help us along the way. Between sessions and beyond, we can read, listen, learn, and above all, practice identifying, processing, and communicating our feelings.

In the ideal world, all this happens in happier times outside a crisis. A little relational tune-up, so to speak. But if we do find ourselves in crisis, as Winston Churchill said: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” This is commitment in action and means way more than a ring and a promise.

In the end, may we feel relieved, overjoyed, thankful, and humbled by the deeper relationship we find with our partners.


Outside of the therapist’s office, we read literally dozens of “relationship rehab” books and web sites of all styles, modes, and faiths as we tried to put the pieces of our relationship back together. Some were great in their entirety (you can’t go wrong with John Gottman) and others were not that helpful to us but contained nuggets of greatness.

Doug Weiss provided one such nugget, which happens to be an exercise about feelings. We did an adapted version of this exercise in the morning over coffee.

Here are the three steps:

1. Choose a random feeling. I tested this “feelings generator” and it works well on Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. Just click the “Randomize” button and away you go.
2. Complete the current feeling statement: “I feel _________ when…” (insert feeling in the blank, and explain the circumstances around that feeling).
3. Complete the past feeling statement: “I first felt __________ when…” (same feeling as step 2)

We also have two basic ground rules:

1. The statements are not to involve the other person. In other words, it is not about how your partner influences your feeling “appreciated” or “infuriated” or “reluctant.”
2. Also, the objective of the listener is simply to hear the speaker out, with mindful attention (firm eye gaze on your partner), and without any commentary. That means verbal or non-verbal, as in no head shaking or nodding.

Alternate with your partner, two random feelings each. Take turns being “first” from day-to-day.

At first, I thought that the ground rules were in error. No describing something about the other person? No reaction or commentary? Isn’t this about a couple’s communication? But after a while, it was pretty apparent, you are getting used to identifying, opening up, and speaking about a wide variety of feelings.

You are making space to hear and understand your partner. Not just what influences their feelings today, but what happened in their formative past. It can be a deep well.

Even a singleton or someone who wants to unilaterally build their emotional intelligence can use the same exercise as a thought experiment, writing prompt, or excuse to talk to themselves in the shower.


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