“Stop glorifying the idea that the right person will just know the way to love you; that they’ll be able to just meet your emotional needs without you ever voicing them. Great relationships don’t just happen because two mind readers come together, they happen because people communicate clearly and directly. They happen because they’re willing to teach another where their boundaries lie, and how they prefer to be loved.”
– Vienna Pharaon
According to REBT theory, unhealthy negative emotions are:
· Problematic Jealousy
· Problematic Envy
· Problematic Anger and Rage
Our goal in counseling is to transform your unhealthy negative emotions into healthy alternatives, such as:
· Non-Problematic Jealousy
· Non-Problematic Envy
· Annoyance or Non-Problematic Anger
Ultimately, it is your irrational beliefs about specific events and adversities within your life (including your beliefs about your partner and your relationship) that lead you to experience unhealthy negative emotions (anxiety, depression, or anger about your relationship) and dysfunctional behaviors (such as screaming at your partner or threatening a break-up). Once you feel yourself become emotionally activated (i.e. you are beginning to experience unhealthy negative emotions) you can separate yourself and your relationship from your negative emotions by evaluating exactly what your thought process is within that moment:
In other words, you can ask yourself:
· What specifically am I thinking and telling myself when I start to feel anxiety, depression, or anger about my partner, our relationship, or myself within the relationship?
If you catch yourself thinking irrationally, you can dispute your thoughts and replace them with healthier rational beliefs.
Furthermore, even if you do not believe you are thinking irrationally, you can still ask yourself:
· How is thinking, feeling, and acting in this way helping me to accomplish my goals of feeling happier within my relationship, enjoying our time together as a couple, arguing less intensely with my partner, and improving our overall communication?
If the answer to this question is that the thoughts you are thinking, the emotions you are feeling, and the way you are behaving are NOT helping you to achieve your goals, then what do you have to lose by working to transform the somewhat stubborn and habitual way you have learned to think and process information into something more flexible, functional, and helpful for your relationship?! Cognitive processes (the way you think) are learned; therefore, you can challenge your current way of thinking, and ultimately learn healthier ways of thinking about yourself, your partner, your relationship, and the world in general!
Remember, no one else has the power to entirely upset you: you upset yourself by the way that you think about things and react to them! You are responsible for your own emotional and behavioral reactions in life and in your relationship, and therefore, you have the power to stop upsetting yourself!
Once both you and your partner identify and commit to working on the cognitive, emotive, and behavioral changes that you wish to implement within your own life, as well as within your role in the relationship, it will be so much easier to then find practical solutions together as a couple!
So, the next time you feel the potential to experience any unhealthy negative emotions towards one another or about your relationship, practice these 3 exercises:
1. Listen To One Another: Hear & Repeat Each Other’s Narratives
As you feel yourself becoming emotionally activated (i.e. upset), take turns explaining your emotional experience to one another: this means you can tell each other exactly what upset you in the moment, how you felt, how your behavior was impacted, and what your thought process was relating to the activating event that upset you. Share this information with each other, one at a time, uninterrupted. Once you/your partner has finished sharing your/their emotional experience, have the other person repeat exactly what they have just heard. Do this until you/your partner is accurately repeating what you/they said, and correctly conveying the other person’s emotional experience. Once this achieved, switch roles, and repeat the activity. When attempting this exercise, remember:
· Even if an argument has already taken place, you can still partake in this activity. In other words, if you or your partner are already emotionally activated, you can use this exercise as an opportunity to alleviate your emotional upset and come back together as partners by viewing the completion of this activity as a goal you can accomplish together as teammates within your relationship.
· As a couple, always view your challenges and problems as being separate from your relationship. You two are partners and on one side of the room is your partnership, and on the other side of the room is your problem. Your problems, challenges, individual mistakes, as well as your partner’s mistakes are all separate from your partnership as a whole. Your challenges and flaws are only partial components within your relationship, as well as partial/incomplete descriptions of you and your partner. In other words, your relationship problems and individual mistakes do not entirely define your relationship, nor do they define the entire identity of you or your partner.
· If an argument has already taken place and/or one or both of you is so emotionally activated that you do not feel you can calmly partake in this activity, it can then be an effective idea to take a small amount of time apart: ideally somewhere between 20 minutes to 1 hour. Once both of you have returned to a more rational mindset, and your unhealthy negative emotions have begun to deactivate and return to a healthier level, then you can come back together and complete this exercise. The same principle can be applied for when you become emotionally activated in public and/or around other people, meaning you cannot comfortably partake in this activity in the moment. In this scenario, you can save this exercise for later in the day when you have time to complete it together in a more private setting.
· Even if you do not agree with each other’s recollection of events and/or entirely understand your partner’s emotions, just calmly, compassionately, and respectfully listen to what they are saying, and then repeat their experience as they conveyed it to you. Once you successfully achieve this, you will have the opportunity to share your own emotional experience about the same activating event from your perspective. This will help both of you to understand that even though you were both present for the very same event, adversity, or conflict, each of your emotional experiences can be highly dissimilar, which is why two people often react so differently to the same circumstance.
By sharing your narratives with one another, the goal is to develop empathy for your partner, and to better understand that neither of you are mind readers or fortune tellers: you cannot automatically know what your partner’s emotional experience is, nor can your partner accurately predict how you will feel or behave in response to every event or challenge that arises. The purpose of this exercise is to build the foundation for compassionate and effective communication within your relationship.
2. Close Your Eyes & Imagine
After completing the first exercise, with your partner beside you, close your eyes, imagine, and ask yourself:
· What can you (yourself) do to transform your unhealthy negative emotions and/or unhelpful behaviors relating to your relationship into a healthier/more helpful alternative?
Next, keep your eyes closed and ask yourself:
· How can you challenge and replace your irrational (unhelpful) beliefs with rational and effective new beliefs that will help you to accept your partner as they are?
Finally, ask yourself:
· What can you tell yourself to reduce your unhealthy negative emotions (ex. anxiety, depression, anger, rage) about your partner and/or your relationship?
Once you have completed this activity, discuss your answers with one another, and truly listen to and think about the emotional solutions you and your partner have cultivated for yourselves regarding what each of you can do to improve the relationship based upon changing the way that each of your think about the relationship, as well as how you think about one another. This is what it means to take responsibility for your own emotional and behavioral consequences within your life and your relationship! Furthermore, this is how you put your relationship in the best position possible to change for the better: you strive to change yourself before attempting to change your partner. When both people can do this, profound transformation can be achieved!
Keep in mind, this exercise is also something you can practice on your own regarding your irrational beliefs about YOURSELF and your perceived role in the relationship, as it will not be helpful for either of you to experience unhealthy negative emotions about yourself (ex. shame, self-directed anger, depression, guilt, etc.). You are both human, and all human beings make mistakes within their relationships and their lives, but as long as you are open to continuously learning, you can always find new ways to improve yourself and your relationship, as well as learn to cope more effectively with the inevitable stressors that arise within life and relationships!
3. Ask one another: how can we make life together more interesting and enjoyable?
This is an exercise that you can permanently integrate into your relationship! It is a question worth prioritizing, as the answers can constantly change, and your ideas for how to do this can be added to your schedules, so you truly remember to value this concept and plan for special and exciting experiences together, whether that is extra time in bed together in the morning, grocery shopping and cooking dinner with one another, planning new date night ideas for each other, or sharing more about your work day with your partner. Contrary to popular belief, making life together more interesting and enjoyable does not solely arise from planning elaborate vacations or unusual excursions, because the idea is that you want to make your daily lives with one another more exciting, passionate, spirited, and fun! How you go about doing this is purely subjective, based upon your and your partner’s interests and desires. The important message is that you both make this an ongoing priority within your partnership!
Try to have fun with the exercises above!
Use them whenever either of you become emotionally activated, and remember that if/when your emotional activation occurs at an inconvenient time (such as in public places, around family/friends, during the work day, or while you are under the influence of alcohol), you can actively and decisively choose to emotionally reject conflict, enjoy your time out in spite of a disagreement, and commit to sharing your feelings and completing these exercises once you are alone with one another.
Additionally, when other people are around, and you become emotionally activated, you can skip exercise #1 and complete exercise #2 individually within your mind: i.e. you can dispute the way that you are thinking in that moment to instantly transform the start of any unhealthy negative emotions/behaviors into healthier ones. This can help both you and your partner to quietly deactivate and avoid unnecessary conflicts around friends and family.
In REBT-based couples counseling, when both partners are dedicated to healthy transformation, self-exploration, and personal as well as relational growth, so many wonderful goals can be achieved for the future of your emotional and behavioral well-being as individuals and as partners!