3 Questions to Help You Assess How You Feel and React

5 min read
Source: Courtesy of Pexels, Chinmay Singh

Source: Courtesy of Pexels, Chinmay Singh

Your face feels hot, your heart is pounding, the anger bubbles up in your chest, and you make a snide or hurtful comment to your partner. Zing! You have immediate satisfaction, as the anger you feel within your body has now been transferred to your partner. This immediate cathartic release may appear to have created a short-term positive result; however, you have now said something hurtful to your partner, which is harmful to them in the short-term and can lead to long-term relationship turmoil.

John Gottman’s research highlights the dangers of the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) for relationships. For the purpose of analyzing the aforementioned scenario, I want to focus on criticism and contempt. Criticism takes the form of an attack on someone’s character and includes statements such as, “You’re so lazy.” Contempt is criticism that comes from a place of superiority and often involves sarcasm. An example may be, “Of course you didn’t get the promotion, you can’t even get it together at home.” These statements are hurtful and the effects last far beyond the argument itself, eroding the relationship over time. Using this lens, we are covering the content of what is said. It’s important to take it a step further to also cover the way in which the information is communicated.

A Therapeutic Example

Many of the couples I work with report communicating with their partner and sharing their negatively valenced emotions as they are experiencing them. An example may be getting really upset and calling your partner at work, initiating a fight at a time in which neither of you can effectively tackle the issue.

It is important to deconstruct the emotion to get a better sense of what is coming up, why it is coming up, and the context surrounding your affective experience. I often offer my clients a series of three questions to help them investigate their experience and encourage them to sit with these questions individually first. This creates an intentional pause before engaging your partner in an argument. This period of reflection may be just what is needed to change the scenario from a fight to a conversation, which can lead to very different results.

The questions can be applied to any strongly valenced emotion, such as anger, frustration, fear, etc. Using anger as the example, the questions are:

  1. Why am I angry?
  2. Why else might I be angry?
  3. What else am I feeling?

Why am I angry?

This question enables the person experiencing the emotion to ground themselves in the experience and explore it. An example may be, “I am angry that I had to clean up the house after a long day and my partner didn’t help.” Fully answering the question may bring up thoughts about roles and responsibilities in the household and equity in the relationship. The question may encourage the person to dig deeper than the immediate experience to think about the larger issues that are activated.

Why else might I be angry?

This question will enable the person experiencing the emotion to look at the context that may be influencing the way they are engaging with their partner. At times, you may find other relevant contributing factors that affect your emotional expression. For example, a person may realize that they are also feeling the effects of their colleague shirking all responsibilities on a joint project that you had been working on, a scenario that may have happened earlier the same day. Acknowledging this does not mean that you are not valid in being upset about having to clean up the house by yourself, but you may come to realize that the work scenario is exacerbating the way you are feeling about the mess and may be leading to an even more heated response.

What else am I feeling?

Anger is a secondary emotion. In emotionally focused therapy, secondary emotions enable us to avoid the vulnerable underlying emotions that often relate to attachment. Examples of primary emotions include sadness, fear, and loneliness. Secondary emotions include anger and frustration. This question encourages the person to continue to dig deeper into their reaction (both emotional and physiological) to examine what else may be coming up for them. For example, beneath the anger may be feelings of hurt, in which the person is questioning, “Am I in this relationship alone?” By getting in touch with the underlying feelings, you are able to get to the root of the issue(s) in your conversation with your partner and address any deeper wounds that are affecting you.

Of course, pausing and reflecting in this way is time-consuming and a lot easier said than done. However, if you are able to take a beat and examine your internal experience, you may find that your communication shifts and your relationship with your partner improves as a result.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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