Honoring Feelings: Our Own and Each Other’s:
Becoming Fully Known and Deeply Loved
Our partners are central to our sense of safety. How can they shelter us, be our safe harbor, if they don’t know what we are afraid of and what we yearn and hunger for? Emotion is the music of the dance between lovers; it tells us where to put our feet, and tells our partners where we need them to put theirs.
— Dr. Sue Johnson, Love Sense
We feel the key to staying in love is to talk, particularly about feelings.
— Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
A deeply satisfying and heart-tingling closeness – it’s the key benefit we have found from honoring each other’s feelings as a couple.
Bob: I didn’t realize how hesitant I had been to share my more vulnerable feelings until I finally told Cheryl that I felt hurt during some of our arguments. If she raised her voice at me (which often led to my raised voice as well), I felt attacked and was hurt that she was attacking me. Apparently it took me a number of arguments with similar dynamics to finally admit that I felt hurt. I don’t think I actually identified the feeling as hurt until I reflected on it at some length.
Cheryl: When he told me that I hurt him, it was a surprise. Up until then, I thought Bob was unable to be hurt by me. Looking back on it, I’m a little embarrassed that I could think that, until I remember that he just hadn’t let me see that side of him. He hadn’t let me in that far.
Bob: And I was surprised that Cheryl was surprised. When I was in pain during these arguments, I thought it was apparent. I had to leave the room and take a time out.
Cheryl: Which left me feeling abandoned in the middle of an argument, and did not create any awareness of Bob’s pain – only his avoidance of the conflict. When I realized he was responding to feeling hurt, I agreed that I would make an effort to moderate my tone if he would agree to stay engaged in the argument. We agreed and our arguments calmed down significantly.
Bob: Sharing my hurt turned out to be a breakthrough for both of us, and definitely helped us modify our behavior during arguments.
Us: That was one of the transitions that helped shift our focus from our issues to our feelings. We knew we didn’t want to hurt each other, and avoiding such hurt was a huge priority. Realizing there had been some unspoken hurt led us to be more attentive to each other’s feelings in general. Knowing it can sometimes be difficult to express hurt, we became more attuned to the possibility of hurt in particular. We learned we don’t automatically know each other’s feelings and we aren’t always in touch with our own feelings.
Cheryl: I usually think of women, including myself, as being in touch with our feelings. However, I must admit it came easier to be angry than get in touch with my hurt. In those days, when I got hurt, it came out as anger. It was therefore hard at the time for Bob to understand that my response came from hurt. These realizations came later, and were among our most important learnings about feelings.
DAVID AND VERA MACE
David and Vera Mace were another source of encouragement to pay close attention to our own and each other’s feelings. They founded the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (A.C.M.E.), now known as Better Marriages (bettermarriages.org). Their lives and their writings have provided tremendous inspiration to us over the years.
David and Vera believed that knowing their own and each other’s feelings was so important to the health of their relationship that they developed a daily practice they called a “sharing time.” It was usually no more than a twenty-minute conversation over coffee or tea, and it was not a time to resolve issues. It was an opportunity to briefly become aware of the range of feelings each had experienced since their last sharing time.
As David explained in his short but powerful book, Love and Anger in Marriage, most couples rarely share “their hopes and fears, their excitement and anxiety, their joy and sorrow, their pride and embarrassment, their apprehension, their feelings of inadequacy, and their anger . . .” He believed that “without other-awareness you don’t know where your partner is, and in consequence, you don’t know when to comfort, when to support, when to praise, when to help – the very things loving people do for each other.”
A regular sharing time like this made so much sense we wondered why we hadn’t heard of it before. We’d like to tell you we adopted their practice and have continued to do it regularly, but that isn’t the case. Somehow the practice never stuck with us, and we briefly had the feeling of having failed at something that was potentially important to our relationship.
Actually we got over that feeling without too much trouble, and we would like to emphasize that you should approach any of the practices in these pages the same way. There is no such thing as failure about any of this. It either works for you or it doesn’t. It feels right or it doesn’t. Not to say that these practices aren’t worth an extra effort to see if they might stick. But none of this is pass/fail material. Think of it as a rainbow of flavors, some of which you’ll find tasty and some not so much. You might even create your own variations.
Instead of a daily sharing time, we have adopted some other ways to stay mostly in touch with each other’s feelings. Some might think that after 30+ years together we would be constantly aware of what each other is feeling. Actually we can get lulled into thinking that way until we ask a question and then learn something we didn’t know. “What’s the best/worst thing that happened to you today?” “How did that feel?” “What worries you these days?” “What can you tell me about your feelings lately?”
We developed an exercise for couples that makes it easier to share feelings with each other. We recently renamed it Heart Strings and you’ll find it at the end of this chapter. It has been used by participants in some of our workshops and trainings, and includes questions like, “When was the last time you felt _______________?” Participants would fill in the blank from a list of feelings we provided. Sometimes the novelty of being able to learn each other’s feelings this way created enough enthusiasm that participants didn’t want to conclude the exercise.
FEELINGS and THOUGHTS
When we are sharing our feelings with each other it is helpful to be able to distinguish between feelings and thoughts. Feelings are windows into our interior emotions, and sharing them helps deepen our intimate connection, especially when we share the more vulnerable ones, like hurt and fear.
At times, a thought can sound like a feeling even though it actually leaves the emotions out. “I feel that my efforts are not appreciated.” “I feel like I can’t do anything right.” A clue that a statement is actually a thought is when we add a word after “feel,” such as “that” or “like.”
One possible clarifying response to a thought expressed as a feeling is to ask, “How does that make you feel inside?” Another is to ask about the typical feeling that the statement implies. “That could feel hurtful. Does it?” “That would feel frustrating for me. Does it for you?”
SLOWING DOWN TOGETHER ALONE
A favorite practice that encourages us to stay tuned in to each other is to regularly make time to slow down together — just us, with no distractions. It creates time that is conducive for heart stirrings to surface — sitting under the stars, or in front of a fire, or watching the moonrise.
Not long after we became a couple, Cheryl made an unexpected request. We had been spending lots of fun time with friends – over dinners out and going to hear favorite musicians. We’d been going non-stop for a while. Cheryl’s request was that we take a little more time to ourselves, and spend more time alone together. At the time, Bob had not been feeling the same need, but we agreed that we would slow things down a bit. It was one of the most significant decisions we ever made.
The request Cheryl made caused us to reexamine and reaffirm our commitment to put us first, and helped us experience a level of closeness that made us both want more of it. Gradually, it helped us create a cozy shelter where our feelings would be nurtured by each other and treated with tender care. Someone we know who is a devoted promoter of marriage enrichment activities has a favorite saying, which we love — “Putting us first makes us last.”
We recently learned about a delightfully romantic way of slowing down and creating an atmosphere for personal conversation. John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, would go to a hotel in Seattle and sit on a couch in front of a fire and ask each other questions that would stimulate good discussions.
The Gottmans were enhancing their “love maps” about each other’s feelings, preferences, history and whatever else would help them know each other more intimately. “Enhance Your Love Maps” is Principle 1 in the book, The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman and Nan Silver. Based on extensive research, the book’s very helpful principles are accompanied by richly detailed exercises.
THE DIALOGUE PROCESS OF BETTER MARRIAGES
Our focus on our feelings got a definite boost when we joined Better Marriages and learned their dialogue process. We became part of a marriage enrichment group consisting of a handful of couples that met monthly. The idea of these groups came from David and Vera Mace, and the purpose is for the partners in a couple to dialogue with each other about the “growing edges” of their relationship. We’ll say more about marriage enrichment groups and the value of learning communication skills in Way #2: Gentling Our Communication.
In the St. Louis chapter, the format of the dialogue process benefitted from the teachings of the chapter’s founding couple, Bob and Bess Mosby. Empathic listening is a part of the dialogue process, and there is an emphasis on reflecting the feeling portion of what was being said by your partner. Partners are also encouraged to reflect an unspoken feeling if it appears to fit with what is being said. However, the speaker is the authority on what their feelings are and the accuracy of a partner’s reflection.
Bob: The speaker being the authority on their own feelings is related to one of the other humps we had to get over in learning to honor each other’s feelings. It took a while for me to accept that “feelings are facts.” I would try to argue that Cheryl shouldn’t feel a certain way because of something I said or did because she was misinterpreting my intention. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Cheryl: And I would feel like Bob was saying I was wrong and he was right. That would get us into our right/wrong dynamic and spiral us downward. I knew what I was feeling, and wanted my feeling acknowledged, not discounted.
Bob: The more we shifted our focus to honoring our feelings instead of arguing about who was right, the more I came to understand that what Cheryl was feeling was the point. I needed to meet her feelings where they were, with respect, and ultimately with tenderness. If she was feeling hurt by something I said, I needed to explore with her and try to understand, so I could avoid it happening again.
Us: This reminds us of a couple’s practice we recently learned about, called “Ouch” and “Oops.” The practice nicely reflects the principle that when someone says “ouch” because of something we said, the immediate response that best honors their feelings is “oops.” The “ouch” is treated as a fact, deserving respect and a caring response. The discussion that follows can then start on a gentler note. The “oops” is not an admission of blame, but rather a respectful acknowledgement of our partner’s feelings. We’ll talk more about our efforts at “blamescrubbing” in Way #2. Gentling Our Communication. Banishing the “B-word” (blame) is an ongoing process for us.
TO SOME OF OUR MALE READERS, AND SOME FEMALES TOO
Cheryl: As we begin addressing gender issues, it’s important for me to note that the gender-related statements we make can be true for both women and men. I relate to many of Bob’s comments below, and take encouragement from all of them. We both have received great rewards from getting in touch with and sharing our feelings.
Bob’s suggestion below about asking your partner for some tender help as you become more open about your feelings definitely applies to women as well as men. We each need reassurance at times about each other’s intention to treat our feelings tenderly in order to feel safe enough to share intimately.
I’ve always admired strong women. I also had a mother who rarely expressed her own needs. Combine that with some previous relationship wounds and the result was a fear of “being needy.” I worked on being independent and not showing my needs, a façade sometimes difficult to maintain. As I grew in myself and in our relationship I came to appreciate our tender interdependence. It became a strength rather than a weakness to express my needs and ask for what I wanted.
Bob: Many of our male readers grew up in an era of strong masculinity stereotypes and rigid gender roles. We were told that big boys don’t cry, and not to be a “mamma’s boy.” This left many of us, including me, uncomfortable expressing vulnerable feelings – even to our intimate partner. If this includes you, there’s a good chance your partner would like you to be more open about your feelings, in order to increase the intimacy and closeness in your relationship.
Feeling like we’re not meeting our partner’s needs in this regard has the potential of making us feel frustrated, and even inadequate. Again, this only applies to some of our male readers. For those readers, I’m going to make three suggestions based on what has helped me in this area.
First, don’t spend time beating yourself up about it. It wasn’t our fault we were raised that way. And those weren’t just some gentle messages. Those were strong pressures, and our role models were part of the problem.
David Mace wrote of a “taboo on tenderness” that “permeates our Western society.” He cited Scottish psychiatrist Ian D. Suttie and his groundbreaking 1935 book, The Origins of Love and Hate. According to Suttie, the tenderness taboo “is the leading feature of our own culture and the main reason for the substitution of the power-technique for that of love.”
Suttie believed that there is an innate need for companionship in the form of love and tenderness, and that it is in our nature to desire tenderness and love from others. He believed that psychopathology is primarily the result of the frustration of that desire. His belief in an instinct of tenderness was in sharp contrast to Freud’s views about the primacy of sexual instincts. Suttie was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and was an outspoken critic of Freud’s theories.
Ian Suttie died at age 46 of a perforated ulcer, a few days before The Origins of Love and Hate was published. Noted pioneer in attachment theory, John Bowlby, wrote a forward to a reissue of The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he stated that Suttie’s “ideas are now widely held, increasingly applied, and the inspiration for much fruitful research.”
For many of us, the taboo on tenderness also meant that we created some distance from Mom, at an age when we needed more closeness and nurturance. According to research about our early attachment needs, it therefore wouldn’t be surprising if we grew up to have an avoidant attachment style.
According to Dr. Sue Johnson, the way we attach as adult lovers tends to reflect the way we attached as children to our primary caregivers. If our early nurturing was inconsistent or absent, the resulting attachment style as an adult may be insecure – either an anxious or an avoidant one. An anxious style can mean we are extra sensitive to rejection or fear of abandonment by our partner. An avoidant style can mean we keep a lid on our emotions to protect ourselves from being vulnerable to others.
Dr. Johnson sees “attachment theory and science as offering us an architecture of romantic love.” The good news is that our personal style can be modified by our interactions with our partner. For an excellent discussion about attachment needs and styles, and for breakthrough discoveries about the science of love, please take the time to read Dr. Johnson’s book, Love Sense: the Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.
Back to my suggestions, my second one is to feed your motivation for change by focusing on what’s at stake when you bottle up your feelings, and your potential when you share them. On the minus side, research shows you’re likely increasing your risk for heart disease and other serious illnesses. Also your relationship may end up struggling to stay afloat in a stresspool of toxic conflict avoidance and resentment.
On the plus side, there is the potential for rock-solid, deeply satisfying and heart-tingling closeness with your partner. It is hard to imagine anything worth more than being fully known and deeply loved by your intimate partner and lover for life.
And if you embrace the other elements of living tenderly together that we spell out in these pages, you may experience a surprisingly erotic, sweet and tender closeness. In our experience, our journey in eroticizing tenderness has been definitely enhanced by embracing Ways #1 through #4. We’ll say more about this in Way #5..
My third suggestion about becoming more emotionally open is to ask your partner for their tender help. It’s very reassuring to know that your emotions will be treated with gentle care while you are in the process of stretching your heart muscles. Hopefully that’s something you can each promise each other.
If that mutual promise is particularly difficult for either of you to make or live up to, there are readings that can help. We’ve already mentioned several books in this chapter that we consider excellent resources for couples in that regard. We’ll mention other books relating to other topics throughout these pages and they are listed on this site under RESOURCES: BOOKS. We’ll also include all of the books in our bibliography when the book is published. In our final section on growing together, we’ll mention other resources that you will likely find helpful.
Take encouragement from knowing that progress is within your reach. Research shows that adult attachment styles can change with the help of a loving partner. I know I’ve made clear progress in this area. It has been mostly gradual, but I’ve seen small changes pave the way for further changes later. Looking back, I’ve come a good distance.
Cheryl: I’ve come a good distance also. Within our relationship I’ve gone from an anxious attachment to a secure attachment style with Bob’s loving support. That for me feels like a huge change. And it has helped me be more empathic and tender in our relationship.
Bob: It will help if you keep in mind the rewards we’ve already mentioned, plus the specific results that are possible as you embrace the other elements of living tenderly together. We’re about to tell you how a focus on feelings helps us: tame criticism, anger and blame; tenderly resolve conflict; regularly reconnect romantically; reframe desire and eroticize tenderness; and grow in tenderness together. We hope you’ll travel through these next chapters with us.
TENDERLY DEPENDING ON EACH OTHER
Before you reach the exercise and a poem, we want to address a topic that both men and women can sometimes find troublesome. Some people are wary of becoming so dependent on their partner that they could “lose themselves” in the relationship. As a result, they zealously guard their independence to the point of putting limits on their closeness.
We experienced this to some extent at the beginning of our relationship, and we’ll elaborate on that in Way #3: Resolving Conflict Tenderly. Here, we want to highlight an important book that helped us develop a healthy, positive frame on dependency and interdependence.
The book is Lean On Me: The Power of Positive Dependency in Intimate Relationships, by Dr. Marion Solomon, written after 30 years as a therapist and 38 years of marriage to her husband. She considers the “myth of self-sufficiency” an unfortunate result of cultural messages of a bygone time that were reinforced in part by therapies of that time.
Instead, Dr. Solomon asserts: “Well-being and self esteem . . . [and] . . . the capacity to function alone [are] an outgrowth of feeling loved and nurtured in a bonded, secure relationship.” There is a strong supportive value in knowing that “it is possible to depend on the other and that it is safe to trust the other’s love and goodwill.”
She lists seven “Signs of Positive Dependency,” and these are three of them: “I can depend upon my partner to care about how I feel;” “My partner and I know each other’s deepest core;” and “We are careful not to say and do things that cause each other emotional pain.”
She advises that the “ultimate goal is to learn how to identify each other’s feelings when they emerge . . . [but] be aware that anger is often a camouflage emotion to shield against fear, hurt, and shame.” Feeling understood “is one of the hallmarks of positive dependency.”
In our view, another way to describe positive dependency would be “tender interdependence.” The elements certainly fit well in a description of “living tenderly together.”
Now we invite you to continue to the exercise (printable for your use) and a poem (click here).