How do I deal with my partner’s feelings when they eclipse my own?

Dear Bear:

My wife cries.  A lot.  It seems that whenever there’s some stress in her life or especially if we are having an argument, she breaks down and cries and then asks for immediate emotional support (and if I don’t or can’t provide it, she goes into downright emotional meltdown mode).  We have been to therapy over this and I am trying to be more accepting of her crying and more ok with the fact that it is normal and even healthy for people to cry.  But it’s to the point where we can’t have difficult conversations or any stress in our marriage because she will just break down.  What’s worse, her crying is now a trigger for me, so that when she cries I feel like I am being manipulated and everything gets worse from there.  Our marriage is in trouble because of this; I feel like I can’t rely on her for support or to be strong in the face of adversity or even just to bear my own emotional needs.  Any advice would be welcome.

 

Dear Brave Correspondent,

I am, my very own delicate self, a person with great big feelings, and so I have a lot of empathy for this situation (and I imagine my sweethearts, past and present, would too). It’s challenging, in relationship to others – including friends, parents, children, &c – to figure out the thing where one person has a feeling, and then the other person has a feeling about that feeling, and this cascades into a giant mezze platter of feelings which includes meta-feelings (aka, people’s feelings about the feelings they have, like when I’m frustrated that something is upsetting to me). It’s just a lot. So let’s have a discrete and separate snack, like crackers and milk, and try to see how we might be able to address what’s going on with this.

I’ll start with an easy part: it has been my experience that people have different emotional graphs, if you will. I, for example, have all my biggest feelings immediately upon hearing or knowing something – that’s the peak of the graph – and then in the hours and days that follow I calm down and am able to discuss things more easily without yelling or crying or spending my energy on not throwing things. In general, and probably not accidentally, my lovers and partners have tended to be people who have the opposite graph: they receive new information with calm equanimity, and then they build up over the next little while to their biggest feelings about something before coming down the other side. The good news is that only one person is losing their stuff at a time, but the bad news is that the total period in which at least one person is losing their stuff is longer. So one thing that may be happening here is that you and your wife might have different emotional graphs. She hits the ceiling immediately and then settles, where you build up to your feelings.

It’s not uncommon, in such pairings, that the person whose big feelings come right away gets a lot of attention for them while the person whose feelings develop slower doesn’t. That can be because the person who peaks sooner is “finished,” emotionally, with the thing before the later-peaking person get to it. This is a tough dynamic, especially when the later person ends up feeling like they give a lot of emotional support but when they eventually need it there’s nothing doing. The good news (there’s good news!) is that if you’re able to know this together, and name it, it gives you a way to explain and ask to return to a previous topic. “Honey,” you say, “I’m having all the feelings about the rent increase now. Can we revisit?” It may be that feeling like there will also be a place for your feelings sometimes will help with this.

Also this: we, humans, have a reaction to things and then we have a response. Often, especially if we’re startled, we fall face first into our reaction about a thing and it’s not until we finish with it that we can have the response. What I see in your letter is that you’re overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of your wife’s reactions to conflict or upset and I want to say very clearly – I think that’s fair. You don’t have to just sit in the tear-storm every time. You too allowed to have space for your own feelings, and boundaries about your emotional experience and wellness. That’s the thing that’s bothering me here, Brave Correspondent – it’s not the crying, crying is fine; I cry ten times a day. It’s that her reaction is taking up all the space, which leaves you no time to react.

(Another true thing is that when our response to something just feels disproportionately huge, like someone fed it rocket fuel for breakfast, it can be a pointer to trauma in our past. In this therapy, has your wife had a chance to talk about what’s happening for her when she’s cries and breaks down? Is there an old problem she is trying to solve in the safest way she was taught that she needs to re-learn how to solve? These are primo therapist conversations, while you’re in there.)

Beyond that, it’s not clear to me that any response is ever happening, anywhere in this situation. It seems like you and she are stuck in a place where she reacts in a big way, and you feel overwhelmed by the size and strength of it; it kind of blows out all your channels. So my first piece of advice is that we need to think about how to let her have her reaction, unhindered, unbothered by her meta-feelings of feeling bad about crying or whatever, in a way that’s not always right in your lap.

One possibility is to not talk about hard things. I don’t mean not to communicate about them, to be clear. What I mean is, don’t talk about them out loud in the same room.  You could text about them, you could exchange email about them, you could even write letters about them – but writing about hard stuff allows everyone a little bit of space to manage their own reactions.

You could also try talking about them, but not to each other the first time. Let her cry on a friend or your therapist first, while you discuss with one of your own friends, and then notice: what happens when the tears have passed? Is she calmer and more resolved? Is she more worked up and upset? Where does the huge emotional release leave her? Another question might be – after the tears, is it immediately response time, or does she need a break then once she’s let her fear or anxiety or upset out before she can engage with a different part of her feelings?

Also, Brave Correspondent, I am hearing that you’re trying to manage your feelings about her feelings, but is there a point in this process where your feelings about the fight or the car keys or the phone bill or her mother get to be aired? I strongly suspect that the crying leaves you feeling manipulated because you’re not getting heard. What would it look like to agree, in a non-emotional moment, on some ways you could feel more heard in your relationship? Because it sounds right now like you’re not feeling able to express a concern or disagreement you have, and that’s not healthy at all. It can also change if the process changes. You two might just need a plan.

I’m going to say that some amount of experimentation is probably required here to agree on a plan. Try some stuff out. Try texting your fights. Try proxy-discussing through puppets of Ernie and Bert, with voices. Try writing letters longhand about your upsets or issues. Try fighting with an egg timer and the solemn mutual vow that when the little chicken goes ping after 20 minutes, the person talking will stop and it will be the other person’s turn. Try standing on one foot while you do it. Try having your disagreements over three days, or a week, with a specific time identified each day to discuss. However ridiculous or unusual, try them – see what works. The ideal thing will be a solution where you each feel heard and valued, where your needs are met and boundaries respected (or as close as you can get to that).

Fighting about how you fight is super hard, Brave Correspondent. I know this from personal experience. I encourage you to try to figure out a process that gives all the feelings a way to be heard and held. The containers don’t have to be the same size, but each of you absolutely has to have some space that’s respected and in which you feel listened to. You both deserve that. If you can figure it out, even if you have to carry that egg timer with you everywhere, it will be worth it.

love and courage,

Bear

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