Probably one of the top three issues I get as a sex and relationship coach is from guys who don’t understand their woman’s emotionality. It’s easy to write her off as “crazy” or “PMS-ing” (one or both of which may be true!), but that attitude will not help the two of you feel more connected as a couple.
In my experience, what builds a solid bridge across the “feeling gap” between partners is when the man is able to become more aware of his emotions and finds a way to express them in a healthy, non-destructive way. A man who is in tune with his feelings has more empathy for his partner’s moods, and she’ll be more open to him when she feels heard and understood.
“It Makes Me Feel Dead!”
One of my all-time favorite comics is a one-frame image from Callahan I first saw about 25 years ago. The banner at the top says, “Chuck finally gets in touch with a feeling.” Chuck is lying on the ground with a bullet hole in his chest while his angry woman holds a smoking gun. Chuck’s last words? “It makes me feel dead when you do that.”
I still laugh at this comic as I recall it today. And while we men have made great progress in the “feeling” realms in the last quarter-century, there’s still a lot most of us can learn about how to experience and speak about these curious things called “emotions.”
A Case Study
The other day I was coaching a client around an issue related to the woman in his life. It was an in-person session (unusual for me; most of my one-on-one coaching sessions are held over Zoom these days.) I sensed that he was starting to feel something but not yet able to give words to it. “What’s happening right now?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think I’m feeling something, but I’m not sure what it is.” He stops and closes his eyes. “Tightness. I feel tight. My shoulders feel pulled in and I’m not breathing very much at all.”
“You’re feeling tight, and you notice it mostly in your shoulders.” I reflect back to him. “Your breath is shallow. What else is happening?”
“I’m irritated. I feel pressure and it’s bugging me.”
“Good, stay with it,” I say. “Stay with the pressure and let yourself feel the irritation.”
He nods OK. A minute passes in silence. “Now I’m REALLY irritated,” he says.
“Irritated enough to be angry?” I suggest.
“No, I can’t go there,” he says. “If I get angry, it’s all over.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to get ‘just a little angry,’” he says, opening his eyes and looking right at me. “I think that if I start down that road, heads will roll.”
Track Your Feelings
I’m going to pause the replay of the session there, because so many “teachable moments” have happened already, and I think it’s important that I go over them for your benefit.
Willingness to feel.
What I love about this client is what doesn’t happen in the session, right from the beginning. He doesn’t avoid the feeling by distracting, minimizing, or any number of strategies that we all have in place to keep from experiencing feelings. A willingness to feel uncomfortable feelings is a great start to the session.
The all-important “I don’t know.”
If you’re feeling something, but you’re not sure what it is, then say (either to yourself if you’re alone, or to whomever you’re with), “I don’t know what I’m feeling yet.”
I use this all the time in my relationship when I’m upset about something and I can’t immediately define the emotion. It serves multiple purposes
- It gets you to begin speaking about what’s really going on for you (qualities: transparency, authenticity, vulnerability).
- It keeps you in connection with the person you’re with. They can relax because they’re probably aware that you’re feeling something, too, and they might be getting anxious that you’re not in touch with it.
- It buys you some time so you can start the process of feeling the actual feeling.
Go with physical first.
If you’re not sure of the emotion you’re experiencing, start by tuning into your physical sensations. In the case study above, my client first notices a sensation of tightness in his shoulders, and then his shallow breathing. If you start by paying attention to physical sensation, very often it gives way to an actual emotion. Why? Paying attention to our somatics helps move our awareness out of our heads and into our bodies. Once we’re more resident in our bodies, we’re better able to feel our emotions.
Find an ACTUAL feeling.
Warning: Anytime you use the words “I feel that….” (as in, “I feel that you are an idiot!”), you’re expressing a thought disguised as a feeling. Actual feelings are emotions like these:
Sometimes you might feel two or three emotions at the same time. It helps if you can name — out loud if possible — all those that you’re aware of.
Stay with it.
During this process of tuning into feeling, you’ll probably be barraged by thoughts that tell you that this is stupid, no good will come of this, no one will care, or (as my client feared) that you’ll annihilate everyone and everything if you feel this emotion. Truthfully, the bad things start to happen when you don’t acknowledge the emotion and, instead, stuff it under the rug. You probably have experienced this yourself, or seen it happen with others, more than once.
Learning to Ride the Wave
Your fears about emotions being “too big” are probably based on memories of you or someone else acting out an emotion in an unhealthy way. It doesn’t mean it always has to be that way — that a feeling of anger ALWAYS results in the appearance of the Incredible Hulk, who immediately begins destroying property and lives. Or that crying means you’ll NEVER stop, and begin the inevitable slide into the pit of depression.
In fact, my case study client felt his anger and never left his seat! He just shook a little for a couple of minutes and made some growling noises. It’s possible to feel an emotion fully without any dramatic outward expression.
Emotion is like a wave you can surf. It builds, swells, curls, and then it’s finished. Learning to ride the wave takes practice and patience, but you can do it. That means when an emotion arises, if possible, stay with it through the entire wave-cycle. You’ll emerge from the ride exhausted but possibly exhilarated — and even more ready to tackle the next wave.
What’s more, once you get the hang of riding your own feeling wave, you’ll be a lot more empathic with your woman’s changing weather patterns of emotion. You’ll also have the tools to help her ride her own wave — as well as knowing that she’ll come out of the other side just fine.