Getting to the Underlying Emotions Behind the Stated Problem

by Dr. Nina Mistry
Most of us, including couples, tend to talk about problems that they may have with each other. For example, someone may complain that his/her partner is too busy and spends too much time away from the family. Someone else may have a problem with his/her partner’s spending habits. There are as many different problems as there are people. Each problem can look uniquely different from another. Couples can argue about these problems endlessly. Eventually, they may feel stuck because both partners will believe that they are right and the other is wrong. The goal of effective communication is for people to stop talking about the problem and talk about how they are feeling about the problem and to listen to how his/her partner is feeling in turn.

For example, Sam suspected that his wife was having an affair. He thought about confronting his wife about his suspicions. He wanted to tell her that he would leave her if she did not end the affair. By talking about the problem angrily and giving her ultimatums, his wife would also likely be angry and would likely refuse to talk any further. A more practical approach for Sam was to remain calm while talking with his wife. Breathing deeply helped him to be calm. He used “I” statements to let his wife know how he was feeling. Sam told his wife, “I love you and want the marriage to work. I’m feeling insecure and worried each time you go out and don’t let me know where you are going.” He went on to tell her that he was having difficulty trusting her. Sam remained calm, and non-defensive. When his wife responded angrily that she did not want to have to tell him where she was going each time, Sam validated her feelings by letting her know he could understand that she was feeling controlled by him and resentful. Repeating how his wife was feeling back to her helped her feel more understood and less angry. Sam went on to say that what he really needed was for his wife to understand his feelings of insecurity, fear and hurt. With the discussion having moved away from the issue of the affair, both Sam and his wife were able to connect by expressing and validating each other’s feelings.

It is generally difficult for most of us to express our feelings of sadness, fear, betrayal, hurt, etc., because doing so makes each of us vulnerable. Moving beyond the problem and expressing our feelings helps to establish greater understanding and closeness.

Sam was subsequently able to reflect back with his wife about how much he appreciated that she had really listened to how he was feeling. He told her that he felt understood. His wife told Sam that she was relieved that he had not blamed her. Providing positive feedback about what each person did to facilitate the conversation was also helpful.

Dr. Nina Mistry
Dr. Nina Mistry received her Ph.D. from the University of Leicester, England, in 1983. She was previously a Staff Psychologist at Etobicoke General Hospital and at Scarborough Grace Hospital. Miller-Mistry Psychologists have been providing psychological services for almost 20 years.
Dr. Mistry specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression. She also provides treatment to couples and families.

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