“Just be quiet and go outside” was something I heard a lot as a kid. It always confused me. I just wanted to talk about how I was feeling and hear about my family’s feelings so I could know them better and help them solve problems. My sister finally explained it to me as an adult.” Dianne, we just don’t think that much about feelings and if we do we just don’t want to talk about it with other people.”
Of course, now as a therapist helping lots of couples and adult families talk about things, I understand how we feel about expressing emotions plays a big role in how we move through time with people. And when there’s a “meta-emotion mismatch” – a difference in how we feel about expressing feelings – it can often result in misunderstanding, conflict and pain. Here’s how it might play out.
An example of two realities
Suzy grew up in Atlanta in an affluent family. Her father was a college president, her mother a prominent environmental attorney, and her older brother was outgoing and career driven. Raised by a live-in nanny and maid, Suzy didn’t see her parents much because of their busy schedules and she only saw extended family on holidays or vacations. Both sets of grandparents had passed away and her aunts and uncles lived in other states. She didn’t know any of them well and didn’t feel they wanted to know her.
Matt grew up in Mississippi, the son of a shrimp boat captain and his schoolteacher wife. He had 5 brothers and sisters, lots of aunts and uncles, and spent a lot of time with both sets of grandparents. Relatives and friends were always in and out of their home and the family loved to laugh and be lighthearted along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Suzy met Matt in college and fell in love with his lightheartedness and love for fun. Matt loved her grace and poise. She enjoyed visiting his family and engaging with a variety of people one at a time. But as the crowd grew she would feel overwhelmed and find herself walking down by the Gulf or sitting on a porch by herself. Matt would find her and ask why, but she never had an answer. Her reactions left everyone confused. Suzy began to dread the visits, and Matt was hurt and angry that Suzy was shutting him out. Suzy felt pressured by Matt to be just like his family, and she felt betrayed that he would choose them over her by insisting they go over so often.
It’s about needs and dreams
Underneath Suzy’s withdrawal is a longing to be known by others. Suzy was more introverted, and crowds overwhelmed her. She loved a slower pace and more intimate conversation around the arts and artistic expression like painting or music. When she tried to talk to her family, they dismissed her and told her to get her head out of the clouds. She soon learned not to tell family how she feels.
In college she cultivated her gifts, met people like her, and went on to build a music school in a lower middle-class neighborhood where students could discover the world of creativity. Her parents only asked if it turned a profit or what was next. Visits home were full of tension and became shorter and shorter until they hardly happened anymore. She felt lonely and unloved, rejected by her family and she grew quiet.
Matt longs for Suzy to be a part of the world he grew up in where he always felt loved and accepted. He knew he’d leave the Gulf Coast for college and return as an attorney to advocate for environmental changes to protect the waterways and fishing industry he loved so dearly. He felt supported and celebrated by his family, and they talked about their hopes and dreams. He wanted his children to grow up along the water close to extended family who would love and care for them. He couldn’t help but feel he had chosen the wrong wife because everything he loved she seemed to despise. Confused and resentful, he felt like he had lost his dream, his purpose, and his identity.
See the unmet need and unrealized dream? If Suzy and Matt could stay in the discussion longer and listen for the unmet need of their partner maybe they could establish a new ritual around visiting his parents. If Matt knew that Suzy gets overwhelmed and often was ridiculed by her family for expressing her feelings, he would understand if she slipped away to regroup and feared sharing why. If Suzy knew Matt understood she could tell him she was taking a minute away knowing he won’t be frustrated. As the conversation continued, Matt would tell Suzy that his Mom was concerned that music and art were no longer taught in her school and she’d love to hear more about Suzy’s project. As Matt talks about his dream to keep the Gulf waters safe, Suzy suggests visiting her parents more so Matt could talk to her Mom around their shared interest. From these discussions about needs and dreams, Suzy and Matt learn to support each other and enrich both their lives.
These “Dreams within a Conflict” discussions are great ways to stop fighting about those same old things and figure out new ways to work together. Now Suzy and Matt feel closer than ever because they understand what each other is going through and are a part of making individual dreams come true.
Want to know more about Dreams in a Conflict? “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver is a great book that helps couples explore their needs and dreams, solve gridlock problems, and generally enjoy each other more intimately. It’s a fun read, with lots of examples of real-life couples and how these skills change their relationships.
Need help working through some things? That’s what we live for! Give me a call today at 850.450.7223 or hop on over to my website at www.believehopeinspire.com to find out more and make an appointment. Can’t wait to meet you!
Dianne Presley, LCSW, BC-TMH
Believe, Hope, Inspire Wellness Services LLC
Anxiety, Depression, Grief & Loss, and Relationship Therapy
Gottman Level 1 and Level 2 Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy
Gottman Training in Traumas and Affairs and in Couples in Addiction