When I was growing up, my family dealt with someone being upset like this:
- Try to talk some reason into them.
- Tell them, “Calm down!”
- Shame them for not getting a grip.
- Yell at them.
- Freeze them out until they storm off.
Pretty soon I figured out that if you had a problem and you wanted to feel better, you did NOT tell anyone about it. You went to your room, closed the door, and dealt with it on your own.
As an adult, I still get swamped by strong emotions on occasion, and I know exactly what I need to do. Get away from everyone. Go hide until I’ve calmed down. Because if I talk to anyone, it will only make things worse.
Now, some of you reading this will have had the opposite experience.
When you’re completely upset and flipping out, you’ve had someone there you can trust to hold you and care about you and ride the storm with you.
And, with any luck, that person somehow knows the right thing to say to bring you back to yourself.
You want company when you’re upset, because it makes you feel better.
But maybe your guy is like me.
And any strong emotion terrifies him.
Doesn’t matter whether it’s yours or his. He knows that strong emotions lead to fights. So he leaves you well alone when you’re upset, and he deals with his own emotions in the privacy of his own space.
To you, it feels like he’s a jerk.
He’s not emotionally supporting you.
He’s not even giving you the chance to emotionally support him.
How are you supposed to make this relationship work?
You can try a technique that can help both of you feel more supported in your relationship. It’s called emotion coaching.
How We Learn about Feelings
Not all of us learn how to deal with our emotions.
That’s one of those things we’re supposed to learn growing up, when our brain circuitry is being wired, but some of us just didn’t get the memo.
If you had parents who disapproved of your emotions—basically, they shamed you whenever you expressed feelings they didn’t agree with—then you ended up internalizing their disapproval.
This is really common for boys, because the code of masculinity says that boys aren’t supposed to have emotions.
What happens is that you end up hating yourself for having feelings you don’t think you should have. So not only are you feeling upset, but you’re disgusted with yourself for being upset, and you feel judged by others by being upset…
Which makes the whole thing much worse!
And you don’t know how to discharge that negative energy, because you never learned.
What a lot of people end up doing is converting their distress to anger and yelling at someone. For guys, anger is one of the few emotions they’re allowed to have.
You can imagine how that plays out in relationships. It all ends up being a huge mess. Every time your guy has a feeling he can’t deal with, he ends up taking it out on you.
Now, the best way to deal with this is counseling, because therapists are professionally trained for this, but your guy may be one of those who refuses to talk about it and refuses to get help.
One thing you can try yourself is emotion coaching.
Emotion coaching is a process used by parents to help kids deal with big emotions. As a parent myself, I love it. I use it all the time.
What you’re trying to do is see the emotional roots of problematic behavior.
So your guy acts like a jerk, and you look past that behavior to ask yourself what else might be going on with him. He normally doesn’t behave like that.
You listen to the emotion behind the words, and you talk to the emotion. You try to hold space for his feelings, instead of giving into your immediate instinct to jump all over him for being out of line.
You look for anything he says that you can agree with. “Yeah, that sucks.” “I’d be feeling that way, too.” “That’s so annoying—it must be driving you crazy.”
What you’re doing is empathizing with and validating him. You’re showing him that you’re on his side 100%, even though on the inside you may be wondering why he’s overreacting and feeling a bit angry that he’s trying to take this out on you.
Another thing you’re doing is reflecting back the emotions he’s experiencing. You’re putting words to those feelings, like, “Gosh, that’s so frustrating. I’d feel so betrayed.”
And you’re showing that you care. You can say, “I’m sorry this happened to you. I wish I could make it better.”
I just want to pause here and remind you that you use this process on a guy who normally treats you really well. He very rarely loses his temper. So you know something is up when he gets mad at you out of nowhere.
When you help him give voice to how he’s feeling, and you don’t run away when he’s caught up in feelings he can’t control, what he’s learning is the lesson he didn’t get as a kid, which is that ALL his emotions are okay. You’re not going to shame him. You’ve got his back. Bad feelings suck, but you can get them out without hurting the person you love.
If you’re resonating with this, then check out this article on how childhood emotional neglect affects men. You also might want to look into attachment theory, which explains why these guys often act so distant.