Sometimes when people hear that our work involves the expression of the full gamut of human emotion, they become concerned. Particularly when it relates to strong expressions of anger and negativity, we hear things like "Isn't that dangerous?" "Won't our relationship suffer irreparable damage if we allow ourselves to be too honest," "Isn't it best to keep our judgments and anger to ourselves and put the emphasis on the expression of appreciation and love?" "Could we really recover if we heard our partner's negativity toward us?"
In creating the Exceptional Marriage Mentoring model, we asked these same questions of ourselves. We both understood that in order for couples to create vibrant deep connection, they sometimes needed to bring out their anger and concealed demands. Negativity in marriage is a given. No matter what a relationship looks like from the outside, there are underlying resentments and unexpressed feelings that chip away at the quality of that marriage. Whenever partners withhold their best from each other or when there are hidden desires to punish, shame, scare or hurt, negativity is lurking just beneath the surface. The shunning of these places does not make them disappear.
On the other hand, we see couples who rampantly and openly blame and attack one another. Anger is not expressed with a willingness to get to a deeper truth, it's used instead as a weapon to hurt, defend and create distance. Some spouses actually believe that this type of verbal abuse is "being honest."
Very few couples in our culture understand how to work with the powerful energies that marriage inevitably brings forth. In order to create an exceptional marriage, couples must have tools to traverse the terrain of negativity when it arises. Marriage, because of its capacity to rock our emotional foundations, can offer us an amazing chance to understand our inner landscape. Through the expression of our hostile emotions there is an opportunity to discover what we are fighting for.
Our challenge in creating the EMM approach was "How do we help couples dive into some dark waters, while maintaining safety, love and respect. How can partners preserve their essential sense of value and compassion in the process of facing negativity? How can we help create the kind of environment where couples feel ‘safe enough’ to move through some uncharted emotional territory?”
First, Brian and I view anger as primarily a "tip of the iceberg" feeling. Many couples believe that anger is "all there is" when the relationship reaches a point of built up resentments. Couples either get stuck in a vicious circle of anger and blame or they hold their anger back entirely. Both are equally corrosive. One of the essential tools we provide couples right off the bat is a map of their own inner psyche. We call this map the 10 step Full Self Expression process. Knowing that anger is an inroad into other feelings helps couples see the whole picture. Guiding couples through the strong energy of anger allows them to naturally open to their more tender, positive, and generous emotions toward one another. Under all anger lies the desire to be loved and respected. Anger would not erupt if these basic needs did not feel violated. Knowing this, couples can eventually access their essential need to be loved and appreciated by each other.
There are a few ground rules to the expression of emotions. First, you have to be willing to "go all the way." Partners cannot just express, say anger, hurt or fear, without also being open to expressing remorse, need, love, and appreciation. Second, it is very important for each person to realize that any feeling you have toward your partner is most often only partially about him/her. Brian and I call this the 80/20 rule. In general 80% of our reactions have an historical basis. Third, the receiving partner needs to be able to have his/her full range of reactions to what is being expressed. Full self- expression is not a passive process. both partners must be able to have their say and to release the defensive energy held in the body. Finally, it is ultimately necessary for both partners to really get that each is responsible for themselves and that full self- expression has nothing to do with trying to change your partner. Each of us is totally responsible for how we operate in the relationship and by expressing ourselves fully we can open to love and acceptance.
The flip side of taking ownership for our own feelings is NOT taking ownership for our partner’s reactions. Being able to receive what our partners have to say, even when they are angry or hurt is a great gift we can give to them. Ironically, hearing our partner's true feelings can help us develop a stronger sense of self. If our partner always protects us by hiding how they react to our behaviors, it creates a collusion of politeness which weakens our ability to look at our own faults in a compassionate way. Owning that 20% of our partner’s reactions might be about us and forgiving ourselves for our patterns of relating can be very powerful. If we know that our partner needs to say what s/he feels, that s/he is doing it for the benefit of becoming more loving, and we realize it's only a partial truth at best, than we can stand up to our partner's truth with power and dignity. Hearing our partners can break the spiral of defensiveness and bring us closer.
We have seen over and over the incredible transformation that occurs when couples share feelings in the context of self-ownership and seeing the broader picture. Negative feelings organically melt into vulnerability, walls dissolve, love and gratitude emerge from the depths of the heart. It's a sight to behold and we are awed and inspired whenever it occurs.