Relationship Help Quick Tip
John feels totally helpless when his wife Noreen is upset or cries. But rather than fully experience these feelings (and be emotionally present for his wife), John enters into an emotional shell game by replacing his feelings of helplessness with annoyance and anger at Noreen. John’s experience becomes so narrowed that he’s only aware of feeling annoyed and frustrated with Noreen in those moments. If you suggested to him that beneath his anger he was feeling helpless, he’d probably look at you like you were crazy.
If John were fully conscious of the breadth of his experience in those moments, he might articulate something like:
“I feel like I’m sinking without a life-jacket when Noreen is distressed about something. I have so much trouble staying with and tolerating this sinking feeling; it becomes unbearable. So I quickly remove myself from this emotional stranglehold by chiding her for her reaction. Seeing her as immature or overreacting in those moments gives me emotional distance from her. This distance allows me to feel emotionally safe, to feel centered and be able to breathe rather than drown in helplessness. But I can tell my wife feels totally alone and abandoned when I do this…”
Anger isn’t a good substitute for feeling helpless. Anger in these moments pushes your partner away, creating a painful and confusing void between you. The best reaction to feeling helpless is to feel helpless—without judgment or action.
When you and your partner are able to stay present and connected in the face of feeling helpless, a powerful opportunity is created for a deep emotional connection. For this to occur, all you have to do (though it’s easier said than done) is to remain present and open to your own experiences and your partner’s experience. Rather than relying on the distancing influence of anger, allow the emotional connection between you to act as your emotional life-jacket in these uncomfortable moments.
Don’t forget to read the follow-up, companion article, Relationship Help: When Men Feel Helpless Part II
Wishing you a healthy relationship,
Dr. Rich Nicastro