What Your Elementary School Teacher Can Teach You about Relationships

No matter how old we are, most of us can probably remember that special teacher who had a significant impact on our lives – the teacher who was kind and patient, responsive to our questions, intuitively sensitive to our insecurities, while still being able to respectfully challenge us to discover, learn and grow.

These are some of the traits that we may also want in a partner/spouse.

One such elementary teacher stands out for me. He clearly loved to teach. Looking back, he seemed to have an uncanny gift of meeting us where we were academically and then nudging us forward, encouraging us to go a little bit further with each lesson. While learning was often hard, his approach rarely made me feel incapable.

Years later I’d come to learn about the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (the ZPD was developed by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky). This is the difference between what a learner can accomplish independently (without any assistance) and what s/he can do with help. In essence, the teacher joins the student within the orbit of his current capabilities and gives him the support or tools needed for him to stretch his capacity to include new knowledge and skills.

How is this relevant to your marriage or relationship?

For growth to occur (whether intellectual, emotional, psychological, or spiritual), a starting point exists within us.

It’s our current experiential home base.

For instance, if I’m feeling depressed or annoyed about something and you approach me with an overly positive attitude and suggest that I should see the bright side of life, there’s going to be a wide disconnect between us. I’m not going to feel understood or supported. In fact, I’m probably not going to want to be around you.

In this example, the emotional gap (the zone) between my experience and your experience/attitude is too vast. No empathic bridge between us can be established across such a large divide. An academic analogy would be that I am struggling to learn basic arithmetic and you’re trying to teach me trigonometry.

Empathic failures are one important way disconnection happens in relationships. To understand why these failures happen in your marriage or relationship, you can use Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Distance. Your partner is having an emotional experience that is either positive or negative. Failing to direct your communication to his/her emotional-zone may lead him/her to feel misunderstood or not taken seriously. Meeting your partner within his/her emotional ZPD builds connection.

How To Communicate With Your Spouse: Entering Your Partner’s Emotional Zone

Let’s imagine we’re in a conversation and I’m feeling depressed about a friend moving away.

Me: Wow, I can’t believe how sad I’m feeling about Luke moving out of state. I’ve been feeling bummed out for about a week now.

You: You’ve seemed depressed to me. I’ve been wondering if something is wrong, but I didn’t want to pry. It sounds like you’re going to miss him.

Me: I guess so. We didn’t do a lot of things together, but I always enjoyed getting together with him when our schedules allowed.

You: I had a similar experience with someone I felt close to, even though we were both busy with our own lives. We didn’t see each other that much, but just knowing he was in the same city was comforting even if I didn’t see him for months.

Me: Yeah, that’s how this feels. We didn’t need to see one another a lot, but whenever we got together we’d pick right up where we left off. It always felt like no time had passed at all since we last saw each other.

In this example, you’ve entered my emotional-zone by first acknowledging what I was feeling and then sharing a highly relevant experience that allowed me to continue further and build upon what you shared.

Now imagine you responded to me in the following way after I told you I had been feeling sad:

“You seemed depressed to me. But you got tons of friends, I’m sure you’ll forget he even lived nearby after some time passes. You know what they say, ‘time heals all wounds.’”

In this example, you’ve prematurely left my emotional-zone by indicating that everything will be fine at some point.

You may be totally correct in your statement, but by extending your comments too far beyond my experience (outside the bounds of my emotional-zone), I no longer feel listened to. And when I don’t feel listened to, I don’t feel understood.

In this case, I may not continue to share the way I did in the previous example when you were in my emotional-zone. Instead, I might say something like, “Yeah, you’re probably right” while regretting that I made myself vulnerable by sharing my feelings.

How To Improve Your Relationship:  Communication Expansion or Contraction

As a rule of thumb, mutual empathy (entering into each other’s emotional-zones) often expands a conversation, sometimes subtly, at other times in profound ways. When we feel understood by our partner/spouse, emotional safety increases, and this has the potential to help us connect more fully with our own experiences. As our experience deepens through the communication process, we may further express what is emerging within us as the conversation flows back and forth.

When you prematurely step out of each other’s emotional-zone, the likelihood of the conversation expanding in a meaningful way is diminished. In fact, the communication constricts and may even grind to a halt. This communication contraction may parallel an emotional contraction for the person not feeling listened to; a closing off of yourself due to unfriendly communication conditions.

In my work with couples, I see this all the time. You can feel someone’s energy shift depending on how the communication is proceeding. When someone feels deeply listened to and their experience is acknowledged, anger abates and a sense of comfort or vitality sets in.

When someone is not feeling listened to, tension mounts, vitality diminishes, and the person may either go into defensive-attack mode or close themselves off completely.

Like that beloved teacher who used your current understanding as a starting point to teach you, meet your partner where s/he is emotionally. Trying to pull someone out of their emotional-zone by indicating they should be feeling something they are not will only lead to frustration and a painful disconnection between the two of you.

Remember, by entering into your partner’s emotional-zone, emotional intimacy is nurtured and your relationship/marriage is strengthened.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

Feature image “Learn chalk means student education and subjects by Stuart Miles. Freedigitalphotos.net

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