Couples are experiencing unique, new relationship stresses as the pandemic continues unabated. It has created a forced togetherness with no easy escape. Social distancing rules have made couples spending time together, often in close quarters, that is new to them. Coupled with the pressures of working from home, school closures, and social isolation, relationships are being tested to the breaking point. And, at this point, there is no end in sight.
Some couples are finding the pandemic a perfect way to become closer. Others are discovering that forced isolation reveals hidden fractures in their relationship.
The imposed isolation is calling out for new tools to deal with these stresses. The most powerful of these skills is emotional competency. Emotional competency refers to the skills couples need to be emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged. It sustains an emotional connection, which is the single strongest predictor of relationship satisfaction. For isolated couples, keeping their emotional connection secure is crucial. To maintain emotional connection requires emotional competency.
Emotional Competency is Based on Listening.
Many relationship experts say that excellent communication is the secret to healthy relationships. The advice has some merit, but it isn't exactly correct. The secret to healthy relationships is based on listening, but…you need to know what to listen to…and it's not just the words! Instead, we must learn to listen to our partner's emotions and reflect them back in a validating statement. Listening to emotions is the foundation of emotional competency.
Listening to Emotions
Neuroscience has established that listening to emotions and reflecting them is a potent strategy for de-escalating anger. In 2007, a brain imaging study by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA saw that self-affect labeling inhibited strong emotions in brains. Four years earlier, I had stumbled across the same idea in an extremely contentious mediation, where I was able to diffuse an angry situation between a divorced couple. That mediation changed my life forever.
Lieberman showed that our brains are hardwired to receive this direct emotional feedback. When a listener reflects back emotions, that skill is known as affect labeling, and the listener validates the speaker. This type of listening builds a deep emotional connection. I call this: "Listening another into existence."
Listening to emotions is a three-step process.
Here's an example of how it works in the context of a potential fight over texting at the dinner table:
"Would you stop texting and pay attention to me for once?"
This is a very common opening provocation. The listener has three choices: remain silent, fight back, or listen.
Here is what listening to emotions looks like:
"Yeah. Every time we sit down to dinner, you pull out your phone and start texting your friends. It pisses me off."
"You're angry and frustrated and feel disrespected."
"Darn right, I do!"
"You don't feel appreciated. You feel invisible and unworthy."
From the outside, this might look weird, rude, condescending, or invasive. From the inside, it is deeply validating. Instead of bristling up defenses and lashing back, the listener focused on the speaker's emotional experience. The speaker calmed down in seconds. The alternative would be a fight and a ruined dinner.
This is not as easy as it looks, though. We are taught from early childhood that emotions can be bad, evil, or even irrational. Persistent and pervasive emotional abuse, even by loving parents, leads children to emotional shutdown. Phrases in response to a child's normal emotions include, "Don't be a cry baby," "Stop crying," "Don't be such a sissy," "Grow up!" and so forth.
These are examples of emotional invalidation. They are insidious, pervasive, and extremely abusive because children, and later as adults, won't ever experience emotional safety. Therefore, emotions create anxiety and a strong impulse to self-soothe by invalidating the other person's emotional experience.
Among many other systems and networks, our brains have a task-focused system and a social system. Education is focused on developing the task-focused system through knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, problem-solving, and the like. The brain's social system, which is about empathy, listening, and emotional competency, is ignored.
When we overcome these cultural and educational barriers through listening to emotions, we calm people down in seconds. Conflict and strong emotions no longer bother us. We become nonreactive and compassionate in the face of insults, provocations, and arguments.
Learning to listen and reflect on emotions takes some practice. During the pandemic isolation, devoting time to this skill will build emotional competency, connection, and resiliency in any relationship. Listening to emotions will transform your life and the life of others around you.
Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug's work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. His fourth book, De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less, is available in four languages.
To learn more about Douglas E. Noll and his work, visit https://dougnoll.com.