19 Jan How To Protect Your Relationship When Emotions Are High

You probably noticed that sneezing, coughing, or even standing too close in a public place during the covid pandemic was often not well received.

We were all thinking about germs, and about our personal responsibility to be hygienic when we’re unwell.

This is actually a pretty handy metaphor for what needs to happen in our own relationships if we want to keep them healthy – except that when it comes to our relationships, it’s not viral infection, but our own emotions that have the potential to cause damage to ourselves and others.

I’m referring to unhealthy, dysregulated emotions, the ones that arise in moments of intense relationship distress and hijack us, so that we’re no longer sensible decent partners but an adult version of a foot-stamping, red-faced, dummy-spitting child… (or an ice-cold, stone-faced, shut-down manifestation of same). Dysregulated emotions are the ones that feel super charged.

As a marriage therapist I see everyday how dysregulated emotions (and the self-entitlement vibe that comes with them) are indeed like germs: they rob us of the ability to be at our best, and they potentially infect those around us too.

Your emotions are dysregulated if you are:

Being very reactive and “shooting from the hip”
Ranting, raving, or yelling
Name calling or being verbally abusive in other ways
Indulging in physical outbursts
Shutting down or giving “the silent treatment”

Relationships unravel badly when things get emotionally tough if one or both partners in your relationship haven’t yet mastered how to regulate your strong emotions.

Some partners describe this as a roller-coaster ride of “good” highs and “bad” lows. The result is usually a relationship marked by volatility, confusion, emotional disconnection, and ultimate despair.

Just like the personal hygiene strategies that are required to keep self-and-other safe during a viral pandemic, we need personal hygiene strategies to protect our relationships from emotional dysregulation when it occurs.

Knowing how to regulate strong emotions during super-charged times is so central to healthy relationships that I would rate this skill as #1 prerequisite for a successful partnership. 

Here’s what you need to do:

When you’re emotionally disregulated, you’ll feel like reacting at lightning pace, but it’s your emotions driving this push and what you say and/or do next is likely to be motivated by your personal agenda (winning/point scoring/hurting/inflicting damage…) rather than relational healing. It’s crucial that you slow your responses down.

It’s super important to keep your partner informed so that he/she realises why you’re pausing and taking time out. For example, you might say:

“Right now I’m feeling overwhelmed and I’m needing to slow down here. But I want you to know I do care, and I do want us to work through this. Please give me a moment to gather myself before we keep talking…”

Tip: This only works if you build credibility by always returning to your partner and the conversation once your emotions are again regulated, otherwise your partner will (quite rightly) interpret your request for pause as a “cop-out”.

As simple as it sounds, good abdominal breathing is your best tool for regulating strong emotions… so long as you’re doing it mindfully. Slow down… really slow down… and engage your diaphragm. You’ll know you’re doing this correctly if you can see your belly rise and fall with each breath.

Strong emotions often cause disconnection from our physical body awareness. It’s really important during times of heightened emotion that you practice bringing your attention back into your body and to the physical space around you. While breathing deeply and very slowly into your belly, focus on engaging your senses (what you see, hear, taste, smell, and physically feel).

For example, while breathing deeply and slowly, soften your gaze and look at your surroundings, focussing on something inside the room, or through the window. Or you may like to shut your eyes completely. Now listen to the sounds around you… feel the air on your arms or the chair supporting your back… and stay with the awareness as you continue breathing deeply and slowly. Simplicity is the key to this exercise.

Those of you who work with me know I’m a big fan of “parts” work… that is, cultivating awareness and dialogue between the different psychological components of who we are. “Inner child work” is one aspect of this. In short, even the most intense or chaotic emotions reside in only one part of ourselves: they are very rarely a full representation of who we are.

For example, you may be furious with your partner. Justified or not, this part of you is real, so own it, but at the same time, look for the part of you that also cares for your partner and wants to protect your relationship from the damage that your heightened emotions could do.

For example, “I’m furious at you right now, so you can XYZ off…!!” instead becomes “I’m furious at you right now, but I’m also very aware that I do love you and I want us to work through this”.

This is a game-changing move, essential for relationship mastery, and not only as a strategy to bring your own dysregulated emotions back into balance. Why it’s so important is pretty simple: we cannot build awesome relationships from an individually-focussed (or incentivised) point of view.

To pull this off you’ll need to let go of your attachment to your own “story” and instead, ask yourself what your relationship needs. It’s a challenging move (which is why so many people can’t manage it), but one with infinite rewards not only for your relationship, but for your own individual personal growth.

Emotions are normal and healthy, even the “bad” ones. But creating a relationship that thrives requires self awareness and restraint, because when your emotions are dysregulated, you’re likely to spread the “germs” around. The strategies above will help you regain emotional balance, so you can return to your relationship and attend to what it needs in healthy ways.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive for 30 years. Contact Pamela here.