19 Jan 5 Strategies For Optimal Emotional Hygiene (a bit like face-masks… for relationships)

Standing in the checkout line at Woolies recently, I was suddenly aware of an impulse to sneeze. As I wasn’t unwell, in ordinary times this wouldn’t have been a particularly interesting event. However these aren’t ordinary times, and I was acutely aware that my sneeze (if I indulged it) could very likely be met with disapproval… or even fear… by those around me.

We’ve all needed to become super conscious of personal hygiene lately, and of course this is a necessary thing during a global viral pandemic. Venturing out in public when unwell was never a great idea anyway, so maybe it’s great that this pandemic has reminded us that interacting with others when we’re unwell isn’t OK. Contrary to what advertisers of cold and flu medications would like us to believe, when sick we are not best to “soldier on”, but to to self-isolate, rest, heal, and most importantly, keep our distance from others so we don’t spread the germs around.

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I was relieved to feel the sneeze sensation receding. Dilemma avoided. But my little almost-sneeze moment got me thinking about germs, and about our personal responsibility to be hygienic when we’re unwell: it takes being self aware enough to know when we’re not healthy, then disciplined enough to keep our distance from others until we’ve got the germs we’re carrying under wraps.

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 now, it’s not viral infection, but our own emotions which have the potential to cause damage to ourselves and others.

It’s important to emphasise here that I’m referring to “unhealthy” (for which I’ll use the term dysregulated) emotions. Dysregulated emotions are the ones that feel super charged… 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).

As a marriage therapist I see everyday how dysregulated emotions (and the self-entitlement vibe that comes with them) are indeed like germs: they overwhelm us, they infect those around us in negative ways, and they potentially damage the host in serious ways – the host in this instance being our relationship itself.

Your emotions are dysregulated if you are:

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

If one or both partners in your relationship don’t know how to regulate your strong emotions, your relationship may well be totally awesome at the best of times, but it will unravel badly when things get emotionally tough.

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

So why do strong emotions irreparably damage some partnerships, but not others? What are partners in successful relationships doing differently? How is it possible to feel even the strongest, craziest, angriest emotions, whilst still practicing optimal “emotional hygiene” that keeps your relationships healthy and safe?

Let me offer a few suggestions here:


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 take us into our “head space”… and usually this means 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 what/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 can I want us to work through this”.

Every partner does this naturally during the good times, but it’s a whole lot more challenging when your emotions are running high and your relationship is doing it tough. 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”… (you know the one, it’s the one that compels you to protect and defend whatever it is your own ego wants you to believe). 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 and spiritual 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. It’s just like personal hygiene but in an emotional (rather than physical) realm. Practice the above strategies: all will help you regain emotional balance, so you can return to your relationship and attend to what it needs in healthy ways. My hope for you is that the above strategies will help you create an emotional healthy relationship together. A relationship that knows how to protect itself when things are tricky. One that truly thrives.

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 almost 30 years. Contact Pamela here.