- Building Bridges after the Storm: 6 Steps to Mending after a Dispute
- Here are some healthy ways to begin the mend!
- There are two options in conflict
- More by Chris Bader
- Why a couples therapist says “emotional fluency” is important for a healthy relationship
- 1) The present is indicative of the future
- 2) It’s too late to make changes
- 3) Being vulnerable is dangerous
- 4) Being alone is a problem
- 5) Fitting in is a good thing
- 6) There’s a perfect person out there for me
- 7) What everyone does to you is personal
- 8) You should never be sad
- Depression is a disease of loneliness | Andrew Solomon
- The One Thing You Need To Make Your Relationship Work
- The reason most people never end up in a relationship is that there is a wall that one doesn’t understand. This is also the reason most relationships don’t make it past three months
- Have you ever noticed that the breakdown between you and someone you’re interested in came directly as a result of not seeing one another and always talking via app or text?
- So How Do You Put Emotional Fluency To Work For You & Your Partner? Change Your Emotional Tendencies
- Start Forgiving Yourself
- Toss Expectation Out The Window
- Stop Texting
- Rock Your Own Life
- Take It One Day At A Time
- If the person you are developing a relationship with constantly backs away from all discussion, and you can’t find a common ground with emotional fluency, you might want to consider moving on. You can’t force someone to be compatible with you and your emotional happiness.
- What is it to have never felt an emotion?
- Why a Couples Therapist Says ‘Emotional Fluency’ Is Crucial for a Relationship
Building Bridges after the Storm: 6 Steps to Mending after a Dispute
Many couples who experience struggles in their relationship try to avoid confronting the issues that are causing problems. Resentments, back stories, past conflicts, defensiveness (just to name a few) are extremely unhealthy for a relationship. Yes, conflicts are difficult, but being able to manage them by communicating effectively and lovingly is essential for long term stability.
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman explains the magic ratio of a healthy conflict is 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative. This isn’t to suggest that we should attempt to get rid of conflict, rather it demonstrates the importance of being able to work through them in a respectful, loving way.
Disagreements and difficult issues are going to come up from time to time. What we choose to do in those moments is critical.
Here are some healthy ways to begin the mend!
1. Get in touch with your feelings! – Emotional fluency is crucial to healthy relationships. Rather than cover up and ignore uncomfortable feelings, choose to be honest and open. If you need time to self-soothe before discussing, ask for it. When you are ready to talk in a calm and respectful manner, let your words and emotions match.
2. Make eye contact – Stop what you are doing, and choose to focus solely on each other. This means put down any distractions, turn off the TV, and turn towards rather than turn away.
3. Remember the Power of “I” – “I” statements are a wonderful means of communicating because they maintain a respectful attitude toward the receiver while enabling you to say how it is on your side.
In healthy two-way communication, practicing these statements not only helps your assertiveness, but also increases your self-confidence in the process.
Using “I” statements creates an opportunity to better understand each other while avoiding the finger pointing “you” statements.
4. (To the listener) Put off your agenda – Yes, you will have your chance to speak from your own “I” perspective. Right now, your job is to listen to the words. Repeat back what you have heard, and try to validate how your partner could have seen things that way. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with them, but simply, that from their perspective it makes sense.
5. Identify what your part was and what you could do differently next time – Perhaps you yelled, blamed, maybe you shut down, used sarcasm? Whatever the part you played, be accountable, apologize, and commit to doing things differently next time.
6. Speak the positive need from your partner – Within every conflict there is a dream situation. Take time to identify what you need differently, and be prepared to ask for it. “I” need Connection? Touch? Quality Time? Help?
There are two options in conflict
Either do nothing and allow the situation to drive a further wedge into the relationship, or do the difficult work of talking openly and honest about it. As uncomfortable as it is, working through these situations can bring true intimacy to any relationship if you both are willing to put in the work.
Finding the right relationship counsellor is important. As a Marriage.com couples therapist, I can help if you are having difficulty in building the bridge back together or if you just want to learn some new ways of connecting!
All the best!
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
More by Chris Bader
Why a couples therapist says “emotional fluency” is important for a healthy relationship
I don’t know about you, but I find the whole idea of “til death do us part” nerve racking. How am I supposed to stay with the one person for the rest of my life?
Yet the reality is that a large percentage of us stay with the same human for over half their lives.
Amazing. Way to go guys.
So what skills do these people have that I don’t? I thought maybe I just have a fear of commitment, but then I came across what a couples therapist says what is important for a long lasting relationship.
Brian Gleason has been married for almost four decades and as a couples therapist knows that he’s talking about when it comes to relationships that last. He says the key factor is having a skill called “emotional fluency”.
The skill is learnable, but you probably never got taught it at school (unless you went to one of those fancy progressive schools that are ahead of their time).
“We’re just not trained to speak in emotional language,” Gleason says. But when you’re in an intimate relationship, you’re constantly feeling a wide range of emotions from longing to anxiety to joy.
It’s intense, and makes it all more important to be able to put your emotions int words. You need to be able to communicate your emotions.
As Gleason says:
“The more we’re able to put into some sort of language and convey it to our partner, that these are my inner experiences right now, the more empathy there is in the relationship.
The obverse of that is that the less I can say this is my inner experience, the more my partner is going to be reacting to my outer behavior, oftentimes with udgement and frustration, rather than where they would relate to your experience with empathy.”
The key reason that communicating your emotions is important is because they will constantly change. This is the nature of being human.
The one thing that shouldn’t change is your ability to communicate your emotions, whatever you’re going through.
Let’s say for example that you’re having breakfast with your partner and you’re really worried about a meeting you have that day – with your boss, maybe. Instead of putting your anxieties into words, you keep it in. In this case, your partner has no idea why you’re so silent during breakfast. They can only react to your external behavior.
Your partner reacts: “This is what you always do. You’re always distant and unavailable and not wanting to spend quality time with me.”
Gleason says the key to “emotional fluency” is to provide a way into your inner world to your partner. Your partner needs some way in to be able to understand what’s happening.
All you nneed to do in this example is say something the following: “I’m really worried about the meeting today, I’m worried that my job is in danger, that my boss is upset with me. I’m not sure how to handle this situation – what’s your advice?”
Inevitably, you’ll be met with compassion.
The relationships that last are the ones where partners have the skill to provide bridges itno their inner worlds. Retionships are much more difficult when your partner has no idea what you’re thinking about.
This is when the tension starts to build up.
When you can learn the skill of “emotional fluency”, Gleason says that “all of a sudden there’s an alliance”. A deeper connection is formed.
This is important to a long and lasting relationship.
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When I was in my teens and early 20s, I wanted life to be a certain way. I wanted to be the best that I could be and achieve everything I ever wanted.
After all, school was finished and the world was opening up.
But because I wanted it so bad, I started to focus on my flaws. I started to get anxious and fearful that I might not be what I’ve always thought I could be.
I surrendered myself to these fears for a sense of comfort. I shielded myself from trying to new things and experiencing all the different aspects of life.
And as I’m thinking about it now, no wonder I was so damn miserable!
I was lost. My own toxic beliefs and behaviors were sabotaging my life. It’s easy to say now, but it’s really difficult to notice it when you’re in the midst of it.
Your mind gets stuck in patterns and it’s a whirlwind to get .
But I stuck at it.
After extensive reading of Buddhist philosophy, and changing my mind through my actions, I began to try new things and experience a sense of contentment and peace with my life.
However, I’m not perfect. Life is still a struggle, but the one thing that has changed is my reaction to it.
I’m no longer fearful of fear or anxious over anxiety. I’ve accepted that these emotions are part of life, which paradoxically has lead to more peace and less stress.
And when you think about it, I believe our reaction is all that we have control.
But it’s our unfounded beliefs that get in the way of understanding things this.
So below, I’m going to go over 8 toxic beliefs that I believe are more common than you might think. Check it out:
1) The present is indicative of the future
When things aren’t going well, it’s common to believe that your life will always be this. Challenges present themselves and you fear that you’ll never be able to overcome them.
The funny thing is, when things are going great, we believe that something will stop it from continuing to be great.
We think that happiness is fleeting. We take it at face value, but when we’re feeling depressed, or anxious, we believe that it will only get worse.
But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy and it’s foggy judgment.
The first law of Buddhism is that change is the only constant in the universe. So, no matter how bad things appear to be, things simply have to change.
Nothing remains fixed. So, wipe that dirty lens that views the world as only getting worse. Have optimism and hope that it will change for the better.
2) It’s too late to make changes
Life isn’t predictable. There’s no straight line towards anything. Just because you’re not happy with your job right now, doesn’t mean you can’t make a change and try something new. It doesn’t matter how old you are.
You’re allowed to backtrack in life. You’re allowed to figure out what’s right for you.
True, life is a mess. But it’s a beautiful mess and rather than trying to turn something straight that zigzags, it’s far more fulfilling and fun to run with the zigzags.
3) Being vulnerable is dangerous
This is a common belief and for good reason. None of us enjoy feeling uncomfortable emotions fear and vulnerability.
We’re afraid to feel these emotions to the fullest extent because we’re pessimistic about how we’ll react.
However, progress can only occur when you step your comfort zone. And the only way you’ll be able to do that is by embracing imperfection and accepting that you’re going to feel uncomfortable.
So embrace who you are and everything your feeling. You might find that it leads to opportunities and insights that you never thought were previously possible
4) Being alone is a problem
You can say thanks to society for this one. People who spend time alone are labeled as weird and outcasts.
It’s a dangerous belief to engage in. The truth is, when shit goes south, we only have ourselves to rely on and if you’re not comfortable with yourself, it can lead to all sorts of issues.
As Buddhism says, happiness can only come from within yourself, so stop seeking external factors to make you happy.
[To dive deep into Buddhist and eastern philosophy and it can help you live a better life, check out my most popular eBook: The No-Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy for a Better Life]
Realize that being comfortable with yourself is the greatest asset that you’ll ever have in your life.
5) Fitting in is a good thing
We’ve grown up believing that if you want to be successful, you need to fit in.
The problem is, these beliefs generally operate on stereotypes. Society develops a limiting box that you need to fit inside if you want to be considered ‘normal’.
But the only way you’ll ever be truly happy is if you’re your real self.
So embrace who you really are and forget about being someone because it pleases other people.
It’s a known fact that the happiest people are authentic people.
6) There’s a perfect person out there for me
We all chase perfection and this is no different when it comes to searching for a partner.
We search for the perfect lover because Hollywood has taught us that they definitely exist somewhere in the world.
But we need to realize that there’s no such thing as perfection. Yes, you’re going to find someone you love, but they will have their flaws, just you.
With a little patience and an open mind, you’ll begin to realize that these imperfections really are what make life beautiful.
7) What everyone does to you is personal
Some of us tend to think that anything happening to us is a direct assault on us. But when we start seeing the world this way, it can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The truth is, the world isn’t out to get you and neither are other people. What people think about you says more about them then it does about you.
We all have a lens with which we see the world, so choose yours to be optimistic and hopeful. Your mind will thank you for it.
8) You should never be sad
Thanks to the positive thinking movement, most of us believe that if we’re feeling negative emotions, then there’s something wrong with us.
But it’s impossible to be positive all the time. You need to accept your negative emotions because if you don’t, it’ll come back to bite you back 10 tens harder.
Happiness isn’t about being positive all the time. It’s about embracing life as it is and accepting who you are.
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Depression is a disease of loneliness | Andrew Solomon
“Naked and alone we came into exile,” wrote the American novelist Thomas Wolfe in his 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel. “In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth … Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?”
A study published by the relationship charity Relate would suggest that Wolfe was on to something. One in 10 people in the UK said they had no friends and one in five reported feeling unloved in the fortnight preceding the survey.
Those who have friends frequently go through life unaware that others do not, because those others are so isolated as to be socially invisible.
Because I have written about depression, some such people have reached out to me for advice, describing its universal bleakness and the bleaker reality of suffering without the cushion of love.
“I was extremely unhappy and I didn’t feel I could tell anyone,” a woman named Claudia Weaver told me. “I avoided the world.”
In an era in which has made “friend” into a verb, we often confuse the ambient intimacy of websites with the authentic intimacy that comes with sharing your life’s challenges with someone who cares – who will be sad because you are sad, happy because you feel joy, worried if you are unwell, reassuring if you are hopeless. We are imprisoned even in crowded cities and at noisy parties.
Prof Simon Wessely, the incoming president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has indicated that only one-third of people with mental health issues in the UK are receiving treatment of any kind, which means that the number receiving effective treatment must be much smaller. It has been suggested that treating mentally ill people is expensive, and that in the current economic climate, funds cannot readily be found for such treatment. But not treating the depressed is ultimately more expensive than treating them. People who cannot function end up on the dole; parents may not be able to take care of their children; men and women too depressed to sustain their physical health could develop serious conditions that cost the NHS a great deal. Such neglect would never be tolerated in response to a physical illness.
Depression is a disease of loneliness. Many untreated depressives lack friends because it saps the vitality that friendship requires and immures its victims in an impenetrable sheath, making it hard for them to speak or hear words of comfort.
Worldly success does little to assuage that agony, as Robin Williams’ suicide this week makes clear. Love – both expressed and received – is helpful, not because it ameliorates the symptoms of depression (it does not), but because it gives people evidence that life may be worth living if they can only get better.
It gives them a place to admit to their illness, and admitting it is the first step toward resolving it.
It would be arrogant for people with friends to pity those without. Some friendless people may be close to their parents or children rather than to extrafamilial friends, or they may be more interested in things or ideas than in other people. The Relate research suggests that married people are mostly happier than the unmarried, but marriage is not right for everyone.
Creating a social system that shoehorns people into relationships or friendships they don’t want– as the Victorians sometimes tried to do in the name of good fellowship, or the Soviets in the name of communism – is not ly to solve the ever-widening depression crisis.
Insisting to people who don’t want companionship that they’d be happier if they were less lonely is not a useful intervention.
Many people, however, are desperate for love, but don’t know how to go about finding it, disabled by depression’s tidal pull toward seclusion. Loneliness will not be fixed by medication, though pills may instigate the stability to open up to friendship’s liabilities: potential rejection, exhausting demands, the need for self-sacrifice.
For some, friendship has become a vocabulary as obscure as Sanskrit. Lack of emotional fluency may cause depression; it may exacerbate it; it may cast a shadow over recovery. But there are ways to help people who want friendships to learn the language of affection. Parents and schools can teach children productive ways to engage.
Literature, film, poetry, music and art can show what relatedness looks . For those who are too far along for such high-minded modelling, psychotherapy can help translate the methods of friendship’s alarming, vanished language.
Over and over again I have heard tones of astonishment as social relations are built – often starting with a therapist. Many of us are more alone than we need to be, living in gratuitous exile.
Friendship is an impulse encoded deep within us, but it is also a skill, and skills can be both taught and learned.
• The photograph caption on this article was amended on 29 August 2014 to better reflect the text of the article.
“,”author”:null,”date_published”:”2014-08-16T06:00:10.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/8/15/1408121932639/A-lonely-girl-looking-out-014.jpg?width=1200&height=630&quality=85&auto=format&fit=crop&overlay-align=bottom%2Cleft&overlay-width=100p&overlay-base64=L2ltZy9zdGF0aWMvb3ZlcmxheXMvdGctb3BpbmlvbnMucG5n&enable=upscale&s=80ad1a44cbd9b80a78ce89997a62f77d”,”dek”:”A lack of friends can suck someone into solitude â sharing the language of affection could help to ease the pain
The One Thing You Need To Make Your Relationship Work
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Having written a tell-all detailing some of those lovely, torrid and beautiful times – the innermost part of me wanted to reach out to others to simply explain the one thing you need in any relationship, and why it is so very important from not only my personal experience but from a researched point of view.
The reason most people never end up in a relationship is that there is a wall that one doesn’t understand. This is also the reason most relationships don’t make it past three months
In my recent experience, the guy I’ve been interested in – he’s really busy. What he doesn’t know is the guy I dated before him was busy. Really busy, with other women.
That caused me to go into flight or fight mode. Women tend to think if a guy is blowing her off all of the time that he’s not interested. So, I called the current guy out on it. He immediately apologized.
That was the establishment of ‘emotional fluency’.
This man became even more attractive because he gave me an honest reason for everything. It wasn’t me. In that moment, I decided to not be on the defensive with him. That maybe I should give him a little slack. I did, and he’s been more vocal about it all. He admitted to me that he has other things going on in his life.
Things he wasn’t quite ready to share with me, but naturally came out in the open because he started to trust me. Since then, I’ve learned to be more forgiving and less demanding. I’ve learned more about him, and he’s learned more about me.
Instead of calling him a ‘dick’, or being rude about the fact that he doesn’t have time to see me, I’ve been sending him messages cheering him on for being such a bad-ass.
Emotional fluency really matters in a relationship and can make or break how compatible you are with another person. Whether you are friends, lovers, or married, emotional fluency is crucial in making it work because you have to learn to talk to one another.
Have you ever noticed that the breakdown between you and someone you’re interested in came directly as a result of not seeing one another and always talking via app or text?
Today’s social norms have essentially created a communication barrier, human beings tend to get more emotional now, more than ever, because we should be able to immediately convey our feelings, wants and needs and get an immediate response back from the person we are talking to; which leads to higher levels of interpersonal stress. “The more that we’re able to put into some sort of language and convey it to our partner, that these are my inner experiences right now, the more empathy there is in the relationship,” says Brian Gleason, LCSW, who co-founded the Exceptional Marriage practice and book Exceptional Relationships: Transformation Through Embodied Couples Work with his wife, Marcia. The two have been together for nearly four decades – that’s some killer emotional commitment.
That empathy and communication create a space of emotional fluency between one another. Say for example you have a really important event or meeting coming up, and you’re worried about it.
Instead of putting those anxieties into words, you just sit there staring at your phone.
“In that case,” Gleason says, your partner doesn’t have anything to work with from your outside behavior, which can lead to misunderstanding.
Your partner reacts: “That’s what you always do, you’re never available, you’re never initiating anything, you’re always kept inside your devices.” Without a way in, your hypothetical partner can’t respond to your inner experience.
But if you do learn to convey the experience — so long as they respond to your longing for connection, as relationship experts have found to be so essential — Gleason says that “instead of a conflict, you get an alliance.
So How Do You Put Emotional Fluency To Work For You & Your Partner? Change Your Emotional Tendencies
For women, they often go into fight or flight mode when a guy goes cold. He quits texting, or talking to you as often and refrains from all forms of communication. This is normal in both sexes, especially if you are very in touch with your emotions.
If a person becomes distant, take a beat, and try not to react immediately in a defensive text, there may be something they are not opening up to you about; thus, you change your emotional tendencies.
Maybe they have a second job and aren’t proud of it, or they have a family obligation that is emotional and they just aren’t ready to share that part of their self with you yet. If you typically emotionally respond in a hateful or defensive way, do the opposite.
Start Forgiving Yourself
Take a step back and tell yourself you are sorry. Forgiving yourself for your own downfalls, emotional baggage, or commitment issues can help you forgive your partner when they don’t live up to your expectations.
Toss Expectation Out The Window
Toss that shit. Pic via website
Stop expecting and start communicating. If your partner or person of interest is having a bad day, tell them they’re bad-ass. Compliment them in your own way. Your partner needs to know you are proud of their dedication to whatever is keeping them tied up.
Whether it’s two jobs, family, kids, eating healthy, trying to lose weight, getting their mental health back on track, or simply juggling everything in life – they need to know you appreciate their efforts. You are that one person, the person they are starting to trust or trust more than anyone.
You are the one person who sees that they are a genuine bad-ass.
Not as easy as it sounds, but stop talking about your relationship with one another via apps, text or email. Humans need to feel safe, and the biggest way to safety between two people is looking one another in the face and talking about things.
You have no genuine, emotional idea of what the other is really saying via text – and it can be disastrous.
If you do text and want to continue this form of communication you need to be big on forgiveness, chill out and wait for a response before jumping to conclusions.
Rock Your Own Life
Your partner shouldn’t be your ‘everything’, and a busy person will have so much more respect for you if you have your own life. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the romance of it all.
Having your own life will give you tons of emotional fluency because you can tell one another about it all.
Sharing stories and anecdotes about the things you do outside of what you have together can create even more emotional fluency.
Take It One Day At A Time
Seeing someone, dating, and relationships take hard work. You won’t always have time for one another. Take the time you do have and use it to your advantage. Just coffee or tea can be a great time. Grab an ice cream or a quick lunch.
A phone call late at night for 15 minutes can keep things fresh too. You don’t have to be consumed with someone to make it work.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make it awesome, meeting up for a high school makeout session in a parking lot.
When it comes to living your life, you should be happy. The person you are ‘talking to’, seeing, dating, or married to should be part of your happiness. We’re all different, unique and lovely in our own way – emotional fluency is the key to being more compatible over time. The best way to develop emotional fluency is by being open with one another about our emotions and feelings.
If the person you are developing a relationship with constantly backs away from all discussion, and you can’t find a common ground with emotional fluency, you might want to consider moving on. You can’t force someone to be compatible with you and your emotional happiness.
Baker, Drake. (2016, June 29). Why a Couples Therapist Says ‘Emotional Fluency’ Is Crucial for a Relationship. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/06/emotional-fluency-crucial-for-
Harvey, Shannon. (2014, April 16). Can We Change Our Emotional Tendencies?. https://theconnection.tv/can-we-change-our-emotional-tendencies/
What is it to have never felt an emotion?
Caleb is telling me about the birth of his son, now eight months old. “You know you hear parents say that the first time they looked at their kid, they were overcome with that feeling of joy and affection?” he asks me, before pausing. “I didn’t experience any of that.”
His wedding day was equally flat. To illustrate his point, he compares it to a Broadway show. In front of the stage, he says, the audience are transported by the drama. Look behind the scenes, however, and you will find the technical engineers, focusing on analysing the technicalities of the event.
Despite taking centre stage at the ceremony, he felt similarly detached from the tides of emotion swelling up in the people around him.
“For me, it was a mechanical production,” says Caleb (who asked us not to use his full name).
Even as his wife walked down the aisle, the only sensation he felt was his face flushing and a heaviness in his feet; his mind was completely clear of joy, happiness, or love in its conventional sense.
In fact, Caleb claims not to feel almost any emotions – good, or bad.
I meet him through an internet forum for people with “alexithymia” – a kind of emotional “colour-blindness” that prevents them from perceiving or expressing the many shades of feeling that normally embellish our lives.
The condition is found in around 50% of people with autism, but many “alexes” (as they call themselves) such as Caleb do not show any other autistic traits such as compulsive or repetitive behaviour.
When you struggle to feel any emotions yourself, others' behaviour can seem alien to you (Credit: Getty Images)
Getting to the bottom of this emotional blindness could shed light on many serious illnesses, from anorexia and schizophrenia to chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome.
More personally, stories from the “alex community” lead you to re-examine experiences that you might think you know so well.
How can you fall in love, for example, when you lack all the basic tender feelings of affection that normally spark a romance?
Shells of feeling
To understand that emotional numbness, it helps to imagine emotions as a kind of Russian doll, formed of different shells, each one becoming more intricate. At the heart is a bodily sensation – the skip in your heart when you see the person you love, or the churning stomach that comes with anger.
The brain may then attach a value to those feelings – you know if it is good or bad, and if that feeling is strong, or weak; the amorphous sensations begin to take a shape and form a conscious representation of an emotion.
The feelings can be nuanced, perhaps blending different types of emotions, such as bitter-sweet sorrow, and eventually we attach words to them – you can describe your despair, or your joy, and you can explain how you came to feel that way.
When alexithymia was first described in 1972, the problem was thought to centre on this last, linguistic stage: deep down people with alexithymia felt the same as everyone else, but they just couldn’t put the emotions into words.
The scientists hypothesised that this may result from a breakdown in communication between the two hemispheres, preventing signals from the emotional regions, predominantly in the right, from reaching the language areas, predominantly in the left.
“You need that emotional transfer in order to verbalise what you’re feeling,” says Katharina Goerlich-Dobre at RWTH Aachen University. This could be seen, most dramatically, when surgeons tried to cure epilepsy by cutting the fibres that connect the two hemispheres; although it reduced the seizures, the patients also appeared emotionally mute as a result.
Less sensationally, Goerlich-Dobre’s brain scans have found that other people with alexithymia seem to have abnormally dense connections in that neural bridge. This might create a noisy signal (a bit a badly tuned radio) that prevents emotional cross-talk, she thinks.
When surgeons cut the dense connections between the two hemispheres, patients become emotionally mute and unable to express their feelings (Credit: Science Photo Library)
Today, it seems clear that there may be many types of alexithymia. While some might have trouble expressing emotions, others ( Caleb) might not even be conscious of the feelings in the first place.
Richard Lane, at the University of Arizona compares it to people who have gone blind after damage to the visual cortex; despite having healthy eyes, they can’t see the images.
In the same way, a damaged neural circuit involved in emotional processing might prevent sadness, happiness or anger from bursting into consciousness.
(Using the analogy of the Russian doll, their emotions are breaking down at the second shell of feeling – their bodies are reacting normally, but the sensations don’t merge to form an emotional thought or feeling.) “Maybe the emotion gets activated, you even have the bodily responses, but it happens without you being consciously aware of the emotion,” he says.
Along these lines, a few recent fMRI scanning studies have found signs of a more basic perceptual problem in some types of alexithymia. Goerlich-Dobre, for instance, found reduced grey matter in areas of the cingulate cortex serving self-awareness, potentially blocking a conscious representation of the emotions.
And André Aleman at the University Medical Centre in Groningen, the Netherlands, detected some deficits in areas associated with attention when alexithymics look at emotionally charged-pictures; it was as if their brains just weren’t registering the feelings.
“I think this fits quite well with [Lane’s] theory,” says Aleman – who had initially suspected other causes. “We have to admit they are right.”
Caleb himself describes a “conscious disconnect” that prevents emotions from breaking through into his mind. For instance, one day at school he was working with the student theatre.
All week he had been struggling to produce the right sound effects, but it just wasn’t coming together. Eventually, his boss lost his cool and started ripping into him. “My response was that something weird was happening with my body,” he says.
“I could feel a tension, my heart was racing, but my mind was distracted… It was an academic curiosity, and then I completely forgot about the whole situation,” he says. It seems that almost no event can penetrate that indifference.
“The more extreme the emotion I should be feeling, the more it should be colouring how I’m thinking. In reality I end up having a clearer head – I become more analytical.”
Contrary to the stereotype, autistic people do not all suffer emotional or social difficulties (Credit: Science Photo Library)
There is one, slim advantage: he finds it easier to cope with medical procedures, since he doesn’t attach the fear, sadness or anxiety to it. “I can put up with an awful lot of pain or unpleasant experiences because I know very shortly I won’t have an emotional memory associated with it,” he says. “But it means that positive memories get washed away too.”
Neural short circuit
It is a small pay-off, however: alexithymia seems to be linked to various other illnesses, including schizophrenia and eating disorders, perhaps because emotions normally guide us to take better care of our physical and mental health. Better defining alexithymia could therefore offer insights into these disorders.
It could also give us a more nuanced understanding of autism. Despite the stereotypes, Geoffrey Bird at Kings College London points out that around half of autistic people are perfectly capable of perceiving and responding to others, and those with social problems tend to also be suffering from alexithymia.
For this reason, he thinks that distinguishing the two, distinct, disorders could therefore lead to better guidance. At the moment, misunderstandings can often stand in the way of some autistic people getting the help they need.
“One autistic adult I worked with wanted to be a carer, but she was told ‘you don’t have empathy so can’t have the job’,” he says. “Our research shows that lots of people with autism are fully okay with emotions.”
Further work could also pin down the puzzling link to so-called “somatic disorders”, such as chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome, that seem to be unusually common in people with alexithymia. Lane suggests it’s down to a kind of “short-circuit” in the brain, created by the emotional blindness.
Normally, he says, the conscious perception of emotions can help damp down the physical sensations associated with the feeling. “If you can consciously process and allow the feeling to evolve – if you engage the frontal areas of the brain, you recruit mechanisms that have a top down, modulatory effect on bodily processes,” says Lane.
Without the emotional outlet, however, the mind could get stuck on the physical feelings, potentially amplifying the responses. As Goerlich-Dobre puts it: “They are hypersensitive to bodily perceptions, and not able to focus on anything else, which might be one reason why they develop chronic pain.
” (Some studies, have in fact found that alexes are often abnormally sensitive to bodily sensations, although other experiments have found conflicting evidence.)
People with alexithymia often travel a lonely road as they try to connect to their emotions (Credit: Getty Images)
Physical sensations certainly seem to dominate Caleb’s descriptions of difficult events, such as periods of separation from his family. “I don’t miss people, as far as I can tell. If I’m gone, and don’t see someone for a long period, it’s a case of sight, mind,” he says. “But I do feel physically a kind of pressure or stress when I’m not around my wife or my child for a couple of days.”
Reconnecting to lost feelings
The hope is that eventually, doctors may be able to track down the origins of alexithymia and stop the effects from snow-balling. Caleb thinks his alexithymia emerged at birth and could be genetic.
Upbringing – and the emotional fluency of your parents – may also play a role, while for others, it may be caused by trauma that shuts down people’s ability to process some or all of their emotions.
Lane, for instance, introduced me to one of his patients, Patrick Dust, who was the subject of violent abuse from his alcoholic father – experiences that put his life in danger. “One night, when he came home, my mother and he had another intense verbal argument.
He said 'I’m going to get my shotgun and kill all of you'… We ran to a neighbour’s house where we called the police.” For decades afterwards, he found it difficult to interpret and understand his emotions, particularly the fear and the anger he still felt towards his parents.
He suspects this resulted in his fibromyalgia – chronic diffuse pain and tenderness across the whole body – and an eating disorder.
With initial guidance from Lane and later by himself, Dust was able to revisit the past and reconnect to the emotions he was locking away, which he thinks also brought some relief to the fibromyalgia.
“I discovered the tremendous anger I had felt, without much awareness of it,” he explains. “It’s the most important thing I’ve done in my life.” He has just finished writing a book about the process.
By making a conscious effort to love, alexithymic people may offer stability in a relationship (Credit: Getty Images)
Caleb, too, has visited a cognitive behavioural therapist to help with his social understanding, and through conscious effort he is now better able to analyse the physical feelings and to equate it with emotions that other people may feel. Although it remains a somewhat academic exercise, the process helps him to try to grasp his wife’s feelings and to see why she acts the way she does.
Not everyone with alexithymia may have his determination and patience, however. Nor may they find a life partner who is willing to make the allowances his condition requires.
“It takes a lot of understanding on my wife’s part… She understands that my conceptions of things love are a bit different,” he says. In return, she may benefit from his stability – he is not swayed by the fickle tides of feelings.
“The trade-off is that my relationship with my wife is a conscious choice,” he says – he is not acting on a whim but a very deliberate decision to care for her. That has been particularly helpful in the last eight months.
“It means that if we’re going through a difficult situation – if the kid’s up all night crying – for me that doesn’t affect our relationship at all, because the connection isn’t built on emotion,” says Caleb.
Caleb may not have been transported to ecstasy by his wedding or the birth of his child, but he has spent most of his life looking within, striving to feel and understand the sensations of himself and the people around him. The result is that he is certainly one of the most thoughtful, and self-aware, people I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing – someone who seems to know himself, and his limitations, inside out.
Ultimately, he wants to emphasise that emotional blindness does not make one unkind, or selfish. “It may be hard to believe, but it is possible for someone to be cut off completely from the emotions and imagination that are such a big part of what makes us humans,” he says. “And that a person can be cut off from emotions without being heartless, or a psychopath.”
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on .
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Why a Couples Therapist Says ‘Emotional Fluency’ Is Crucial for a Relationship
Photo-Illustration: Photo: Vintage Images/Getty Images
The whole “till death do us part” thing has always struck me as a surprisingly metal aspect of wedding vows and also, , unbelievable — humans apparently stay with the same human for over half their lives? At least a large percentage people do? Amazing. Way to go, guys.
In trying to understand this long-haul magic, I recently spoke with Brian Gleason, LCSW, who co-founded the Exceptional Marriage practice with his wife, Marcia, who is also a social worker.
The pair co-authored the book Exceptional Relationships: Transformation Through Embodied Couples Work and have been together for nearly four decades, which is some serious intimacy and commitment.
From what Gleason has seen in his practice, one of the biggest reasons couples get into trouble is because they haven’t cultivated what he calls emotional fluency in themselves — and it’s also something the singletons among us should look for in a potential partner.
We’re just not trained to speak in emotional language … — Brian Gleason
It’s a skill that’s very much learnable, but probably not covered in your fancy liberal-arts education, unless you went to a super-progressive school. “We’re just not trained to speak in emotional language,” Gleason says. But in an intimate relationship, you’re constantly feeling some sort of emotion, whether it’s longing or anxiety or joy.
So it would behoove those of us interested in having actual long-term, growth-oriented relationships (they’re possible, really!) to be able to put those emotions into words, to have a medium for your partner to know what’s going on.
“The more that we’re able to put into some sort of language and convey it to our partner, that these are my inner experiences right now, the more empathy there is in the relationship,” he says.
“The obverse of that is that the less I can say, this is my inner experience, the more my partner is going to be reacting to my outer behavior, oftentimes with judgement and frustration, rather than where they would relate to your experience with empathy.”
Say, for example, on a given morning, you’re having breakfast together and you have an appointment coming up — with your boss, maybe — that you’re really worried about. But instead of putting those anxieties into words, you gaze into your phone. In that case, Gleason says, your partner doesn’t have anything to work with from your outside behavior, which can lead to misunderstanding.
Your partner reacts: “That’s what you always do, you’re never available, you’re never initiating anything, you’re always kept inside your devices.” Without a way in, your hypothetical partner can’t respond to your inner experience.
But if you do learn to convey the experience — so long as they respond to your “bid” for connection, as relationship experts have found to be so essential — Gleason says that instead of a conflict, you get an alliance.
If I say to my partner, “I’m really worried about this meeting today, I’m worried about screwing up, my job is in jeopardy, my promotion is in jeopardy, I don’t want to look bad. I’m not sure I’m prepared — what’s your advice? What else do you think I should do?” Almost inevitably, there’s support: a hug, a compliment, an assurance.
But if the behavior that helps you cope with your anxiety is to avoid contact, to pull back within yourself, then all your partner is left with is responding to your behavior.
They have no idea that you have something important going on; you just look you’re checking your notifications you always do.
And with that, the recriminations can start up: They’re frustrated with you walling off, you’re frustrated with feeling misunderstood.
Disfluency with regard to expressing your interior states primes conflict, in other words, while fluency primes cooperation. Instead of bickering, you’re strategizing. “All of a sudden,” Gleason says, “there’s an alliance.”
Why ‘Emotional Fluency’ Is Crucial for Couples