Relationships and the Freedom to Feel

In my experiences working with couples, I’ve seen relationships from across the spectrum. Healthy and unhealthy, strong and tenuous. Of all of these, one feature of the healthiest relationships has been consistently present - the freedom to feel.

In the more unhealthy types of relationships, one individual’s anger, manipulation, blaming, or attacks causes the other person to shrink away from being genuine about their emotions. One person feels that if they were to express how they truly felt, they would have their head bitten off or be insulted for feeling that way.

If your own relationship dynamic doesn’t jump to mind, imagine a wife who is afraid to mention that she feels lonely when her spouse spends all of his time with his friends. She knows from experience that if she mentions it, he’ll get defensive and say that she’s being ridiculous. Or, imagine a man who feels uncomfortable about how his wife treats him in front of others but won’t speak up because he knows she’ll become moody and passive-aggressive as a result. The receiver has not given the speaker permission to genuinely express himself or herself

Healthy couples know how to listen and validate their partners’ emotions, even if they don’t agree with them. Validating an emotion means that you agree that the other person is feeling something. “You’re upset,” “I understand how you feel,” or “I can see why you feel that way.” Validating an emotion does not mean that you have to agree with the emotion itself. You can disagree with someone’s interpretation of an experience, and thus what their emotional response was to the situation, while still validating that they are simply having that feeling.

As an example, imagine a wife who asks her husband to empty the dishwasher. He agrees, but then forgets because the dog got out of the house, and then he realized he needed to pay a bill that was overdue, and the kids needed help with homework. At the end of the night, she says, “Hey, you said you could empty the dishwasher but didn’t. Sometimes it feels like you don’t care about what I ask you to do.” He’s got two options:

A) get defensive, and say “Well how am I supposed to do the dishes when the dog gets out of the house?”, or

(B) listen, and say “I get why you feel that way. I’m sorry, but that wasn’t my intention. Those other important things came up, and I forgot.” In the second example, he hasn’t agreed with her feeling that he “doesn’t care about her,” but he has validated the fact that she feels that way. This emotional validation gives his wife the freedom to feel.

In other relationships, people do not give themselves the freedom to feel. They feel like they would unfairly burden the other or push the other away with their own emotions if they were honest about how they felt. People like this think things like, “it isn’t fair for me to feel this way, so I won’t say anything to her,” or “no, he’s got enough on his plate all ready for me to speak up.”

Recently, a patient was brave enough to express how she felt to her husband, but confessed that she didn’t feel like it was “okay” for her to actually feel that way. Despite her fears, he told her that he was glad she had let him know, and that he, in fact, wanted to know if she ever felt that way again. When we start to trust our significant other enough to know that they won’t reject us because of how we feel, we are making true strides towards thriving in our relationship.

Consider evaluating whether you give your significant other and yourself the freedom to feel. We here at The Well Clinic are available and happy to help you or someone you know walk into a healthier relationship.