2. Focus on Emotions - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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2. Focus on Emotions

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Opening the Can of Worms-Cple

Many theories of individual, couples, and family therapy are focused on emotions- specifically, controlling emotions.  Emotions can be seen as negative or positive influences on processing and behavior.  Being too emotional is considered a problem because it diverts an individual away from rational or logical consideration of behavior choices and consequences.  "Family therapy is not unique in its history of valuing thinking over feeling.  The sentiments of Publilius Syrus in the first century B.C.E. who said, 'Rule your feelings, lest your feelings rule you,' are reflected in most systems of Western psychology.  Emotions have long been considered irrational, immature, and chaotic, and many of them seem that way when we first encounter them.  It makes sense not to let them totally take over and make our decisions for us.  Indeed, research suggests that catharsis or venting of emotions without cognitive processing is not clinically valuable (Lewis & Bucher, 1992).  Also, ruminating about negative emotions can increase depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, Mc-Bride, & Larson, 1997).  But uncontrolled venting and ruminating are far from the only ways of working with emotions."(Schwartz and Johnson, 2000, page 29).  A common gender battle is male assertion of the supremacy of logic and the illogical distortion by female emotions.  Yet logic without emotion is illogical!  Ironically, an individual who asserts his or her greater rational process, he or she often ends up doing so with great emotion: exasperation, frustration, or anger.(for a hilarious absurd take on this dynamic watch the YouTube video, "It's not about the nail" as URL…).

The therapist may present that there has to be some logic that Molly holds, that Cole has missed.  The therapist tries to guide the couple in exploring how emotion can be used as a guide to understanding choices and behavior.  Molly's intensity is characterized as adaptive behavior to express needs that Cole is supposed to respond to.  Emotional "accenting" is a way that Molly organizes how she processes.  The more important things to her are emphasized with emotional "coloring."  She feels a failure to attend to emotions can confuse and harm functioning.  Molly believes that her feelings have to be expressed.  Moreover, she experiences them expressing naturally and necessarily of their own volition.  The therapist may need to help Molly identify and articulate the emotional meaning of the work situation.  Molly may have trouble self-identifying the specific symbolism or implications of another person getting a prime job assignment, but her emotional reaction clearly signals to her that it is something important.  Cole in his "man" training may be less tuned into his own and subsequently, Molly's emotional signals.  He overtly aligns with the theory that emotions can and should be controlled.  He tries to do this, and is mystified that Molly seems not to try to control her feelings at all.  Cole tends to suppress feelings detrimentally to his and other's well-being, rather than attend to both his and other's emotions.  He may be unaware of how this affects him.  "There now exists an impressive body of research demonstrating that inhibiting emotions damages our health, while writing or talking about emotions has many benefits (Schwartz and Johnson, 2000, page 30).  While Molly gives factual information to help her process her feelings, Cole tends to use factual information to avoid emotions.  Getting Cole to connect to his and to Molly's emotions, and then to validate and eventually soothe them becomes a goal of couple therapy.

Couple therapy may involve various interventions including writing assignments for partners to experiment with being more introspective, insightful, and emotionally connected.  The process of therapy may include providing more emotional language for partners to hear, and to practice using.  Emotions may be treated as additional entities in the relationship: "me and you… and my feelings, and your feelings."  Personal conversations with ones feelings may be facilitated with Gestalt techniques such as the empty chair.  "Have the calm problem-solving part of you tell the angry part of you what to do.  Now the angry part of you, respond."  Or, the therapist may reveal that the anxious and inadequate feelings in Cole response to the demands from Molly's insecurity needs for validation.  Cole may be resisting his anxiety and inadequacy by trying to shut both his own and Molly's down.  Implicit conversations with the other person's emotions can be brought to the surface.  For example, the therapist may show how Cole's rationalizing is telling Molly's disappointment or hurt that it does not have the right to exist.  The therapist can have Cole tell his anxiety that they can be okay feeling Molly's needs.  "It seems that as we converse with our emotions they evolve and we feel better.  For example, a husband is angry but, before responding, he listens carefully inside and finds that behind the anger is grief and longing.  His disclosure of those feelings pulls his wife closer and opens new possibilities for the couple.  If we ignore emotions, however, they keep trying to get our attention in increasingly extreme ways" (Schwartz and Johnson, 2000, page 30).  Schwartz and Johnson (2000, page 31) believe that emotions are not to be denied or are problems to be overcome.  Instead they feel that, "emotions contain valuable messages to be heeded and explored."  Therapists may use different approaches depending on their clinical orientations to deal with emotions.   While some therapists may offer insight or are relatively directive, others may favor a more evocative approach.  

"Rather than interpreting to our clients what they are feeling, we encourage them to listen inside, become experts on their own experience, examine what they find out in the light of their social contexts and their histories, and include this new information in their life choices.  This process integrates emotion, cognition, and behavior.  When we create an environment in which it is safe for clients to share vulnerable emotions with other family members, this sharing brings down protective walls and increases connectedness.  Research tells us that key change events in therapy occur when one partner risks being vulnerable- expressing core needs and fears- and the other responds supportively."  Emotions are often fundamental to the work of couple therapy.  The therapist will find that how partners feel about one another and how they express those feelings strongly predict the future of their relationships.  The ability of the couple to engage emotionally also predicts their relationship.  Schwartz and Johnson reference the findings of Gottman that the "degree of emotional engagement, rather than the number or nature of conflicts, defines the happiness and stability of relationships.  The process of communicating emotions- not the resolution of content about what is important to them and how issues or problems- is pivotal.  Like deShazer, Neil Jacobson (Jacobson & Margolin, 1979) took the position that the only way for the emotional climate in a couple to change was to get them to follow new rules of talking and behaving."

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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