Fighting Fair: Debunking Emotions for Healthy Communication

Healthy vs. Unhealthy

Healthy couples argue. They are two different people. They are bound to disagree. However, there is a difference between fighting and disagreeing in a healthy way. This hinges on emotional expression and healthy communication.

For most couples who enter couples therapy, their arguments have reached unhealthy levels. One of the most common reasons for unhealthy communication is lack of vulnerability. Often times, partners fail to express their vulnerable primary emotions.

What are primary emotions?

Primary emotions are the bread and butter of couples counseling and healthy communication. They are your initial response to an event or situation. Frequently, these occur out of your awareness and are quickly skipped over as they are too vulnerable to express.

Some examples of primary emotions include:


I.e. I am scared.

These emotions are often very instinctual and primal. They can also be referred to as core emotions. They are the emotions below the tip of the iceberg.

Societal trends, for males in particular, seem to discourage the expression of these emotions. Often thisThis often fuels unhealthy communication.

Most of us communicate secondary emotions in an argument.

Secondary emotions are usually reactive, protective, defensive. They are how we feel about our emotions. In the heat of a battle with your partner, secondary emotions are typically the most blatant feelings being expressed.

Some examples of secondary emotions include:


I.e. I am angry that you hurt me.

These emotions are the ones that escalate your negative cycle with your partner. They are the gasoline for unhealthy communication.

Most commonly, these feelings are paired with some sort of compensating action or coping mechanism, such as avoiding, name-calling, stonewalling or yelling.

Why do I need to know the difference between primary and secondary emotions for healthy communication?

Think of your relationship like a garden. An argument is like a weed amidst your lovely flower patch. In order to tend to your garden, you must remove the weeds.

Think of secondary emotions as the leaves and primary emotions as the roots. Most couples only address the secondary emotions and don’t get to the root of the distress,: primary emotion. Consequently, the weed grows back.

This leads to many repetitive negative cycles as couples never seem to reach a comfortable resolution. Their relationship is plagued by unhealthy communication loops.

In order to reach security and resolution, couples must be responsive to their partner’s primary emotion.

How can couples counseling help foster healthier communication?

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, counselors help distressed partners organize their experience in their negative communication cycle.

Trigger: Their yelling
Secondary Emotion: Anger (i.e. They’re always criticizing me)
Action: Defend self and yell back
Primary Emotion: Fear (i.e. I’m not enough for them)

Chances are you’ve already done a great job communicating your secondary emotions in the cycle. It is very unlikely that this led to any de-escalation. However, identifying and sharing your primary emotion might be a lot more vulnerable.

EFT couples therapists will help you to understand what’s happening at the root of the argument and begin to share this with your partner. Healthy communication requires both secondary and primary emotional expression in order to make sense of your experience in the argument.

How can sharing primary emotion resolve an argument?

It’s easier to respond to primary emotions. They are less reactive. More often than not, these emotions invite your partner to come closer, help and reassure. They are disarming.

It’s much easier to respond to your scared partner, than it is to try to approach a defensive angry one.

By understanding and sharing primary emotions you can begin to identify what you need from your partner and reach to them in a more effective and healthy way. Couples who can more readily identify and communicate their primary emotions in an argument have quicker resolution and increased security in their relationship.

If you and your partner are struggling to fight fair and have healthy communication, schedule a couples counseling consultation today and let’s do something different!

Learn more about Couples Therapy in California.

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