I was asked recently on Twitter how to prevent the build-up of emotional blockages or waste in a relationship. I don’t do this perfectly, but in my primary relationship I do it consistently and man, has it allowed us to weather some heavy storms. A tutorial, as best I can.
First, an analogy:
Have you ever had myofascial release massage? The basic premise is that points of tension or soreness in your musculature are interconnected and have node points – places in your body where the tension or pain holds itself together and impacts parts of your body that seem unrelated. The massage therapist will search your body for trigger points, and then, upon finding one, press long and hard, but not to the point of overwhelming pain. Your job is to allow the muscles to relax under the pressure, and be present to the (often painful) sensations as they arise. Often addressing a single trigger point can unlock pain and tension in many disparate areas of the body.
And so it is with relationship tension. In any relationship, we build trust and belonging by asking for and expressing affection, attention and care. In relationship psychology they call the micro-expressions of these ‘bids’ and they happen dozens of times an hour when you’re with someone you care about. It’s worth reading John and Julie Gottman’s descriptions of bids within a relationship in the book ‘What Makes Love Last?’, to get a feel for what this looks like in your own life. Often you aren’t aware that you’re making them, seeing your partner make them, or accepting or rejecting your partner’s bids. Persistent problems that lead to incredible relationship tension often start with problems with bids, big or small.
What is a bid?
I sit on the bed next to my partner. I’m checking Slack for work, and he’s on Facebook, alternately messaging friends and clearing his email inbox (he multitasks way more contentedly than I do). He knows, based on experience and conversations we’ve had, that I prefer to work in focused chunks, interspersed with completely disconnected breaks. Nevertheless, he reaches out and rubs my leg soothingly, just to tell me he’s there. Depending on how focused my work is, I might move his hand (reject), ignore it (which can be a kind of rejection), or do something small like look down at his hand, rub his hand with mine, or look up at him, smile and make eye contact. Any of these last things is accepting the bid, and having enough bids accepted as opposed to rejected is important for feeling safe in a relationship. Rejecting any individual bid isn’t bad, particularly if you both learn over time what kinds of bids are wanted at what times. It’s when bids are persistently mismatched, you don’t realise your bids are being rejected, or you are afraid to make bids that problems build up.
Each of us, growing up had certain kinds of bids accepted and certain kinds rejected. We built up a set of expectations of what we could expect in love. In many cases, we learned that we need to accept never having whole classes of bids accepted, or that in order to get love we need to ignore bids and rejections and just take what we want from the other person. Often you will find yourself building a relationship with someone whose patterns of bids and responses matches that of your parents or some formative person like your first love. You may find yourself in an insecurely attached relationship, in which case you will tend to find that emotional gunk (patterns of misaligned bids) builds up very quickly over time and tends to form the same way every time. One of you always wanting more, one always giving less.
How you relate to having your bids accepted and rejected is important too. Based on your history of loving relationships, you could find that you are hyper-vigilant to being rejected or smothered. If someone accepts too many of your bids you might get scared or bored or annoyed and want them to stop giving you what you want so often. If someone rejects even a few bids you might immediately assume they hate you and are planning to leave. Go check out attachment theory.
But emotional build-up doesn’t always have to happen because of deep-rooted patterns (although they always contribute somehow). It can sometimes happen simply because of mismatched attention, or confusion, or hard things happening in non-relationship life. What do I even mean by emotional build up? This essay gives a good description of what a lot of emotional buildup can look like, but it can look quite subtle as well.
You get bored with your partner. You don’t want to spend time with them. You have fears and anxieties about them that you are too scared to share with them. One (or both) of you don’t want sex, or the sex feels lifeless and mundane. Yes, we ‘get used’ to our partners after spending years with them, but these things can be signs that you are upset in some way and are worried about it. Particularly ominous are the Gottmans’ Four Horsemen:
If you notice any of these in your relationship (either from you, or your partner) – THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Relationships are like gardens; they benefit from frequent, careful weeding, and regularly sowing new things. Any of the above four means you have a huge weed infestation and you need to deal with it NOW.
So, what does an ’emotional composting’ session look like?
First, the setting. It is important that both of you have the intention to care for the relationship at the time, and that you don’t feel distracted by other priorities or rushed to finish. Some people schedule ‘quality time’ for this reason, but I find that building a collaborative orientation towards growth and stewarding the relationship works too, and lets you do this as things come up. Either strategy might work for you. It’s important that both of you feel safe (at least from anything outside the relationship).
It is useful to sync up and share what you have experienced lately and what you are feeling right now at the start, so you both know what the other is dealing with (in hippy-speak: this is ‘checking-in’). Check that your body language and their seems open and warm – turned towards the other, sharing frequent eye contact, relaxed posture. If you don’t, check in with your body and find out what is going on. If they don’t, then gently ask them if there is something in the way of them feeling relaxed. You may not both get to completely relaxed but it’s good to try this first.
You or they may have something that has been bothering you, in which case, you can bring up the thing that is at the top of your mind. If you can’t work out what might be wrong for you, but you don’t feel relaxed, open and loving, check in with your body and see if you can work out what you are experiencing. Practicing Focusing is good for learning how to do this. You may need to take turns, or you can devote the entirety of a session to one person, but the aim is for both of you to feel good and connected by the end – don’t race to simply get all your own venting out at their expense. This is not a time for your partner (or you) to become a punching bag.
So, you’ve chosen a problem. Next you need to tell them about the problem. You may find it helpful to practice Non-Violent Communication, or some other formal paradigm for expressing yourself without hurting others. In my experience, many intellectual people have a hard time connecting to their emotions, so asking your partner to help you continually come back to your emotional experience and not get stuck in your head can be good. Remember, the aim is not to use your reason to solve these problems. Your aim is to show how you hurt, have this person you love see that and accept that hurt, and, if there is broken trust, start to work out how to trust each other again. This is often way more physical than we expect it to be. Whether you are touching, making eye contact, facing towards each other, mirroring each others’ emotions; all of these things make a big difference in how much you feel ‘seen’.
Some problems may not be about the relationship. If your mother is dying, this will still stress your relationship and make it harder to give and accept bids and it has nothing to do with how your partner behaves. In this case, part of what you might need to hear is acceptance for maybe not behaving perfectly, empathy for your pain, and love even while you aren’t able to be perfectly loving all the time.
Sometimes, however, the problem is between the two of you, and here it can take some practice. ‘Having arguments’ is a skill, which is fundamentally the art of resolving your disparate views of the world and forgiving each other for the hurt you may have incurred on the way to that resolution. Many opinions never get resolved, and that’s fine; it just means you will continually need to weed this part of the garden.
If you are the listener, and you can see that your partner is showing you something vulnerable, remember to hold that gently. It is a gift for them to show you something so raw and intimate, even if it hurts to hear because what is raw is anger or pain that you have caused. If the problem is big or overwhelming, you may find yourself (or they might find themselves) slipping out of sovereignty – unable to thoughtfully navigate your actions and experience to make sure you aren’t lashing out and acting from an intention to wound. If this is the case, your relationship may benefit from agreements about taking time out – so you can move away, experience emotions you may not yet feel safe to show them, or control emotions that are overwhelming you. Depending on your respective emotional skill, you may need to use these kinds of tools incessantly, and that is totally ok.
You may come across the opposite problem, which is a lack of emotion about things that should be highly emotional, and in this case there are skills you can practice (check out The Body Keeps the Score and again, Focusing) but in this case intimate partners can actually be wonderful, for noticing and showing you lovingly the moment when you tend to shut down in these conversations.
Your collective stamina, and your collective backlog, will determine how much of this work you can do at any one time and over any time period. If either of you needs to stop, you should stop, and if either of you needs to add something to the backlog, you add it to the backlog.
Yes, you may have noticed that these lists get long. Over time, you can get to a point where both of you have the stamina and willingness that you can process issues as they come up, but it’s ok too to not be there yet. The important thing is to keep coming back to it.
Some practical notes: Don’t try and do this over a nice dinner out. Ideally, no one else should be around, or at least no one you feel uncomfortable bearing your soul to. If you don’t feel comfortable taking your clothes off it may not be private enough for this kind of conversation
Lastly, what might come of this? Often, in a period of extensive, thoughtful, patient sharing, listening and responding, one or both of you will experience a breakthrough. You may realise a reason something felt so painful, or feel the urge to forgive them, or feel the urge to change some behaviour you previously didn’t care about. Feel is the operative word here – breakthroughs of this kind are fundamentally emotional things. I have ended many a session like this holding my partner in my arms with both of us crying. Sometimes, actionable things will come out of it (changing a plan that was thoughtlessly scheduled, sending a message to organise something forgotten), but sometimes just knowing that your partner didn’t intend to hurt you and still loves you makes the hurt dissolve. The dissolution may be smaller and less explosive, but the distinctive shift you are looking for is from a feeling of separateness to a feeling of unity – you should feel closer to them at the end than the beginning.
It is a very good sign if you both want to make love (not fuck) immediately afterwards.
What is this for?
Put simply, a committed relationship is a connection of love, trust and intimacy between two or more people. Between our emotional patterns from childhood, our other priorities, and stressors in our lives, there are many ways in which we can inadvertently hurt our partners that inevitably build up over time. Deeply connected conversations that involve seeing your partners’ pain, accepting it, and giving and receiving forgiveness are the ‘gutter-cleaning’ of our emotional lives. The better you and your partner can get at them, the easier it will be to avoid a pileup of emotional issues that stop you from feeling connected to each other. When avoided or done wrong we end up with piles of hurt and resentment that we are unwilling to share, and we start hating or feeling indifferent to our partner; like trigger point massage, patient, loving attention can start to break up tensions and heal hurts that may have separated you two and help the relationship weather myriad crises.
Spoiler alert: this is great for any relationship, as long as all parties want it!