By: Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
Change your feelings change
"He gets under my skin so quickly and before I know it, I'm yelling
and screaming and it takes me forever to calm down…"
~Terry, describing a recent argument with Steve, her partner of
Feelings are contagious
If you had the choice, would you rather watch a movie by yourself or
with other people?
If you prefer to watch a movie with others, you're probably aware
that having people around impacts your movie-going experience: Funny
scenes seem funnier when others laugh along with you, hearing the
screams of a friend make that scary scene all the more frightening,
while crying along with your partner validates the sadness that a
movie invokes in you. This is why people will always flock to a
movie theater to catch a long-anticipated film—the feelings that
others around you have deepen and heighten your own emotional
This is a powerful form of emotional contagion.
But you don't need to be surrounded by a large group of people to
experience this type of emotional sharing—emotional contagion
frequently occurs in your marriage/relationship. Let's look at how
you can use this information to create a more harmonious connection
with your spouse/partner.
Emotional contagion and the cycle of negativity
In the opening quote, Terry is describing feeling emotionally
triggered by her partner Steve. When she doesn't feel supported by
Steve, Terry quickly feels agitated and frustrated. Flooded by the
intensity of her negative experience, these emotions quickly spill
over to Steve in both dramatic ways (she yells and accuses him of
not caring for her) and subtle ways (she withdraws, and her
responses are curt whenever Steve tries to talk to her).
Before you know it, Steve's feelings are paralleling Terry's (though
he may handle these feelings differently)—now both Terry and Steve
are on emotional and physical overload, fueling each other's
intensity like an emotional ping-pong game gone awry.
Whenever couples enter into a dance of mutual dysregulation,
defensiveness and emotional escalation replace effective
Does this pattern sound familiar to you?
Regulate yourself, regulate your relationship
Have you ever observed a parent calmly talk to an upset child?
The distressed child is physiologically overwhelmed and it is the
calm, soothing presence of the parent that helps to bring the
child's overwhelmed physical and emotional experience back online
(back to homeostasis).
But in order to accomplish this, the parent needs to remain calm and
emotionally centered while entering into the child's overwhelmed
emotional orbit. Without this emotional footing, the parent is
likely to become distressed and besieged by the child's experience
and this would only exacerbate the child's agitated state.
Couples need to approach their relationship in a similar manner.
This was evident in the following interaction I recently witnessed:
Ben was becoming increasingly upset with a decision his adult son
made regarding a career choice. As he repeatedly imagined his son's
financial demise, Ben's level of distress soared—he quickly became a
runaway train of emotional distress.
At the peak of his emotional intensity, his wife Carla broke her
silence. She turned to her husband, placed her hand over his heart
and calmly repeated:
"Ben, I see you're upset and you care very much for our son. But
it's his life. You did a terrific job raising him and now you have
to let go…Look at me." (Ben made eye contact with Carla and she took
several deep breaths to help her remain calm.) "It's OK. It's his
life. Now it's time to focus on us. Ben, it's OK…"
This interaction had a dramatic impact on Ben—it's as if his
emotional dimmer switch was slowly turned down as he opened himself
to his wife's calming presence.
Why was that interaction so effective?
Ben couldn't ignore his wife's gentle touch and serene energy—her
calm presence permeated Ben's experience and helped him become
emotionally centered. This transformative interaction could only
occur because Carla met Ben's agitated energy with an opposite
energy—a powerful calmness.
Carla also made the point of validating Ben's experience ("Ben, I
see you're upset…") before trying to comfort him—this is an
important step that shouldn't be overlooked. Acknowledging your
partner's experience (whatever that experience is) is vital to
creating an empathic connection with your spouse/partner. It is this
empathic connection that will allow your partner to be receptive to
your calming presence.
A communication truism: If your partner doesn't feel validated by
you, his/her emotional door is likely to remain closed off to your
attempts to help him/her.
The goal is to practice self-regulation in order to avoid
interactions where you and your spouse/partner are both emotionally
1. What can you deliberately think (repeating self-statements,
creating comforting images) that can help you hold onto your
emotional center in an effort to avoid becoming flooded by what your
partner is feeling?
2. What can you do with your body (e.g. monitor your breathing, go
for a quick walk, tense and relax your muscles) to prevent becoming
physically overwhelmed (which often accompanies becoming emotionally
3. How can you and your partner validate each other's distress
before offering each other soothing, comforting words and/or touch?
As you answer these questions, don't forget that it will take time
and practice to effectively incorporate your responses into the
fabric of your marriage/relationship.
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Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach
with fifteen years experience helping individuals and couples live
more fulfilling lives. His relationship advice has appeared on
television, radio and national magazines.