Manage your emotions or ruin your relationship

Get this article in PDF format
People get together because it feels good, and part when it feels bad. Yet most are unaware of what triggers afflictive emotion, either theirs or their partner's, or what can be done about this. Emotional reactivity can be a time bomb in any relationship. Not just explosive emotions, but also those that are quiet, cold, distant or dark.

To help become aware of what is going on within you, I discuss here some common emotional patterns. You may not know that emotions occur in sequences, but you may only be aware of one emotion in that sequence. If you are going to take responsibility for your emotions (remember no-one can make you feel anything - you do that all by yourself because of past patterns), it will help to know the sequence you most common project when you react.

I've given the name 'emotional suite' to describe each group of emotions which tend to occur together. You may find you experience some emotions in each suite, but not all, and it may be useful to tune in to whether or not you are blocking out, or ignoring, those emotions that are not familiar to you.

Within these suites, emotions can occur in any order. I invite you to look at these sequences and notice which emotions you may not be allowing yourself to experience. You may notice also that you may not begin a suite at its beginning, or reach its end point. You may also jump from one suite to another because your predominant emotion may shift. While most of us have more experience of some emotions than others, it is in our interest to fully experience any sequence that we get habitually caught in. This then gives us power to make changes. The process of becoming emotionally more alert will also train your awareness to pick up on other energies, both in self and others. This will help you to become more aware of intuition as well.

Recognising fear-based emotional sequences

The first suite is the fear suite. This includes worry, doubt, anxiety, anger, shame, embarrassment, guilt, jealousy and apathy. If you experience any one of this list, you may also be experiencing others but may not be fully aware of them. You may also find that there is a progression, such as the sequence when you think your partner might be spending too much time with someone else. You may begin by worrying about the situation, after which time a more permanent feeling of anxiety takes hold. Eventually you might get really angry at them for this situation, and may then feel guilty either for feeling angry, or for finding out that there was nothing going on after all. You might feel apathy or exhaustion at any time because any fear is so energy sapping.

Avoidant Insecure fears

As a rule of thumb, those with a more Avoidant Insecure attachment pattern are more likely to worry about jobs, money, success, or getting things done. Their pattern is to seek order, and to get concerned when there is disorder.

Anxious and Anxious/Avoidant Insecure fears

Anxious Insecure types, and those with an Anxious/Avoidant relationship conflict pattern, are more likely to get fearful about relationships. That could be about their partner's withdrawing or closing down behaviours, their children's distress at school, or how their mother will cope as she ages. If this sequence persists, depression or panic attacks may follow. Even when the Anxious Insecure personality has managed to withdraw from conflicts with their partner, the anxiety about the state of the relationship tends to persist. Styles 1 to 4 described below re more commonly found in the Anxious Insecurely attached person.

Avoidant Insecure fears

As a rule of thumb, those with a more Avoidant Insecure attachment pattern are more likely to worry about jobs, money, success, or getting things done. Their pattern is to seek order, and to get concerned when there is disorder.

Anxious and Anxious/Avoidant Insecure fears

Anxious Insecure types, and those with an Anxious/Avoidant pattern, are more likely to get fearful about relationships. That could be about their partner's withdrawing or closing down behaviours, their children's distress at school, or how their mother will cope as she ages. If this sequence persists, depression or panic attacks may follow. Even when the Anxious Insecure personality has managed to withdraw from conflicts with their partner, the anxiety about the state of the relationship tends to persist. Styles 1 to 4 described below re more commonly found in the Anxious Insecurely attached person.

Style 1:

Worry → anxious → angry

E.g. I worry that the children may not be OK going to school, and as I think more about it, get anxious because I hear on the radio of some children being followed by evil men after school. I then get angry because I have to take them to school, and believe it is because of such evil people that I'm forced to do this.

Style 2:

Nervous → anxious → anxious about anxiety → panic attack → depressed

E.g. I am nervous in a crowd of people, and then get anxious that others will see I'm anxious, and in no time that leads to a panic attack. I'll make this worse by then getting anxious about the symptoms I'm experiencing, so the panic attack will worsen. I may then later on feel despondent because it has happened again, and tell myself that I can never go out in public. This may then lead to depression.

Style 3:

Stressed → anxious → angry at self → pessimistic → depressed

E.g. I get stressed (which is all about being fearful) about my less than ideal relationship, wondering what I can do to get it back on track. Eventually I become aware that it's getting on top of me, and I get anxious that I'm not coping and my relationship might be doomed. I then beat myself up for not being more capable than I seem to be, which leads me to being pessimistic which leaves me feeling down and gloomy. Because my gloom is based on anxiety, I may get speedy thinking and develop an inability to concentrate or articulate my concerns.

Style 4:

Untrusting → suspicious → paranoid → angry

E.g. I find that I am often doubtful or untrusting of people. With my partner, I find that I am often suspicious of why s/he gets home so late, so I start worrying and thinking all sorts of possibilities as to what could be going on (paranoia), even though I don't have any solid evidence that anything is happening. I work myself into a state and convince myself there is a problem, so I accuse him/her of my suspicions and get angry as well.

The pattern of feelings of inadequacy leading to shame which in turn leads to defensiveness is more often experienced by those who have learned to block off feelings - Avoidant Insecure attachment types. Style 5, then, is more commonly found in those who withdraw from conflict, or who try to close it down. If the Avoidant personality gets angry, then in all likelihood a sequence similar to Style 6 has been followed.

Style 5:

Fear of inadequacy → shame → defensive → despondent

E.g. Whenever my partner argues with me, I back away from the emotional intensity. I try to make my point and hear my partner's point also. When s/he ramps up even further, I fear I am a failing in this relationship and feel inadequate that I can't calm, hear, placate him/her. I may not recognise the shame that arises because of this failure, but I am soon defensively arguing my point. When this fails, I back away and feel glum that no resolution or peace seems possible.

Style 6:

Fear of inadequacy → shame → defensive → irritated → frustrated → angry

E.g. I do exactly the same as described above, but after trying to defend myself with what I think is a soundly reasoned argument, I get irritated at what seems to me to be an excessive amount of emotion from my partner. His/her seeming inability or unwillingness to have a sensible discussion irritates me, but I try to keep my cool. Eventually though, the ridiculousness and repetitiveness of these pointless arguments gets under my skin, and I react angrily.

Hurt/anger based emotional sequences

The second suite has at its foundation some form of feeling wounded. It includes hurt, rejection, sadness, resentment, frustration and anger. An example would be that I feel hurt after someone's behaviour, then upset and sad as a result of being hurt, followed by feeling resentful or bitter towards that person, and finally getting angry with them. Feelings of hurt are more commonly found in people with an Anxious or Anxious/Avoidant attachment style.

Here are examples of typical emotional processes involving hurt or anger. Once again, these few examples won't cover all possibilities, so consider what your own favoured process might be.

Style 1:

Hurt → resentment → resistance/frustration → anger → hatred → revenge

E.g. I get hurt and upset because my partner doesn't ask me how I'm feeling after a busy day. I get resentful, thinking how thoughtless, selfish or inconsiderate s/he must be. I then feel resistant to co-operating when s/he wants to talk with me, and finally I get angry, perhaps days later, when s/he does something trivial which I again feel hurt about. As anger abounds, hate may eventually result, usually after resentment has set in for some time. If this hatred should lead to separation (as is perhaps inevitable when the emotions are this toxic), revenge could result once I seek to get my power 'back' (because my perspective is that I have lost it).

Style 2:

Hurt → rejection → sadness → despair → stuck → depression

E.g. I get hurt as before, but this time I feel rejected by my partner. I may then turn that energy inwards and get sad. Thinking negatively about myself and despairing at my doomed relationship I get depressed. (I may also fear that the problem is my own inadequacy, which would take me into a fear based sequence/suite.) Here the hurt is turned inwards, whereas in the first example I expressed and projected it outwards on to my partner. The continual negative thinking about my relationship or partner will keep me in the victim feeling of being stuck and unable to change anything, leading to depression.

Style 3:

Jealousy → resentment → anger → hatred → revenge

E.g. I see a colleague doing better professionally than me, so I get resentful and finally angry that it seems so unfair everything has gone so well for him. I may even come to hate him if I dwell on this, and perhaps became so incensed that I will seek to 'get back' at him in some way (as if he has done something to me).

Sadness and grief based emotional sequences

A third suite involves loss. This sequence is quite well known because Elizabeth Kubler -Ross has written so much about it. You may start off with shock or disbelief, and then move into denial, aloneness, longing or even loneliness. Throughout you may feel sad and tearful, and then may get fearful of the changes in your life situation. At that point, you have temporarily jumped into the first suite where you may also experience anger or even apathy and exhaustion. I include this suite here because many who are facing the possibility of separation, or who are recovering from the shock of their partner's affair may find themselves caught in this emotional sequence.

Here are some examples of how these might unfold. As with the examples already described, the above sequence may not happen in the order shown, or could even go through some stages of the sequence several times before closure is reached.

Style 1:

Shock → disbelief, denial → sadness → anger → acceptance

Eg If I lose a friend or relative to death, even if I knew it was bound to happen soon because the person was ill, my first reaction may be one of shock at the news, then disbelief or even denial that death has actually occurred. This is happening because my mind can't adjust to the new situation, because it is so foreign to what has previously been my experience of the dead person. As my loss sinks in, and my thoughts are adjusting to life without this person, I may begin crying and go through a period of sadness. After some time, as my mind thinks about the unfairness of it all, or the shattered dreams that I must now cope with, or for some other reason, I may get angry. I may be angry at the person for dying when they did, or the way they did, or without doing certain things such as talking to me about something, perhaps our life together. Finally, after I have adjusted my thinking to the new situation, and come to realize that life moves on, perhaps because it must rather than because I like the new circumstances, I may come to accept life without the person I loved.

Style 2:

Shock/denial → despair → rejection → loneliness → guilt → anger → depression/gloom → acceptance → hope

Eg I am told I have been made redundant, but initially go into shock and denial that this could have happened to me. I am left in despair about how I am going to feed my family, and face people who may judge me for being out of work. I then feel rejected and worthless, and may feel unable to talk to anyone about it, so feel intense loneliness and disconnection from others. I may feel guilty that I have let my family down, or those who helped me at work. Anger at those 'who did this to me' might also arise. Eventually, seeing no way forward, I may get depressed. I can only escape depression when I finally accept the new situation, and determine to work my way out of it. Finally, I move on, when I have the hope that I might be able to reconstruct my life.

Attachment, envy and procrastination emotional sequences

The fourth suite has as its main theme stuckness. This is really a variation of fear, but it may seem rather different to fear. Procrastination is usually followed by a feeling of being stuck, which may include a lot of self-doubt. There may be attachment and even greed involved in this group, because attachment to things is, on its own, a way of keeping stuck. A further reason for feeling stuck may be that you are paralysed by a situation with your partner in which the fear is so disabling that you can't seem to motivate yourself to do anything much at all. Apathy and even depression may result if this process is sustained.

Here are examples of typical sequences involving these emotions. Stay alert to any of your own emotional sequences involving these emotions. These may be every different to the examples I have offered here.

Style 1:

Envy/jealousy → obsessing → further fears → distress/hurt/self-doubt

E.g. I may get envious that my partner seems often to be interested in, or the subject of interest, of others who are a potential threat to our relationship. I find that I can't get this out of my mind. This would be especially true if that partner has previously had affairs from which I had hoped we had recovered.

Style 2:

Procrastination → apathy → despondency → depression

E.g. I went to get on and clean up my house, file the papers and put away my books, but the job seems just too big. I feel lethargic at the thought of what has to be done, and become so despondent about this mountain I've insisted I climb, so I become withdrawn and depressed, beating myself up in the process about how useful I am, and how hopeless trying to get this chore completed.

Style 3:

Apathy → envy → attachment

E.g. I'm sick of my partner arguing and can't be bothered with them. So I leave the relationship only to find they are with someone else. This fuels my envy that they are so happy so quickly, so I'm drawn back to them because I can't let go and see them happy without me

Remove all energy from previous reactive patterns

How do we recover from our childhood reactive patterns? Well - slowly and with an acute awareness of how and when our buttons get pushed. Remember that here is the situation:

Emotions we resist will persist.
Those we ignore we'll get more.
Those we embrace will erase.

Here is how the process or erasing - or if you like emotional healing - takes place. Here is the strategy I provided in Book 1 of the Spiritual Life Mastery series, The 12 Choices of Winners. This describes all essential steps that each and every one of us must take if we're to put emotional reactivity to bed once and for all.

Transforming afflictive emotions.

STEP 1. Attune. Tune in to all feelings or other sensations. Notice how your body registers sensations according to the emotions that are present. Become familiar with these sensations. Totally immerse yourself in them so that they can talk to you. Throughout this process, keep in touch with all aspects of the sensations you are feeling in your body.

STEP 2. Accept. Identify, accept, breath into and name the specific emotions present. Breathe deeply into any sensations in your abdomen or chest. Use your awareness to discern which emotions you are feeling, and know that they are just energy which will transform if observed. Accept their presence, without judgement, even if they feel uncomfortable. As you focus on the feeling of the emotion in your body, you may notice a shift.

STEP 3. Attend. Imagine what the emotion could tell you about yourself. While you continue to sit with the emotions present, enquire of them the need, want, insight or understanding about yourself that they are providing. Instead of using your mind to provide this information, allow the information to come directly from your focus on the emotions.

STEP 4. Acknowledge. Notice and just witness the belief, value or perspective supporting the emotion. Still focusing on the feelings and sensations provided by the emotions you are having, notice the belief, value or perspective that must be present for you to be having this reaction. Notice if there's any possibility that your thoughts may be inaccurate, irrational or habitual. Again, allow the emotions to provide this insight, and allow your mind just to watch.

STEP 5. Allow. Drop through the emotions you feel. a. Notice the details of these emotions. Don't think, just be aware. Notice their size, texture, feeling, colour, intensity, and so on.
b. Allow whatever emotions are present to be however they want to be. Naming them can help.
c. Imagine dropping through the emotions you have, and allow others 'below' them to appear. Drop through successive emotions as/if they arise.
d. Acknowledge any pleasant emotion when it arises, and recognize that this embodies the positive intentions hidden behind your original uncomfortable emotions. Be aware that persisting with any unpleasant emotion will eventually give rise to a neutral or positive one.
e. Allow the energy to gradually transform or dissipate. Allow this to happen as quickly or slowly as the emotion naturally takes. With practice, the energy will dissipate faster.

Try applying the above steps to any reactive emotions you feel, no matter how 'legitimate' or 'understandable those emotions appear to be. Truth is, all reactivity is habitual and must be handled as described above if they're to be managed.