Today’s post is the tenth and last post in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions.” I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Many things in life produce strong feelings—narrowly missing a really bad wreck, listening to a favorite song, finding a mouse in our closet—but most of what affects us emotionally can be traced back to our relationships.
Emotional output from close relationships can be positive, but it’s often not. Sharing a life with those we love means witnessing their struggles, feeling their stress, and knowing their needs. Our goals are not always their goals. There’s an added weight we take on when we coordinate our life with another. In other words, relationships have “overhead” and most of that overhead is emotional.
Some folks don’t like the overhead. They tend to steer clear of relationships and often avoid the emotional side of relationships. They’re also quicker to bail when the going gets tough.
Responsible parents cannot and will not bail from their role as parents, even when there are emotional costs: They stay and face the music. But the costs are very real and sometimes overwhelming.
Adding to the overhead of parent-child relationships are stress and conflict. How family members handle stress and conflict is rarely uniform across all members. Some deal with it right away, undeterred by the dangers of more strong emotion; they push ahead for a quick resolution that feels right. Others avoid stress and conflict, trusting that time will heal all wounds. There are also individuals who can remain rather calm and deliberate when faced with stress or conflict. None of them live in my house!
These are differences in style or approach; there’s no right or wrong here. Learning to recognize and live with these differences can be a challenge. And we won’t know about these differences unless the stress or conflict gets high enough to activate old, over-learned tendencies.
I once worked with a mom and a dad who had concerns about their daughter. I learned that their little girl was struggling because her parents weren’t managing well the stress and conflict in their lives. When Mom was stressed, she liked being close to and sharing with Dad. When Dad was stressed, he wanted space and time alone. Though very different, both of their approaches were helpful. Problems arose, however, when both parents were stressed at the same time. It meant that one of them wasn’t able to use his or her preferred way of coping.
When I help patients with relationships, the work we do is akin to refurbishing a three-story house. On the top floor is their sense of self—how they feel about themselves. We find here problems of low self-esteem or chronic self-criticism. On the 2nd floor are relationship difficulties—heartache, loneliness, and uncertainty about where one stands in key relationships. And on the ground floor, serving as the foundation for the floors above, is the challenge of managing emotions. It does little good to try and “fix up” the top two floors if the first floor is weak or unstable. We won’t feel good about our selves when relationships are going badly. And we can’t have healthy relationships if we can’t manage our emotions.
Emotions and relationships go hand-in-hand.