Transform Your Relationship, Step 3: Explore Your Vulnerable, Raw Spots

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What if you had information you could trust to help you transform the most important relationship in your life? Would you invest time and resources if you were sure it would pay off? In this series, we’ll share with you 10 steps to becoming happier, healthier, and stronger together based on Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the most successful and popular approach to couple’s therapy.

Can You See the Cycle That’s Entrapped You?

In Step 2, you mapped your negative cycle. It’s important to see this, to understand you are both trapped together in an energy similar to quicksand. The more either of you try to get out by pursuing or withdrawing, the more the cycle will trap you both in its grip. It’s worth returning to Step 2 over and over again. The more you explore the nuances of your cycle, the clearer it will be how you are trapped together, with neither of you at fault. Like escaping from quicksand, the secret is to trust what can happen if you both relax.

Start Exploring by Relaxing

The essential part of this step is to adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity about your own internal experience. Do this exercise at a time and place where you feel calm, can take your time, and are free from interruptions. Personally, it’s hard for me to do this when I’m angry at my partner, or preoccupied by work or anything else. I find the best times are “dates” we’ve made specifically for vulnerable sharing, and on longer road trips. I also like to take time alone to reflect on my raw spots during walks or meditations.

When you’re ready, recall a particular moment when you were triggered by your partner. Hit the pause button to freeze that moment in time.

Take several minutes or more to explore, with wonder and curiosity, what is happening inside your body as you relive that moment. See if you can notice physical sensations inside your gut, chest, throat, head, and anywhere else. Stay with the sensations—follow them wherever they may take you. If you feel concerns, judgments, or any other negative reactions toward your deeper feelings, see if you can put these reactions aside for the moment. Allow yourself to be curious and tune into those deeper feelings some more.

When we focus within ourselves and pay close attention to what’s beneath our protective responses, we may find a range of different experiences. We may experience a tightness in our throat that holds back words or sadness. We may feel tension in our chest, nausea in our stomach, or a sharp pain in our heart. Often, these experiences seem familiar, going all the way back to childhood. If we maintain our focus on these body sensations, they may reveal emotions of sadness, fear, or shame. They may show us old images or memories associated with them.

To learn more about your vulnerable emotions, you must feel comfortable enough to focus on them with genuine curiosity and openness. It’s not possible to “force” your way to more vulnerable emotions.

If you run into a “wall” as you attempt to tune in more deeply into your body, that’s perfectly fine. Just stay with that, exploring the “wall” with genuine openness and curiosity. What does it feel like? What is it protecting you from? It’s important not to “push.” If you keep this up patiently but persistently over time, you will see more and more of yourself.

Now, see if you can find a word or words that resonate with the feelings inside you. Here are some words that many people resonate with:  lonely… dismissed… failing… helpless… let down… hurt… humiliated… vulnerable… panicked… intimidated… unwanted… unimportant… anxious… lost… confused… worried… shaky… rejected… overwhelmed… numb… a wall… inadequate… sad… small… scared.

Let Each Other “In” To Your Vulnerable, Softer Feelings

Do you typically show this feeling to your partner? If not, what does your partner typically see? Most often when we feel unsafe, we don’t show these feelings, and we may appear angry, frustrated, or cold. Could your partner be misreading what you’re feeling inside? I notice that I’m very good at hiding, and am often not even aware of, my more vulnerable feelings. This is common and normal. In growing up and becoming an adult, it was important for most of us to learn how to cover our vulnerabilities and cope with them ourselves.

When you are both ready, take turns sharing your more vulnerable, deeper feelings. Don’t say: “When you do (fill in the blank with your partner’s behavior), I feel this.” Instead, use words to describe your inner feelings without explanation or justification. Let your partner “in” to what happens inside you. Say, “On the outside I show you this (e.g., frustration, anger, defensiveness, a wall), but on the inside I feel (fill in the blank).”

Next, consider and share what it was like to do this internal exploration and sharing. How difficult was it for you? How safe or scary was it? To what extent did it feel uncomfortable? Talk about that. Your partner may have no idea what it’s like for you to engage in this more vulnerable way.

Finally, explore your own needs and preferences to see if there’s a way your partner could make it easier for you to share these deeper feelings. Perhaps you’d like your partner to be curious and accepting, soft and calm, or to genuinely appreciate your effort or risk in sharing in this way. Let your partner know how they could help you, if they could and would. Say, “If you’d like to help me share this feeling, then right now you could (fill in the blank).”

Congratulations, you’ve completed Step 3, Exploring Your Vulnerable Raw Spots! In Step 4, you’ll use what you’ve learned so far to repair your connection with your partner by working together, after your negative cycle has come along to disconnect you.

Would you like more information or support? We recommend Dr. Sue Johnson’s books Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2010) and Love Sense (2014). We offer low-cost, money-back guaranteed Hold Me Tight® couple workshops, as well as regular, weekly couple counseling and intensive couple counseling services. Here is a longer listing of recommended couple therapists in Montana, couple therapists around the US and internationally, and Hold Me Tight® workshops.