Meta-Emotions: What are they? And how does it pertain to my relationship to my partner?
Meta-emotion refers to how we experience emotions and the emotions of our partner.
If your partner expresses sadness, anger or anxiety, how do you feel? Do you feel lost? Does it create anger or frustration in you? Do you feel like running away until the emotions are gone? Or are you at ease when your partner is experiencing emotions? Even if you can’t fix them? How emotions were handled in your home growing up, will determine how comfortable you are with certain emotions: primarily what society perceives as negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and anger.
The concept of meta-emotion was first introduced by Dr. John Gottman in 1997 during his family therapy research. Dr. Gottman has amassed a persuasive body of evidence that meta-emotions can be a predictor of whether or not a partnership will last.
Sharing your meta-emotional background with your partner gives you a common emotional template, a common language. If one person grew up with the freedom to express emotions and the other was taught to dismiss their emotions, it may be a source of conflict in a relationship. The emotion dismisser (someone who is not comfortable with emotions) may feel out of control, scared or panicked when their partner is emotional and shut down leaving their emotional partner to feel all alone and unsupported. Someone who is comfortable with emotion will be able to support and validate their partner’s feelings, while also freely expressing their own sadness, fear, disappointment, and joy.
If you are not sure how you feel about certain emotions ask yourself this: as a child, when you were angry, was it tolerated or were you told to simply “go to your room” and the source of what caused the anger was never discussed? When you lost the final game, were you allowed to feel your disappointment or were you made fun of? Or told it wasn’t a big deal. Do the phrases “be a man,” “don’t worry about it,” “big boys don’t (fill in the blank),” and “big girls don’t cry” sound familiar? If these sound familiar then you grew up in an emotion dismissive home. If on the other hand, growing up, all emotions were welcomed, acknowledged, and spoken about, then you grew up in an emotionally supportive home.
As long as you are mindful about this and are able to share this with your partner, together you can find some common ground when intense emotions surface. For example: I do not enjoy staying out late at night. When my husband and I go out with friends and I know it is going to be a late night, we discuss an exit plan for me. This eases my anxiety and more times than not, I do not need to use the plan and have a wonderful time.
I encourage you to discuss your meta-emotions with your partner. Not only will you feel more connected but it will allow you to come up with a plan when intense emotions do arise. Please remember, it is not a sign of weakness but strength to allow yourself to feel and express a feeling. A person who is not afraid of feelings is powerful and secure.