Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • April 2018
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Do you and your partner feel the same way about feelings?

How comfortable people are with emotion, how in touch they are with their emotions and in what form they choose to express their emotions can be imagined as a falling on a continuum. Imagine a foot-long ruler; people who are extremely expressive, volatile and comfortable with emotion would be on the 12-inch mark, while people who are very passive, avoidant and uncomfortable with emotion would be on the one-inch mark. Between the two-inch and 11-inch marks are all the people who fall in between those two extremes. 68 percent of a normally distributed population can be expected to fall within 2-3 inches on either side of the six-inch mark.

John Gottman coined the term “meta-emotion” to describe how people feel about emotion. When couples take the Gottman Relationship Checkup, the therapist is given a score, which determines where they each fall on the meta-emotion continuum. The score is based on around 10 statements to which couples can strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree or strongly agree. The type of questions are: “I believe that people sometimes use emotion to get what they want.” “I believe that emotions should be expressed, but only if they are under control.” “Anger is a dangerous emotion.”

This information will allow your therapist to analyze what happens when you and your partner become derailed when in conflict. Just as on any issue that you and your partner see differently, you tend to polarize one another. For example, you and your partner are raising children; you are a disciplinarian and your partner is a pushover. As the years go by, you watch your partner fold like a cheap deck chair time after time, so you become more of stickler for consistency and consequences. Your partner thinks that you tend to go overboard so you keep arguing for giving the children another chance, a warning or a good tongue lashing (with no consequences this time, but next time!). Meta-emotion works the same way; if you are more “logical,” your partner will become “emotional” because you will push one another further to the extremes of the continuum.

The meta-emotion scores can also diagnose meta-emotion matches and mismatches. Going back to our imaginary ruler: if you and your partner are both on the 12-inch mark, expressive and volatile, you are going to have humdingers of battles. It will be forever clear when you are angry at one another; you’ll have raucous makeup sex, no problem.

Now, consider how both of you being on the one-inch mark might look. I see these couples in my office now and then who say “we never fight.” They’re usually in my office because one of them has had an affair, tried to take their life, is drinking like a fish or, they suddenly realized, (after 25 years together), they “really don’t care for one another.”

The real magic happens when you and your partner are a meta-emotion mismatch. One of you is on the one-inch mark and the other is on the 12-inch mark. You may have started at four and nine but you have polarized one another and now the two of you are staring at one another across 10 big inches. The 12-inch person is going to be yelling down the ruler, “By all that is holy, do you have an opinion about anything?” “You never talk to me and I am so lonely and bored I might lay an egg at any moment!” The one-inch person is either pale and shaking (“You scare me to death; I just keep trying to not rock the boat and you’re still mad all the time!”) or condescending (“Don’t you think you should get yourself under control and stop being so dramatic?” “Someone might hear you carrying on like this, and think you have lost your mind, again.” “You need help, you should go get it; maybe some medication would help.”).

These are only the most extreme examples, designed to demonstrate the concept of meta-emotion, and how it can be helpful for you both. It is not often that my couples find themselves in these extreme positions; it does happen though. Once I help them find their relative positions on the continuum and teach them how this dynamic is driving the interactions between them, their eyes light up and they say, “Oh, I get it now!”

One of the results that I frequently see is when one of the partners is at the seven-inch mark, or above and their partner “strongly believes that people often use emotion to get what they want” (it’s seen as a manipulation attempt). When their partner becomes sad or angry, rather than “coming along side” and connecting with their partner, displaying validation, empathy or tenderness, they become angry, dismissive and withdrawn. The emotionally expressive partner sees the other partner as an unfeeling, uncaring person who doesn’t love them.


I find the process fascinating, my couples do, as well. If you and your partner would like to take the Gottman Relationship Checkup and have a “results session” to hear the results explained to you both, we can make that happen. We will just need two different email addresses to which to send the links for the Relationship Checkup to you and your partner. You can take the checkup from any computer. It’s not necessary to commit to ongoing therapy. Consider it a yearly physical for your relationship; you’ll find out what’s working well and what needs attention. Several people have given the package as a wedding or anniversary gift and it has been much appreciated and well received by the lucky recipients. Call us today!

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