The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:
How To Achieve Emotional Intimacy by Meeting Emotional Needs
Episode 036 · Duration: 00:18:22
How To Achieve Emotional Intimacy by Meeting Emotional Needs
Do you wish that you and your partner were closer? Do you struggle with how to respond to your children and teenager’s anger? Today, we’re answering a question from Annie of Milford, Connecticut.
In your podcast on parental burnout, you talk about the importance of getting your emotional needs met. I’m not sure anyone in our family gets their emotional needs met. My husband and I are very involved and supportive of our 16 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son, but everything feels disconnected. Both kids are often angry with us and we’re never sure why. As a couple, my husband and I do pretty well, but there’s always a little tension, like maybe we’re doing something wrong. Can you shed some light on how to get our emotional needs met together?
Thanks for your question Annie – it’s a good one. It sounds like you’re describing a situation where both you and your husband are trying to be good parents and partners, but you’re not talking about your feelings and you aren’t getting back what you hope for when you do. So you’re question is exactly the right question to be asking.
My hunch, Annie, is that both you and your husband came from backgrounds that were challenging and you both learned to survive without getting the support, understanding or empathy that you needed and deserved. When this happens to kids, they decide that their feelings and needs aren’t important, that they aren’t important, and they make adjustments and learn to get by without getting their emotional needs met.
What Are Emotional Needs?
Annie, you are important, your husband is important, and your two teenagers are important. So let’s back up and talk about emotional needs for a bit and then we can address what you do to make things better in your family.
Emotional needs are needs that we can only get met by others and they do two things for us:
- They help us feel good about ourselves, connected, whole. When our emotional needs are met, we are far less likely to have mental health symptoms or be unsatisfied. When our emotional needs are met, we feel empowered and able to be our creative productive selves.
- Emotional needs connect us to each other. In fact, meeting emotional needs is the glue of emotional intimacy.
In their book, Career Burnout: Causes and Cures, Elliot Aronson and Ayala Pines describe 6 emotional needs that, if unmet, will lead to burnout – either professional burnout, personal burnout, or both. I’ll run through these.
- Listening: Just someone to download our experiences to. We don’t need much back, just someone to listen.
- Personal support: Personal support is where someone understands and cares about what you feel. They empathize and validate your point of view and your feelings. “I understand how you feel, it makes sense, and I care.”
- Personal challenge: Personal challenge is when we get advice or constructive feedback. We only accept advice or constructive feedback from someone we trust who also offers personal support.
- Professional support: Is the same as personal support, except in the professional arena. We want to know that someone knows what we’re doing and recognizes its value. They see us as doing a good job. Of course, they have to know our field and have expertise so their positive feedback is valid.
- Professional challenge: We want and need constructive feedback or we go stale. We want it from someone whose expertise we trust and can also see the good in what we do.
- Shared social reality: someone who shares our culture, our reality, and our way of looking at the world.
I think it must have been 30 years ago or so when I went to a training that Dr. Aronson gave on this subject and something suddenly clicked for me. Wow, I thought. So this is the secret to that elusive subject of emotional intimacy. Everyone wants it, everyone talks about it, but how do you get it?
Well here it is: it comes when two people meet each other’s emotional needs. We don’t need to get all of our needs met by one person, but to have emotional intimacy in your primary relationship, you will want to be able to give and get significant emotional needs met. For children and teens, growing up to be confident in who they are and feel safe and connected in their relationship with their parents, parents will need to have the skill for responding well to their children’s emotional needs.
Getting The Family’s Personal Needs Met
Since today we’re talking about personal relationships in the family, let’s focus in on personal support and personal challenge. If we look deeper into what personal support consists of, we can see other emotional needs that fit under this heading. Let’s look at some.
One is understanding. Does the person understand what we think, what we feel, or what we’re experiencing? You might say: do they GET us? What that might sound like is: “Oh I see. So you you’re thinking and feeling this.”
Then there is the emotional need for validation, another kind of support. Validation is when someone sees the reasonableness of our feelings and perspective. This is different from agreeing with our perspective, just that our feelings and perspective are understandable. “That makes sense, I can understand why you think that way.”Validation is when someone sees the reasonableness of our feelings and perspective.Click To Tweet
Then, there is empathy, love, and caring: a vital part of emotional support in personal and intimate relationships. That would sound like, “I’m glad you’re telling me your feelings, because I care.”
So if you put these 3 elements of emotional support together it might sound like:
- “I understand what you’re saying”
- “I can see how you would see things that way and feel that way…”
- “…and I’m glad we’re talking because I care about you, I care about your feelings.”
Pretty simple, right? Well… sometimes yes and sometimes no. It’s pretty simple when what our partner or child is talking about is something that doesn’t involve us.
If their thoughts are: “My friend was mean to me,” or “the boss is slighting me at work,” we can offer understanding, validation and empathy there. Where it gets challenging is when our kids or our partner are upset with US. Then, our feelings about their feelings can override our ability to remain focused on their needs. We feel hurt or angry, and become defensive, and that’s exactly the opposite of what they need. It isn’t going to get our needs met either.
Yet, being able to stay supportive of our partner or our kids when they are upset with us is it a critical skill to have.
How To Show Support
Let me be clear:
Successful relationships require the ability to make room for someone else’s feelings and perspective, when we also have strong feelings and a different perspective, and our own needs.
A tall order, isn’t it? Well, here are some understandings and tools for growing this set of skills that will dramatically improve the quality of your primary personal relationships.
First, recognize that only one set of emotional needs can get met at a time. You have yours and they have theirs, and you can both get your needs met by each other, but we can only take care of one person’s needs at a time.
If someone shows up with some feelings, start by attending to theirs even if those feelings come out poorly. For instance, instead of “I’m upset that you didn’t offer to help get ready for our company yesterday” they said, “Why do you expect me to do everything around here? You can do whatever you want and never help.”
Either way, they still have the same emotional needs while you undoubtedly have a very different perspective. You might say, “Wow, Dear, I see you’re really upset that you’re not getting the help you need from me. Of course, if you’re feeling I’m not sharing the load or being helpful, that would be really upsetting. I’m glad you’re telling me what you’re upset about because I love you and I care about your feelings. Let’s talk about this.” Unrealistic? Not if you work at it.
A technique I teach my clients to help with this is to imagine that both you and your partner are watching different movies. You’re the protagonist or main character in your movie and they are in theirs. Both movies are playing at the same time, so let one be in the foreground and let one be in the background. Watch your partner’s movie first. Go to the theater that their movie is playing in, sit down with your Sprite and popcorn, and empathize with the main character; their dilemma, their view, their feelings. Offer emotional support like we talked about.
Then, invite them to watch your movie. You might say, “I do want to support and help. Can I explain what I was doing yesterday and why? The last thing I wanted to do was leave you with all the work when you needed me to help.”
“We were talking about how Geoff hasn’t built a good set of friends and he’s lonely and spending too much time on the internet; that we need to give him more attention. I always see you as having everything together with company and you’re really efficient. I thought the best thing to do was get Geoff and me out of your hair, and get Geoff some attention. We went off on a long bike ride. He did great, and I was glad for the time with him and thought I was doing the right thing by you, too.”
Hopefully your partner can provide some understanding, validation, and caring to you as well. Then you can both learn that talking to each other is a safe thing to do, that you’ll be listened to, validated and cared about, and you can learn from this experience and talk more in the future.
Putting This Into Practice With Your Family
So Annie, while I hope this is all helpful, it might be a bit overwhelming and hard to easily put into practice. Here is something that might be more workable.
Focus simply on validation as a way to offer emotional support in your family. When your kids are upset with you, listen carefully to what they’re saying, and simply validate their feelings. For instance phrases you might use could be:
“Yes, that can be really frustrating. l can understand that.”
“It is disappointing when you want to do fun things, but you need to do your work first.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense that we require you to clean your room. I’ll explain it sometime if you like but I need you to take care of it before you go out.”
In these ways, you’re offering support to your kids, while still setting important and clear limits. You’re not arguing with them or growing Control Battles. That should help with their chronic anger, although some teen anger with parents does tend to come with the territory.
With your husband, Annie, if he’s talking about his feelings, validate them. If he isn’t and you simply sense that he has feelings he’s not talking about, invite him to talk about them, and then validate. You can try bringing up your feelings, even your feeling about the two of you not talking about feelings. I’m sure that if neither of you are comfortable talking about your feelings together or know how to meet each other’s emotional needs, that you’ve build a negative pattern in your relationship where you now have feelings kept inside that is creating a chronic stress in the marriage.
It would be great to have some sessions with a really good couples therapist, where you can have a safe place and an opportunity to get things out and learn these skills. I say really good couples therapist because the sad truth is that many therapist who see couples do not know how to do effective couples therapy. I’ve seen many couples who became very discouraged about their relationship after going to someone who didn’t know what competent couples therapy is. Couples therapy requires it’s own skill set different from individual therapy so make sure you’re seeing someone who is experienced and known for expertise in that area.
Annie: you and your husband may want to consider doing some deeper personal therapy to heal the childhood issues of not getting your needs met. It will give you the opportunity to see your child-self in an empathetic light, and heal that part of you that thinks you should just get by. But I’ll save a deeper discussion about that for another podcast.
So listeners: here is my challenge to all of us. Let’s focus on the emotional need called validation. Before we argue, offer a better idea, defend ourselves, get our feeling hurt, or some other reaction: let’s take a moment to watch the other person’s movie and validate them. Let them know that we see the reasonableness of their feelings. Then come back to this post, write me a comment, and let me know what happens. I’ll bet we’ll all have some amazingly positive experiences to report.
Thanks for tuning in today, listeners, and special thanks to Annie for bringing up this extremely important discussion. And please do feel free to come to my website at neildbrown.com and sign up for my weekly newsletter where there is plenty of helpful stuff there right now, with plenty more in the pipeline. I’d love to have a chance to answer your question – you can submit questions to me here.
And please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.
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