Emotion and Reason in Relationships

To live both passionately and reflectively, we need to integrate both our heads and our hearts. Rather than attempting to control, interrupt, change or avoid the experience of emotion we need to learn to live in harmony with it. Emotions inform us, organise us for action and signal to others. However, without thought and regulation, we may not make intelligent use of our emotions. Thoughtful consideration often helps us attain our emotional goals and make decisions about expression and action. Thought may explain the emotional reaction, put it into perspective, justify or rationalise and determine a remedy.

The human brain has the capacity, and the anatomical pathways, that facilitate both ‘the having’, (or experiencing), of emotion, and the ability reason or to ‘manage’ emotion. Studies show over and over that both systems are important; that decisions made in the absence of emotion are less well-formed and often inferior. However, emotions must be effectively managed or regulated or they pose us problems (conflict, addiction, anxiety, to name a few). Poorly regulated emotions drive much suffering and bring many to therapy. Everyday examples include road rage, shouting at children for misdemeanours and anxious avoidance of crowded places.

Obviously, how we make sense of our emotions, (our thinking patterns), helps to either inflame or to manage our feelings. If we expect everyone to always follow the road rules we will become more angry and upset (when this doesn’t happen), than if we understand that humans are fallible on the roads as in every sphere of life.

Studies support a difference between the memory systems that store conscious processing about events and the systems that hold the emotional experience relating to those events. The task for the individual in therapy is sometimes to integrate these two systems to resolve pain and suffering. For example, a person who has not recovered emotionally from a car accident may be able to give an accurate account of what happened in the absence of much feeling, or they may experience waves of terror with little or no accompanying detail.

The processes involved in competently synthesising emotion with reason are complex and exist across the whole spectrum of ‘every day -to- extreme’ events. Imagine the complicated forces at play when two or more people come together in relationships. Intimate relationships may be especially vulnerable to miscommunications due to the intense feelings involved, each person’s own learning history associated with past relationships, and their own various capacities to competently manage both emotion and reason and to synthesise them.

Research suggests that when couples find a balance between experiencing and expressing emotion and maintaining softness, rather than blaming, they are more able to resolve conflict and report greater connection with each other. When the source of the emotional reaction is located within one’s partner it may be extremely difficult for both sides to exercise reason. The automatic reaction may be to rant, blame or withdraw. For example consider a husband furious at his wife for drinking and ignoring him at a party. He then accuses her by alternately withdrawing and bringing up her ‘failures’. She becomes defensive and withdraws, intimacy decreases and a great distance opens up, especially if the pattern is repeated over time. Escalation of the conflict occurs when our bodies or physiology is triggered and we lose the capacity for reflection. This opens the way for unbridled emotion to take over and jeopardise connection.

Happier outcomes may arise from the husband’s careful reflection of his feelings and his expression of these in a soft and gentle manner and without blame. Benefits may include the couple remaining calmer for longer enabling some communication to occur which may open a pathway for resolution.

Studies suggest that the use of emotion or thought diaries can be an effective tool in self- development as they build awareness and enable self-reflection. When we act more consciously we may promote healthier and happier relationships when the heart and the head find some balance.

Prue Fanselow-Brown is a clinical psychologist, practicing at the Child and Family Psychology Centre in Christchurch.


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