Couple relationships and intimacy – managing difficult emotions, guest blog by Anne McCormack ✒️

It is true, I believe, that no-one outside of yourself should be the source of your joy and so if you are in a relationship with someone, it is good and healthy that you don’t need to be around that person all the time in order to feel happy.

Having said that, relationships link in to mental health as we all live in relation to other people around us. Therefore, if you are part of a couple relationship, it is good for mental health if that relationship is one that is working well and feels good for both people in the relationship. Stress and strain can impact not only on how an individual is feeling within themself but it also impacts on the dynamics between the couple. This is because the couple relationship is like a system. And like any system, one part of the system (one individual) is going to have an impact on the other part of the system (the partner). Therefore individual feelings or emotions can have an effect on both people and how the relationship feels.

Being very emotionally independent within a couple relationship is something that some individuals strive for, perhaps without even making a decision to go in that direction. This can happen, particularly if the person they are in a relationship with has hurt them or broken their trust in some way. It can feel safer to try and ‘go it alone’ when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions but this attempt at total independence can place a strain on the relationship as well as the person feeling the difficult emotion. It can have the effect of creating a distance that was not wished for or desired by either person. The distance felt emotionally then can cause further emotional pain and it can also impact on intimacy more generally and sexual relationships. It is useful therefore to look at how that emotional drift that sometimes happens can be bridged.

‘Negative’ Emotions: Primary and Secondary

Having an awareness of the importance of negative emotions is one way to start to figure out a route back to intimacy. Negative emotion can have the effect of pushing a person away or drawing them close. Drawing the other person close is part of the context of intimacy. To understand how to draw a person closer rather than push the person away, it is useful to know that negative emotions happen on two levels: primary and secondary.

Primary emotions are the deeper, more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, hurt, fear, shame and loneliness. They are feelings we can all feel at times but they are feelings that sometimes are not revealed even to ourselves and therefore they sometimes don’t get expressed. These feelings are worthy of expression though and expressing them to a partner can have the effect of drawing them closer. If a person has been hurt in the couple relationship, it can be one of the reasons why it is hard to express these emotions. In order to allow oneself to be vulnerable and honest, there needs to be a basic level of trust in the other person, that they will at least care enough to listen.

Secondary emotions are the more reactive emotions such as anger, jealousy, resentment and frustration. These secondary emotions occur as a reaction to the primary emotions and while the primary emotions usually can draw a person closer, the secondary emotions can tend to push a partner away. If anger or frustration is expressed impulsively or aggressively, the other person may want to withdraw which can fuel further anger and frustration. But deeper down, what may be there are feelings of hurt, rejection and fear. These primary emotions are harder to talk about and can be harder to bear but by stepping up and owning these feelings, you are moving in the direction of not only minding your own mental health but minding your couple relationship too.

It can be hard to be really honest within a close relationship about how you really feel but by at least assessing the way communication is happening currently, you will be in a stronger position to do something about it. Notice if a lot of what is being expressed is secondary emotions such as frustration and anger. If it is, you then have awareness about the impact it is having and you can take steps to make a positive change. Mental health matters. And relationship impacts mental health.

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