A DIY Exercise – Emotional Reflection

Have you ever felt misunderstood or lonely after being vulnerable with your partner? Or maybe you can relate to the feeling of wanting so badly to help your partner but fearing that whatever you say or do will be “wrong”? If so, this simple exercise may prove to be very helpful in those moments when you want to connect in a new and different way but aren’t quite sure how.

The Idea:

The idea here is that we don’t always have to “respond to,” “fix,” or even “understand” exactly what is troubling our partner to be the pillar of support they need. In fact, the desire to rationalize emotional pain can often be quite counterproductive.  Instead, if we can learn to merely reflect the emotion we see in our partner (rather than creating our own solution or interpretation) our partner will feel held and supported rather than frustrated and misunderstood. An authentic sentence as simple as reflecting “I can see how much you are hurting right now” can go a long way.  

How it works: (This is the DIY part)

  • Choose a calm time in the day, not right before running out the door or in the middle of an argument
  • Each partner gets a turn to listen and to speak – choose who will begin (the work here is really on the part of the “listener”)
  • Sit facing one another; it’s helpful to be sitting down with your bodies turned in toward one another

The Speaker:

  • This is your moment to share an emotional experience with your partner and be given the full energy and attention you deserve. (When starting out, it is best to share an emotional experience that isn’t going to trigger or upset your partner)
  • Choose a small moment that comes to mind, (could be a situation at work, with a friend, from your childhood, etc.) and share what this memory or situation does to you. The trick here is to get right to the “emotional heart” of your story without giving too many unnecessary details.

The Listener:

  • Your job as the listener is the most important part of this exercise. You don’t need to do much, but it is so important that you are present, intentional, and focused on your partner. Turn toward them and show them in whatever way fits your relationship that you are present, committed, and listening. (Some couples will sit knee-to-knee, others will hold hands; do whatever feels best for you)
  • When you listen to their story, try to listen from your heart rather than your mind. What I mean by this is don’t search for a solution or try to cognitively understand; instead, look at their face, notice their body language, and be observant of how this emotion impacts them.
  • When they are through sharing their story, it is your turn to just merely look at your partner and reflect the emotion you saw. Sometimes we hear emotion in the back of the throat, or see it in our partner’s eyes, notice what sentences seem to be most important to your partner and reflect, reflect, reflect.

Why it helps:

There is profound beauty (and comfort) in the experience of turning to someone you love and feeling their full presence and attention reflecting back at you. It feels different when we unplug our ear buds, put down our phones, and turn (physically and emotionally) to our partner. However, our busy lives and generational addiction to technology often keep this from being the “norm.” For this reason, and many more, working this short exercise into your daily (or weekly) life may be exactly what you and your partner need to feel more consistently connected to one another.

Romantic Connection in a Culture of the Individual

If you’ve grown up in the US, chances are you’ve digested—both explicitly and implicitly—societal messages that reinforce the nationwide value of prioritizing yourself. With our cultural motto reminding us that with enough hard work anyone can be successful, we are taught from very young ages the importance of bettering ourselves and taking great measures to achieve our highest potential. It’s not rare in this country for individuals to be encouraged to leave their friends and family and travel thousands of miles in pursuit of the best job or education. In fact, the concept of making tough choices or even sacrificing a romantic relationship is sometimes revered as the “price we pay” to achieve our goals, or to follow our dreams.

So, how do these messages impact romantic relationships?

Well, aside from the big picture issue of a booming divorce rate, I’d dare to suggest that traces of these cultural messages infiltrate almost every relationship out there. If you’ve grown up being encouraged to put yourself first, the concept of prioritizing your partner above anything else would feel unnatural or even countercultural. From this same perspective, it makes sense that relationships would end when one person feels that they are becoming too tangled up in their partner’s life and are losing sight of their own.

How would you feel if you knew that prioritizing your relationship or putting your partner first would not only enhance the quality of your bond, but would actually strengthen your individuality? While our cultural messages may suggest this to be impossible, there is a strong trend of research in the field demonstrating that a key indicator to a healthy, thriving life is in fact a healthy, thriving relationship. Dr. Sue Johnson asserts that having a secure, stable, and loving bond to another person doesn’t draw someone away from his or her uniqueness; instead it provides the secure base from which to flourish as a secure, autonomous and confident individual.

Ultimately, if we are able to toss aside the idea of “every man for himself” and replace that with a dedication to deep connection, we will likely find that it’s actually quite simple… when we invest in our relationship, we invest in ourselves.


Grace Stein, LSW

The Difference Between Listening and Hearing: 5 Tips to Improve Communication

Have you ever felt like you and your partner have the same argument on repeat? Do you find yourself saying the same thing over and over but never actually feeling heard? If so, you are certainly not alone.

These five tips will help you shift your communicating from merely talking “at” or “near” one another, to an experience of feeling deeply heard and understood.

1. Timing is Key
 If you’ve ever tried to reason with a two-year-old mid tantrum, you know that this is an impossible task until they calm down. Although our “adult tantrums” look very different, in the midst of a fight or upset, adults experience something called Emotional Flooding, which makes it nearly impossible to be calm or logical. Because of this, choosing the appropriate time to have a deep or challenging conversation is key to success. Rather than trying to fix it in the moment, give yourself the time to calm down first; you’ll have better results.

2. Planning a Rebuttal Prevents Deep Listening
We all know the feeling of wanting to defend and protect ourselves. However, this can be one of the biggest roadblocks to good communication. When we are approaching a conversation from a defensive place, we put more energy into planning our rebuttal than we do to hearing our partner. If you notice your inner voice beginning to formulate your “comeback,” chances are you see your partner’s mouth moving but you’ve stopped listening. Practice looking for your “inner lawyer” and pause or delay the conversation until you are free of him/her.

3. Remember, You are on the Same Team
When you find yourself in a challenging conversation, it can be very helpful to slow down and remember why you are having this conversation in the first place. More often than not, it is because you love and care about one another and want to continue moving forward. It can be helpful to write down, or verbally share a list of common goals and desires. This helps redirect you from fighting “against” one another to fighting “with” one another for the same cause.

4. Taking Responsibility
The trick to this one is remember that you don’t have to have done something “wrong” to take responsibility for how you may be impacting your partner. The truth is, who is “right” and who is “wrong” is actually irrelevant when it comes to truly hearing your partner. When we take responsibility for our actions and words (regardless of their intent) it has a sizable impact on our partner. Chances are, if you step up to the plate and start taking responsibility, your partner will want to do the same.

5. Reflection NOT Correction
Have you ever looked at a piece of art with another person and realized that what you were seeing or focusing on was entirely different than what they were seeing? The reason for this is that we each see and understand the world through our own individual lens. While this is a beautiful part of being a human, it can also lead to very frustrating miscommunications when you realize that you and your partner have looked at an event or conversation from entirely different perspectives. A way to mitigate this is to practice “Reflection WITHOUT correction.” When we attempt to “correct” what our partner is saying, it can lead to dead ends and frustrations. However, if we are able to “reflect” what our partner is saying—without inserting our own experience—we are able to truly listen and understand a situation from a new point of view.

Grace Stein, LSW