The Secret Ingredient in Healthy Relationships

couple in kitchenAlice’s husband, Bob, does something that hurts her feelings.

So what does she do?

Alice tells Bob he’s insensitive and inconsiderate.

This hurts Bob’s feelings. So what does he do?

Bob responds by telling Alice she’s too demanding.

An argument ensues, of course.

And it never really gets resolved.

Bob and Alice get into it like this at least once a week. Both are unhappy about it.

Neither one believes the relationship to be healthy, but they’re no sure what to do.

The Foundation: Emotional Literacy

Let’s look at how this could have gone differently, with one key ingredient: emotional literacy.

That’s the ability to know and name emotions, and to distinguish yours from other people’s.

It also entails tolerating emotions instead of acting them out.

This one ingredient makes the whole foundation stronger.

The following isn’t science-fiction:

Alice’s husband, Bob, does something that hurts her feelings.

So what does she do?

Alice tells Bob that what he did hurt her feelings.

She doesn’t say, “You’re inconsiderate.” She says, “I was hurt when you ___.”

Alice is taking ownership of her feelings, instead of resorting to an attack on Bob’s character.

Because he’s not busy defending himself from an attack on his character, Bob has room to notice his own response to Alice’s statement.

Bob feels embarrassed by his behavior, which he now recognizes as inconsiderate.

Bob regrets inadvertently hurting his wife.

So what does he do?

Instead of covering his embarrassment and regret by calling Alice demanding, Bob offers a good, solid apology.

When it’s over, Alice feels understood, valued and appreciated.

At this point, with the tension gone, Bob explains what was going on with him at the time.

Alice now understands why Bob did what he did.

Satisfied that Bob never meant to hurt her, and that he understands and regrets what he did, Alice feels loving and generous.

Not only does she accept Bob’s apology, she tells him what a good husband he is.

Bob and Alice feel connected in the wake of their discussion, and grateful for their relationship.

As Within, So Without

Our relationship to our own feelings is critical. It determines how we respond to the emotions that arise in our relationships with others — theirs as well as ours.

When we can name and accept and tolerate our feelings, we’re not compelled to lash out at others.

Instead, we can make choices intelligently, based on our values.

In the first scenario, Alice wasn’t able to own her feeling of having been hurt. Instead, she was more comfortable pointing the finger at Bob for being “bad.”

And Bob wasn’t able to tolerate his feeling of having been “bad.”

Hence an argument with no resolution.

What needed to be resolved were the emotions on both sides.

And those were not addressed in Alice and Bob’s argument in the first scenario.

In the second scenario, both Alice and Bob used emotional literacy to guide them through the conflict.

They “owned” and tolerated their own emotions, and didn’t allow themselves to be triggered by each other’s emotions.

They were able to work through their feelings together and end up in a good place.

What needed to be resolved were feelings.

It’s always feelings.

Emotional literacy is not optional if we’re to enjoy healthy relationships.

For more on this subject, check out the many audio, video and print interviews at

As always, please let me know what you think! I’m eager to hear from you.

0 thoughts on “The Secret Ingredient in Healthy Relationships”

  1. What happens when one partner is acting passive aggressive when hurt and does not wish to speak about their feelings let alone name them? How is emotional literacy possible ? Is seems that the prerequisite of wanting to tune in and connect and or share and coordinate emotions is important so that the “issue” between a couple can be named and properly attended to.

    I struggle with this when working with or interacting with people that have learned to go in and internalize and stew on a feeling as part of releasing it or “making it vanish” as opposed to tuning in and sharing the behavior or situation that was displeasing. How can I successfully resolve a conflict with an internalizer if they are not giving me anything to work with but poisoning the mood with the silent treatment and stonewalling? ??


  2. In days gone by there was a comedy team called the Smothers Brothers. Tom and Dick. They played folk music as a background to the jokes. In one bit they play a bluegrass number, guitar and banjo, and as they are rocking (grassing ? ) straight man Dick says to Tom “take it away, Tommy!”

    Tommy says no. Music stops. Funny arguing ensues.

    I used to be very frustrated with relationship advice until I realized that it’s intended for people who are in relationships with others and the others *want* to be in the relationship. I have come to understand that the other in my ‘relationship’ doesn’t want to relate – so she just declines to keep playing.

    I spent a lot of time and energy trying to improve the relationship as a way of avoiding the sadness that there is no relationship.

    Cue wallowing, I guess. thanks, this was timely for me.

  3. Albena, I think Multnoma addressed the problem of one-sidedness well in his comment. It’s terribly sad to wish for an emotional connection and engagement from someone who appears unwilling or unable to share that with you. Sometimes all that’s left to do, as he indicated, is to deal with your own emotions about the situation. Cue wallowing, indeed.

    If your partner is unable to share emotions but is enthusiastic about learning, then you can decide whether you’re up for modeling the behavior until your partner’s up to speed. If s/he’s not enthusiastic, you may have to live with the fact that it will never be what it isn’t now.

    All my best to both of you. Thank you for your question, Albena, and thanks to Multnoma for finding a way to make the Smothers Brothers relevant to today’s discourse.


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