How to Respond When Your Partner is Acting “Crazy” (and Being Rational and Reasonable Doesn’t Work)


One of the things that are most difficult for many couples to deal with are those moments when one or both partners just aren’t acting rationally or reasonably.

One person, for example, might be full of rage and accusations about something that leaves the other person perplexed, and at their wits end.

“All I did was to go dance with someone else at a wedding party, and she all of a sudden accused me of cheating and threatened to break up with me”, one person says. “I explained to her she was wrong and that I had no ill intentions but no matter what I said she wouldn’t believe me”. “It ruined our entire evening and we didn’t talk for two days”

This kind of scenario often leaves the accused party feeling totally at a loss. It is as if the gentle person next to them who can be so caring and loving, suddenly has turned into a monster.

Accused of feeling or thinking things that just aren’t true, the accused person often doesn’t know what to do. Without any clear rational response to a seemingly irrational reaction, the accused is often left with no response but anger, or a desire for time away from this person they suddenly feel no affection for.

“When you get like this I just can’t be around you”, the accused might say, or “I just can’t deal with all your emotional b**lshit!”

The couple might now not talk for hours or days, and each time arguments like this happen, the wedge between partners grows bigger and the sensitivities to triggers more acute.

Emerson Eggerichs calls it the “crazy cycle”, and each time you take another spin, you do more damage to the foundation of your relationship, and prepare the ground for the next one.

The accuser walks away feeling that their needs or feelings are too much to deal with, and the accused walks away feeling emotionally exhausted and helpless to do anything about it.

What to Do to Calm the Situation:

The best ally against the crazy cycle is knowledge about what brings it on.

What each partner needs to understand is that reason and rationality does not guide all our actions in a close relationship. In fact far from it.

Reason and rationality only reside in the most recent part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is what distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to transcend our animal instincts, but it is by no means always in charge.

As Homo Sapiens, we are still part of the animal realm, and we carry with us both a reptilian brain and a mammalian brain that sometimes override our prefrontal cortex.

What we have in common with reptiles and mammals are our survival instincts and our ability to react quickly to sensory input that alerts our organism that we are in danger.

When we enter into close relationships, we are therefore not just in a relationship with another rational thinking human being, but also with the reptile and mammal that we each carry around inside.

Don’t Dismiss Our Animal Instincts:

The reptilian, mammalian, and prefrontal parts of our brains are often in competition with each other, meaning that a prefrontal understanding can sometimes quiet down a reptilian instinct to freeze and “play dead”, but also that a mammalian instinct to flee can sometimes override and trump our rational perception that our partner in front of us is our friend and not our foe.

Multiple sensory inputs that often contradict each other thus vie for control of our organism and ultimately leads us to respond sometimes based on reason alone, sometimes based on pure emotion, and sometimes based on pure instinct.

Although it might seem like the prefrontal response to what is happening around us should be privileged, we would be severely disabled if we were not designed to sometimes have our mammalian and reptilian brains override our reasoning.

The reptilian and mammalian parts of our brains are able to receive and respond to input much faster than the “cognitive processor” of our prefrontal cortex, and by doing so can save our life.

The limbic system, which is part of our mammalian brain, can for example perceive a snake and interpret it as dangerous, even before we have rationally understood that there is a snake on the ground. In this way it can make us flee or prepare us for fight before any rational decision has been made about what to do.

The reptilian part of our brain can activate a similar response, which is needed when the higher order mammalian response is not effective. The reptilian brain can activate a freeze state in us that makes us go “numb”, causes us to faint, or makes us become separate from our bodies, and this can be highly useful when we feel paralyzed by danger and are in no position to flee or fight. By going numb we can endure great hardship with minimum pain until the situation has changed and we are no longer in danger.

Without these animal responses at our disposal, we would not be able to survive certain situations that we as human can be face with, and our emotional, psychological, and physical survival would be compromised.

How to Respond to “Crazy”:

The reason why so many couples get stumped is that they have not understood that the instinctual and emotional responses of their partner are part and parcel of being in a relationship. When we say “I do” to our partner, we don’t just say “I do” to their prefrontal cortex, but also to their animal instincts and their reptilian ancestry.

For the animal in each of us, getting close to others and depending on others for nurturing, comfort, and safety comes with certain dangers. We can lose the other person which would make us extremely vulnerable and unsafe, and we can feel extremely hurt and rejected, which would compromise our own sense of self and threaten us with our own emotional and psychological annihilation. Our need for a secure attachment bond to our partner and a sense of being valued and respected for who we are, are therefore potential danger triggers for the mammal and reptile within us.

When the reptile or mammal within us perceive a threat to our self-esteem or the strength of our connection to our partner, it reacts faster than our prefrontal cortex, and makes us feel and do things out of instinct and fear. It is in these moments that we can seem irrational and “crazy” to our partner because it is in these moment that we are not our cool, calm, and “rational” selves.

The Key to a Successful Relationship:

In any successful relationship both partners have to come to an understanding of each other’s animal instincts and emotional responses. If your partner’s behavior does not make sense from a prefrontal perspective, you need to ask yourself what the mammal or the reptile in them might be responding to.

Oftentimes a response that does not make sense to the reason of the prefrontal cortex, is a response that has been triggered by fear and survival. Only when we understand this and understand how to calm this fear and take away the threat to survival, will we be able to respond in a way that will bring the prefrontal cortex back in charge.

Why Reasoning Will Often Fail:

Oftentimes the response that is required to appease and calm the reptilian and mammalian mind in our partner, is not born out of reason. You cannot simply argue, persuade, or problem-solve your way out of it.

Oftentimes the response you partner requires is of a more emotional or visceral kind. Your partner needs to “feel” safe, or “feel” loved, or “feel” reassured. They need to see it in your eyes, feel it in your touch, or hear it from the emotional tone of your voice.

Accepting the Animal in Me and You:

By no means is it an easy task for a person to respond this way to their partner when they act seemingly irrational and come at you with attacks, for oftentimes the person who needs to respond is caught in their own animal instinct and needs a similarly calming response from the person who just attacked them.

Nevertheless, the first step to winning the battle against the animal insecurities that often create a wedge between partners, is to understand that we are all part reptile, part mammal, and part human, and that reason is not always king.

Once we accept this about ourselves and about our partner, we can begin to understand the seemingly “irrational” and “out-of-control” as part and parcel of an ancient alarm system that perceives and reacts outside of our conscious control and intent and calls for a different kind of response.

Dr. Rune MoelbakI am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and emotionally-focused couples therapist in Houston Texas. I can help you defeat the “crazy cycle” and respond to the fear signals that often bring it about. Visit my website to read more about how couples therapy can help you.


Negotiating Different Needs for Closeness and Alone Time in a Romantic Relationship

One of the most common issues that leads couples to break up, separate, or divorce, is the difficulty talking about different needs for closeness and alone time within a relationship.

Whenever one person has a greater need for alone time, it can make the other person feel an absence, longing, or sadness, which when left unexpressed can turn into a permanent dissatisfaction and sense of neglect.

In this blog post we will examine how you can deal with this thorny issue without compromising who you are or what you need.

Why Blaming Your Partner is Not the Solution:

The most frequent mistake couples make when trying to resolve a conflict about how much time to spend together, is to try to elevate one’s own needs beyond those of one’s partner, and to pathologize one’s partner for being either too needy or too distant and cold.

This kind of blame game is natural, but not helpful.

Although blaming the other person temporarily gives you respite from your own guilt, sadness, or sense of deficiency, batting this deficiency over to the other side is only going to lead to more distress in your partner, which is no overall gain for the relationship.

In fact, the more distress that gets placed on your partner, the less available they will be to respond to yours.

It is exceedingly difficult for a husband to lend a sympathetic ear to his wife’s longing for more attention when what he hears from her is the message that he himself is falling short or is the cause of her pain.

Likewise, it is very difficult for a wife to respect her husband’s need for alone time, when she herself is struggling with doubts about how important she really is in her husband’s life.

Most of the time, when both partners feel stressed out by negative feelings about themselves, they cannot be present to the feelings of their partner.

For this reason, couples need to find a different way to negotiate differences between them. They must not resort to blaming the other person or invalidating the other person’s needs.

Why Sucking it Up is Not Your Only Alternative:

This of course does not mean that you just have to suck it up and adjust to an unsatisfactory status quo. The trick is to find a better option than either blaming your partner or accepting the unacceptable.

In order to solve this dilemma, we need to see the problem within a larger perspective.

First of all, we need to realize that people are different in how much they need time away from each other, and how much they need affirmation and closeness.

It is not wrong or bad to want time away from your partner, and it is not wrong or bad to need to feel more connected. It is simply human. There is always going to be a difference between partners on this key dimension, and so the issue of negotiating distance and closeness is going to be part of any relationship.

See Yourself in Your Partner:

It is important to understand that the need for independence and closeness are never just due to individual character traits.

A person may be very independent, but if they get together with a person who doesn’t really seem to need them around that much, it is naturally going to produce a sense of uneasiness and anxiety in them that will propel them to seek reassurance, or will make them withdraw into sadness.

At the same time, a person who currently longs for connection from their partner, may get into another relationship where they find their partner’s need for affirmation overbearing and overwhelming, and feel a need for more personal space themselves.

Once we realize that the need for independence and closeness is largely a barometer of a particular relationship dynamic rather than an indictment of one of the partners, it frees us up to have a new kind of conversation about the issue.

How to Find a Win-Win Solution:

Fortunately, even though we each have different needs for space or connection in our current relationship, we are wired to respond well to each other’s needs if only they are presented in a way that we can hear without feeling bad about ourselves.

Advice for the person who is feeling neglected:

The person in a relationship who is currently feeling rejected, uncertain about how loved they are, or missing a connection, can learn to reach out without blame or criticism, and talk about their needs in a way that naturally elicits compassion and closeness.

Instead of teaching their partner a lesson by shutting them out, or making their loneliness a product of the other person’s failings, they can express a longing that is free of blame.

They can notice the soft underbelly of their frustration, or the fragility underneath the sting of the pain that makes them want to lash out.

They can express themselves from a place of undemanding loneliness, yearning, or affection.

If done straight from the heart this will naturally move their partner into a readiness and willingness to care. That is biology 101.

We are wired to respond well to soft and genuine signals from our partner. By not reaching out in a way that puts their partner into the defensive space of having to deal with a sense of being bad or uncaring, their partner no longer gets stuck in their own feelings of shame and guilt, but are free to simply respond with affection and empathy.

Advice for the person who is feeling stifled:

Likewise, instead of simply taking space away from their partner, the person who needs more time on their own can learn to assert their needs while at the same time reassuring their partner that they need them.

Instead of feeling embarrassed or afraid to share their need for alone time, or feeling wrong or anxious about having certain thoughts or feelings that might trigger a negative reaction in their partner, they can learn to share their longing for more independence in a way that still seems loving and caring.

As they learn to gently and assertively talk about their feelings and needs in a way that that still affirms that their partner is loved and important, they will seem more engaged and present in the relationship. This in turn will increase their partner’s sense of connection which has often become questioned because of the perception that the partner who wants alone time isn’t sharing themselves much anymore, but has become emotionally distant.

The neglected partner is largely responding with fear and anxiety to a lack of perceived reciprocity and a sense of their partner as being withdrawn or not really sharing themselves. It is this that makes the neglected partner question the other person’s interest in them or their availability as someone they can turn to and depend on when the need arises.

Paradoxically, when the person who wants more alone time or space feels they can be more authentically themselves within the relationship, their need to periodically break the connection to preserve their sense of self, or relax and be themselves, greatly lessens.

The Importance of Working Together:

Of course, no one can create this shift in a relationship by themselves. It is truly a team effort to learn to manage negative feelings without blaming one’s partner, and to acknowledge and talk about the fears, the guilt, the sadness, and the shame that all too often has no space to be talked about within the relationship.

Partners often need a little help to not immediately hear what the other person is saying as a threat or criticism and to begin to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Both partners have to agree to a new beginning and begin to work together to help each other access the softer more vulnerable feelings hidden underneath the anger and resentment, or the anxiety of fully being oneself.

How to Turn a Negative Relationship Around

Sometimes relationships can feel like a lot of work. What once was an easy and joyful engagement with a caring compassionate other can slowly turn into an exhausting exchange of complaints and a mutual sense of deprivation and dissatisfaction.

Over time our once best friend can slowly begin to seem like an adversary, and our once biggest source of good feelings and accolades can slowly become a source of negative feelings of falling short or not being good enough.

Fortunately, we now have a remedy to this steady decline of good-will that befalls so many relationships.

Want to know what it is? Then you are in luck…

In this article and the accompanying video which is included below, I will tell you exactly how to turn a negative relationship around.  

The big news item is that the fault is not in your partner, nor in yourself for that matter. Instead the real culprit of negativity in your relationship, is the negative cycle of interactions in which you have gotten stuck.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have mapped out the nature of the negative cycles that take over perfectly good relationships and turn them into battle fields of negativity. They have also found a way to get couples unstuck from these patterns so they can regain and even strengthen the positive connection they had when they first met.

In the video I am about to show you, you will see how one married couple found a way to turn their relationship around by heeding the insights of emotionally-focused therapy.

Understanding Your Negative Cycle:

35840798_thumbnail_smallA negative cycle is a self-pertuating merry-go-round where what one person says or does creates negative feelings in the other person, and what the other person says or does creates negative feelings in the first person. Couples thereby get stuck in a negative spiral or vicious cycle that keeps them separate from the love, the closeness, and the good feelings they really want.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have studied the steps involved in the negative cycles that squeeze the love and connection out of relationships. They have made it easier to get out of these patterns, by giving us the tools we need to understand them, and providing us with insights into how to place our feet differently.

The individual steps in any negative relationship cycle can be broken down in the following way:

Primary emotion: the real emotional response a person has to something their partner says or does) or doesn’t say or do. This emotion is often vulnerable and can make the person feel exposed or weak. It tends to be an emotion like sadness, pain/ rejection, shame, or fear.

Secondary emotion: the emotional response a person has to the way their partner has made them feel (the primary emotion). This emotion is often a response to the more vulnerable emotion that makes a person feel stronger or at least makes the person feel less exposed or vulnerable. Sometimes this emotion will be one of anger, contempt, or anxiety

Perception: The conclusion or interpretation a person makes about their partner based on their secondary emotion. If the person feels angry, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as deliberate and ill-intentioned. If the person feels anxiety, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as a sign of danger and bad things to come.

Behavior: How a person acts or reacts based on their secondary emotional reaction and interpretation to their partner. If a person feels anxious in response to their partner, then they are likely to placate in order to avoid further conflict, to freeze up and go into problem-solving instead of staying engaged with their partner’s feelings, or to shut down and withdraw in order order to protect themselves.

When these individual steps are connected together in a chain for both partners in a relationship, they can be depicted as an infinity cycle that loops back and forth between partners in a continuous spiral:

infinity cycle

In this case what is below the grey dotted line is also often below the threshold of a couples awareness.

Why Couples Get Stuck:

Partners who have grown accustomed to feeling criticized or shut out by each other are mostly in touch with their more reactive secondary emotions, and not with the more vulnerable primary emotions and their underlying unmet needs. They lead conversations with angry criticism, or a tendency to anxiously withdraw, appease, or problem-solve.

However, because how they respond to their partner exacerbates the very problem that occasions the criticism or withdrawing to begin with, they get stuck in a lose-lose situation where both are unhappy.

A person who appeases and placates in order to stop the unbearable criticism    from their partner, still remains hidden behind a wall of empty words and empty intentions, and this only makes the critical partner feel more alone, more disconnected, and more critical.

A person who criticizes every little thing their partner does, instead of expressing an underlying need for attention or closeness, only ends up making their partner feel aversive to spending time with them and shutting down the very emotional connection they are yearning for.

How to Get Out of Your Negative Cycle:

What I will show you in my video is how a couple can begin to understand the things they argue about in terms of the steps of the infinity cycle. You will get to understand not only why couples fight, but also what they can do to stop the negative cycle and begin to create a more positive one.

As the video shows, this married couple were able to shift out of their negative cycle by getting more in touch with their primary feelings and underlying unmet needs.

By communicating not just about these, but from these, they were able to transmit a different but also more congruent emotional message. In other words, they were showing their partner what they really felt.

The wife could now let her husband in on how much he really matters to her and how desperate she can get sometimes when she feels unsure of her importance to him.

The husband, in turn, then no longer needed to get his defenses up, but could now feel pulled into an emotion of compassion and love for his wife and a concern with not wanting her to feel so alone. This allowed the husband to reassure his wife and to hear her past complaints, not as a criticism of him, but as a longing for him.

Blamer Softening and Withdrawer Re-engagement:

The video shows how the wife could choose to approach her husband differently in order to get a different response. In emotionally focused therapy this dance move is often referred to as “blamer softening” because the wife here was able to express her dissatisfaction in a softer and less critical way.

The counterpart to “blamer softening” is “withdrawer reengagement”.

In the example of the married couple in the video, this would entail the husband making a new dance move and thereby calling for a different response in his wife.

The husband could let his wife in on how small and rejected he feels when he hears his wife criticize him or make snark comments about ways in which he is not satisfying her.

Instead of withdrawing into his cocoon, he could reengage by letting his wife in on his hurt and saying that he wants to be close but sometimes feels intimidated and unsure if she even likes him. This in turn, might make his wife see his absenteeism in a new light, and would already make her feel more connected with his inner thoughts and feelings, which is what she has really been longing for.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Can Help You Get in Sync Again:

As you can see, emotionally focused couples therapy offers us a roadmap for how to turn negative relationships around, by helping us understand the dance steps that get us in trouble, as well as the dance steps that will get us in sync.

In conclusion therefore:

The next time you find yourself in a negative merry-go-round with your partner, ask yourself: What are the steps of our own little dance, and what would be required for us to step into a different one?


emotionally-focused couples therapy

* * *

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am a psychologist and Certified Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapist in Houston, TX. I help couples get unstuck from their negative patterns and recreate the love, connection, and respect they both yearn for.


#1 Reason Couples Fight (and What to Do about It)

Even though it might seem that couples argue about a myriad of different issues, when we look a little deeper, we often find that most arguments have one thing in common: They are really about how we feel about each other, and more specifically, how loved or how significant we feel to our partner.

A wife might complain about her husband not cleaning up after himself, but when this wife takes the time to reflect on her dismay in a couples therapy session, she usually discovers that her annoyance is rooted in her sense that her husband does not really pay attention to his surroundings and does not keep her preferences in mind. In other words, the milk carton on the kitchen table becomes a symbol to the wife of feeling like she is in a relationship by herself. When further investigated, this undigested feeling of being alone in her marriage ultimately connects to a deeper fear that she does not really matter to her husband. In other words, she asks herself: “Am I loved?” and “Does my partner care about me?”

This wife is not alone. In academic circles we refer to her concern about mattering to her partner as a universal human need to feel securely attached.

What we can therefore generally say is that: most arguments deep down are about our frustrated attachment needs and our longing to feel more connected to our partner.

The Fundamental Question of all Relationships:

The fundamental question that each partner struggles with when they are in a relationship is the question: Are you there for me? 

We all have a fundamental need to be sure of each other, and to know that our partner is there to catch us if we fall, or will step up and be there for us when we need them to.

The Truth about Attachment:

What attachment researcher John Bowlby discovered is that the same bond that unites child and mother in our infancy continues to function throughout our adult lives as we meet new people and form new connections with significant others.

john bowlby

As Bowlby says, “All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”

In other words, the more connected we feel and the more secure we feel about our relationship, the more free we feel to develop our individuality and pursue our individual goals.

Needing others and being your own person are therefore not opposites. The more we are able to reach out to others and feel connected to others, the more separate and autonomous we can also be.

What You Need to Know to Understand Why You Fight:

When we enter into a relationship with someone, we have a need to feel bonded or connected, and if this bond is threatened, we become anxious, unable to think clearly, and often lash out or demand proof that we can count on the other person.

If the answer is “not so sure” or “maybe not” the distress we experience increases, and our attempt to get a more clear and affirmative response that we matter becomes more forceful. We become more angry, more demanding, more controlling, and more critical, until we eventually become depressed and give up.

insecure attachment

The Biggest Problem Couples Have…

The problem for many couples is that attachment needs are often not at the forefront of their discussions.

A husband may know that he feels lonely and unloved at times, but may also feel quite embarrassed about depending on his partner, or may find it “unmanly” to need someone. To deal with this shame or self-judgment, he therefore hides his need for comfort and reassurance both from himself and from his wife.

Yet, just because you hide something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, so the husband still has to find a way to soothe the pain of disconnection he feels. He may do so by becoming critical of his wife, given that he may feel more comfortable with his anger than with his sadness, or he may deal with his underlying fear that he does not matter, by dialing back his expectations and retreating inward where he can feel safer and not so vulnerable.

In this way, what couples actually end up fighting about is not the longing for connection, but rather their many critical remarks about each other’s character traits and acts of commission and omission. In other words, they fight about the milk carton left on the counter, and not about feeling lonely, and longing to feel more important to each other.

3 Things You Need to Know about a Strong Relationship:

The hallmark of a strong relationship or attachment can be defined by 3 perceptions of one’s partner, often referred to as A.R.E.


A stands for accessibility: Do I perceive my partner as available when I have a need to talk about something, or when I have a need to feel close?

Many arguments start because one partner begins to feel like they are bothering the other person when they have a need to talk or connect. They may feel like the other person seems closed off, is too busy with work, or does not pay attention when they enter the room. A wife once complained during a couples session that she would come home carrying several grocery bags and that her husband would not even say “hi” or offer to help her because he was too engrossed watching TV. These kinds of events can gradually lead a person to feel unimportant, neglected, or shut out.

R stands for responsiveness: When I open up to my partner, does he or she provide me with what I need, and do I feel understood, validated, or comforted by the response I get?

Even if your partner is available and ready to listen, they may not exactly provide you with what you want. Many arguments I hear about in couples therapy involve discontent from one person about opening up about their feelings, and getting frustrated that their partner tries to fix or solve the issue. Although, the problems-solving partner is well-intentioned, the unintended consequence of their attempt to help, is that the person sharing their feelings does not really feel heard. What they want is often not a solution, but a caring and validating response. They want to feel understood and cared about. They want to hear things like “I get what you are going through” or “that must be really hard”, not “why don’t you just tell your boss off?”

For a humorous illustration of this frequent stumbling block for couples, watch the short video: “It’s not about the Nail” 

E stands for engagement: Do I feel like my partner trusts me and comes to me to share experiences, concerns, and feelings, or do I feel like I hardly know my partner and hardly know what he or she is thinking and feeling?

Sometimes what triggers an anxiety about our relationship is not whether our partner is accessible or responsive, but whether or not they are really engaged with us and in the relationship. If I am the only one sharing about myself, I may begin to question how much you really trust me and want to engage with me. My relationship might begin to feel one-sided, and I might begin to wonder how much you are really into me. Many fights in relationships are about one person feeling like the other isn’t really “in it” with them. One partner I met with in therapy always felt like she had to probe for answers to get some sign that her husband cared. She lamented that her husband never seemed to just spontaneously share how his day went, and that he would not turn to her for comfort and support when he was going through a conflict at work. She felt shut out and unimportant, and soon began to feel critical of him.

The Best Way to Stop Fights in Your Relationship:

With more knowledge about the components needed to have a strong or secure connection, couples can more actively work on increasing their accessibility, responsiveness, and level of engagement.

You can work on dropping what you are doing once in a while to check in on or pay attention to your partner. When you are less engrossed in other things, or even just look up or ask a question once in a while, your partner will gradually start to perceive you as more accessible

You can also work on increasing your responsiveness, which is best done by putting your own agenda to the side when you respond to your partner. Try to engage in active listening to fully understand what your partner is feeling and why he or she is feeling distressed. As your partner perceives you as responsive and empathic to their concerns, they will in turn feel more at ease and more at peace with the quality of their connection with you.

Finally, you can increase your level of engagement by doing things that show that you are thinking of your partner, or by making a more concerted effort to open up about your thoughts and feelings about things that have happened during the day. Whether you pick up your partner’s favorite ice cream when you are at the store, or let your partner in on a recent dilemma you have faced at work, they are bound to feel that you are more engaged with them, and reward you by feeling happier and less critical of you.

So why not help build the foundation of a stronger connection with your partner. It is the surest way to decrease the gap of disconnection that is the #1 reason why couples fight.

To read more about creating a strong relationship bond, check out Sue Johnson’s book: Love Sense


What Every Couple Should Know about Emotions

Emotions are what relationships are really about.

Emotions are the glue that make people stick together and that bring us all the positive feelings that make us want to spend time together. They give us the spark of passion, the comfort of belonging, the pride of feeling special, and the enjoyment of feeling known and understood.

Unfortunately, emotions are also what make relationships difficult. They can overwhelm us, they can shut us down, and they can make us say and do things that give us a sense of being out of control.

A relationship can bring out the best and can bring out the worst in our human nature. They can lead a president to risk his reputation for a night of passion, and a football player to murder his wife out of jealousy and anger.

No wonder then that many people have an ambivalent relationship with their emotions: They both fear them and like them.

But no matter what your opinion is, it is clear that you need to learn how to understand your emotions and know what to do with them in order to be successful in your relationships with others.

In this article, I will teach you the one thing every couple should know about emotions in order to make their relationship work. 

The Fundamental Thing You Need to Know about Emotions:

One thing that was really helpful to me when I first started to study how emotions really work was the distinction made between primary emotions and secondary emotions. This distinction helped me understand my own emotional reactions much better and it has become one of the key principles of the many forms of emotion focused therapies that are currently being used to help individuals and couples.

Once you understand this distinction, you will have one of the most important tools at your disposal to turn negative interactions in your relationship around.

Primary Emotions and Secondary Emotions:

A primary emotion is the first emotion we feel in response to a particular event in our environment. If we wanted to state it simply they refer to how we really feel.

In many situations, however, our primary emotions get covered over by secondary reactions to our primary emotions.

If I feel hurt or sad about my partner saying that he prefers to spend a night on the town with his guy friends, rather than a relaxing night at home with me, I might have an emotional reaction to feeling sad or hurt.

I might for example feel guilty because I don’t think I should need anyone and have learned that I should never prioritize my own needs over those of others.

However, I could also feel embarrassed or ashamed because I believe it is pathetic and weak for me let someone else have this kind of sway over me.

Another possibility would be that I feel angry that my partner does not want to hang out with me and get resentful because I do not want to feel pushed aside and demand to be a higher priority than his friends.

All of these secondary reactions to my primary emotions transform this emotion into something else than what it initially was.

Secondary Emotions Distort How We Really Feel:

If I feel guilty about wanting more of my partner’s time and attention, I can then no longer express my sadness at not having my need met. The guilt blocks me from expressing my sadness. It may also block me from even admitting to myself that I feel sad, and so I may not even have the ability to comfort myself and deal with my sense of loss or disappointment on my own.

Because the primary feeling gets blocked by the secondary feeling, I end up distorting my own original experience. This means that the original emotion cannot be resolved and can no longer be used to guide my actions.

My primary emotion goes underground, and instead gets replaced by my secondary emotion, which may now lead to a quite different reaction.

Instead of saying “it kind of hurt my feelings when I think you would rather spend time with others than with me”, I now instead end up withdrawing emotionally (guilt: I should not express my needs, I don’t deserve to have my needs met), or reacting with anger (I don’t deserve to be treated this way)

Why Secondary Emotions are Destructive in Relationships:

Les Greenberg, an emotion focused therapist at York University in Canada, illustrates how secondary emotions lead to fights and emotional distance in relationships:

Les Greenberg: Emotion Focused Therapy

The wife (represented by the square) feels sad because she thinks her husband is not really there for her. She also feels shame deep down because she thinks his inattention means he does not find her interesting or attractive, and fear because she worries that he might eventually leave her. What she shows him, however, is her secondary reaction of anger (“why are you never there for me”) and contempt which leads to a personal attack (“You are so selfish”).

The husband (represented by the circle) does not really know about his wife’s primary emotions because she does not show those to him. They are too sensitive and vulnerable, and his wife may either not be fully aware of them, or may have shame, guilt, or fear about expressing them.

Instead, the husband hears criticism from his wife and starts to feel like he is deficient or not really who she wants. This activates his own primary feeling of shame or inadequacy. However, because he does not want to show this wound to his wife, who does not seem compassionate or understanding, he instead feels angry and goes on the attack (“you can never just go with the flow. You are so boring”). Alternatively, he may feel anxious and afraid. This will make him withdraw more from the relationship or simply adopt a strategy of “go along to get along”. If fear wins rather than anger, then he will gradually shut down his real self, and stop expressing his real viewpoints. His wife will then likely feel frustrated that he does not appear to be whole-heartedly in the relationship, and may become even more sad, afraid, and ashamed, which she may express as another round of anger and put-downs.

This couple are now stuck in a vicious cycle of secondary emotions which hide what they really feel. Because no one has ever taught them about the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, they don’t know to stop up and ask themselves: What do I really feel? Instead what they feel and how they react to how they feel become muddled and confused, and they begin to have arguments about their secondary emotions rather than their primary needs.

Here Is One Thing You Can Do Today to Begin to Turn Your Relationship Around:

So, now that you know the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are my primary feelings? Am I really expressing what I truly feel?
  2. What is it that I truly feel? Do I feel sad/ lonely?, shame/ not good enough? fear/ afraid that my partner will leave me or is losing interest in me?
  3. What gets in the way of me expressing how I really feel? Do I feel embarrassed, guilty, afraid, hopeless, sad/ not expecting to be understood
  4. What do I actually express to my partner? Do I complain about all the ways my partner lets me down? Do I shut down or become more distant? Or do I attack my partner’s personality and try to cut my partner down?

Next time try something different. With your new emotional awareness, start a conversation by using the sentence below:

When I (4) ______________, it is because I really feel (2) ___________________, but I hide that from you because (3) ____________________________________.

When we begin to understand ourselves and our own emotional reactions better, we gain the skills to make our emotions work for us rather than against us. Now we can more effectively use our emotions as a guide to what we really want, and can express these emotions in a way that maximizes our chances that our partner can hear us.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, TX. Visit my website to read more about emotionally focused couples therapy

5 Steps to Turning Resentment into Greater Closeness:

Why Do We Become Resentful?

In a relationship it is very easy to step on your partner’s toes. We are always making interpretations of each other’s actions and omissions, statements, and silences.

The moment a negative interpretation creeps into the relationship, it will provoke a feeling in the perceiving partner, which will need to be dealt with somehow.

When things are fine in a relationship, the partner may feel safe and comfortable enough to talk about their interpretation and to share the feeling it provoked.

But sometimes when this does not happen, negative interpretations are left to fester and may instead turn into a subtle change in behavior, which gets passed back to the other person and leads to a negative interpretation and feeling in them. Over time this might lead to the build-up of resentments toward each other.

Why John and Mary Started to Resent Each Other:

John and Mary are a married couple who often found themselves making negative interpretations of each other’s actions. Small situations could lead to big consequences, such as long periods of silence and disconnection, or protracted periods of anger and hostility.

One evening, John felt hurt by Mary’s subtle body movement away from him when he tried to rub her shoulders. He interpreted this as a sign of rejection, which produced a feeling in him of hurt. Because John, however, felt silly about being so impacted by his wife and felt too vulnerable to let her in on how much her approval matters to him, he was unable to share how he really felt.

Instead he channeled his feelings into the more acceptable response of becoming emotionally distant, and he all of a sudden became very quiet and withdrawn.

Mary, of course, picked up on the change in his behavior and interpreted it as a sign that John was angry with her. This interpretation made her feel annoyed because she generally thinks John has a tendency to be easily offended and to withdraw emotionally as a form of punishment.

Mary resented that John can shut her out that easily, but she was not in touch with the sadness and pain underneath this resentment. Therefore, when John eventually wanted to breach the gap of disconnection by showing physical affection again, Mary was not ready to accept his peace gesture, but brushed him off in a similar way that he had felt brushed off when he tried to rub her back to begin with.

This interaction between John and Mary is a perfect example of how couples get into trouble by not talking about how they truly feel. Because both John and Mary are only in touch with their anger at each other, they end up passing negative emotions back and forth and perpetuating a negative way of relating to each other.

The Danger of Not Talking about Your Feelings:

Over time, negative emotions can build up and make each partner harden themselves and become less and less vulnerable. What could have become an opportunity to know something about the deeper feelings and needs of each other instead becomes the source of built up resentments.

When we are both not getting what we are needing from each other, but find it difficult to talk about this with each other, the normal response is to become increasingly angry, or to begin to withdraw emotionally to lick one’s own wounds and protect oneself from further disappointment.

The emotional bond is still there, but it becomes hidden by resentments about not feeling loved and not feeling appreciated, or not feeling that your partner has your back or can be counted on. What we want so much from each other becomes too risky to let each other in on, and becomes buried underneath arguments which make it seem like we are not loved, and that what we ultimately want and long for is out of reach.

How to Get Out of a Pattern of Resentment:

In order to shift out of the negative dance that has developed over time, both partners need to get in touch with what they are really feeling underneath their need to protect themselves or their anger at their partner for not seeming to care.

In order to do this, both you and your partner, need to understand that underneath anger or indifference, often lie needs, longings, and more vulnerable emotions. These needs, longings, and feelings may have been buried for so long that they are not really present in your conscious awareness, so you might need to do a little digging to uncover them.

To help you out you can try an easy little exercise that will help you access your true feelings about some recent situation that bothered you. The goal is to help you turn resentments into opportunities for closeness and understanding:

5 Steps to Turning Resentments into Greater Closeness: 

    1. Identify the trigger of your negative emotion: Try to identify the situations that has bothered you or have made you feel some negative emotion. Try to be as specific as possible about what triggered this emotion. Mary, for example, could point out that she has a negative emotional reaction when John shuts her out emotionally. This trigger, however, is still rather general, and could become even clearer if Mary was able to identify that when “you shut me out yesterday because I didn’t feel like getting my back rubbed, I had a negative reaction”
    2. Identify the immediate emotional reaction to the trigger: What was the immediate emotional reaction you were most in touch with in the situation you identified as bothersome? Did you feel angry? Did you feel self-protective, such as frozen, numb, or detached? Mary, for example, was able to identify that John’s detachment or sullenness filled her with anger at him for shutting her out.
    3. Identify behavioral reaction to emotion: How did the emotional reaction you were most in touch with make you act? Did you withdraw? Did you lash out? Did you leave the room? Mary, for example, was able to identify that when she felt shut out for refusing the back rub, she reacted to the anger she felt, by brushing off John’s later attempt to reconnect as a kind of “tit for tat”

So far, so good: we have now identified the sequence of events that motivated Mary’s actions, but we have still only stayed at the surface. The next part of the exercise asks you to dig a little deeper to get to the real heart of the matter:

  1. Identify deeper feelings triggered by the situation: Underneath our anger or our indifference and numbness, we often hide the more tender feelings of fear, shame, or sadness. Ask yourself the question: what did I feel just before I got angry? Or: What did I feel just before I shut down? Did your feelings get hurt? If so, why? What is your anger or indifference masking about how you really feel?  In Mary’s case, her anger was really masking her hurt feelings. When she dug a little deeper, she was able to acknowledge to herself, that when John seemed to shut her out, it was very unpleasant and painful for her. It made her feel discarded and rejected, like she wasn’t loved or cared about, or wasn’t good enough. This in turn made her feel sad and somewhat anxious that John might not really accept her for who she is.
  2. Identify underlying need: Along with the more tender and hurt feelings, we often have certain unmet longings or needs, which these feelings reveal to us. In Mary’s situation, her sadness revealed a need to be important to John and a need to feel secure in the fact that John loves her even when he may not be pleased with something she says or does. More specifically, she would like for John to not just shut her out, but to let her know when he feels hurt, so she does not just feel discarded.

In a similar way John might discover that he shut down (3) when Mary turned away from him (1) because it made him feel rejected and unloved (4), which he in turn felt ashamed to say (4), so instead he got angry (2). He was therefore  unable to communicate his need for Mary’s approval and affection (5) which he could have expressed as a more specific request to receive a verbal reassurance that Mary still cares about him and still feels attracted to him even though she may not be in the mood for physical intimacy.

Improve Communication in Your Relationship:

Like John and Mary, you too can develop your ability to identify and have conversations about your true feelings.

If you go through these five steps any time you find yourself frustrated, angry, or hurt, and are able to go to your partner and let him or her in on point 4 and 5, you will have mastered the skill to turn resentments and hostility into windows of opportunity for greater closeness and intimacy.

Remember, it is inevitable that you and your partner will step on each other’s toes and hurt each other’s feelings from time to time. What determines if this hurt turns into resentment is whether or not you are able to talk about your hurt feelings. The five-step exercise to turn resentment into greater closeness, is one way to prevent hurt feelings from going underground, and to use miscommunications as means to strengthen the emotional bond between you.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., couples therapist in Houston Texas. I provide couples therapy and marriage counseling, and help couples turn hostility and anger into opportunities for greater closeness. Visit my website to read more about my approach to couples counseling.

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The Art of Apologizing (to Achieve True Forgiveness)

The ability to apologize might seem like a simple skill to possess, and yet surprisingly the world is just as full of bad apologies – as it is full of bad excuses.

What an Apology is Not:

Oftentimes people will make an apology simply as a peace-offering. It is the easiest way to get someone off your back, so why not just utter the words ‘I am sorry’ and move on. We could call this an “instrumental” apology since it is merely a means to achieve some self-serving benefit (peace of mind).

Other people will simply subscribe to the idea that one should apologize because the other person needs it. This produces a lousy apology such as: “I don’t really get why you feel hurt by what I said, but if I offended you in some way, I am sorry”. This kind of apology is like a bad compromise between the need to apologize in order to move on, and the need to maintain one’s own integrity and point of view.

The problem with these apologies is that they are not really heart-felt and don’t really accomplish what an apology is intended to accomplish.

After getting one of these apologies, the person who feels wronged is unlikely to feel any more understood than they did before, and is unlikely to have any more faith or confidence in the person who offered the apology than they did before the apology was offered. The end result is that whatever trust was damaged remains damaged even though the disagreement has officially been squashed.

An Apology Can Be Powerful:

An apology, however, when offered correctly, can be a profound bonding experience that can repair damage to a relationship and restore trust. It has the power to make the other person feel profoundly understood and cared about, and can lead to genuine forgiveness.

The person who is offering the apology must, however, master the art of doing it right, for a bad apology is often just as bad as no apology.

What an Apology Is:

The apology is merely the last step in a soul-searching process that truly tries to get why the other person is upset. It is a profound expression of empathy for what it must have been like for the other person to be at the receiving end of one’s slight or insensitivity. The person offering the apology must be able to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and understand exactly how the other person made sense of their actions, and how they felt as a result.

This means that the person offering the apology must not get absorbed in their own need not to feel bad for their actions, and must be able to tolerate the fact that they have made the other person feel sad or diminished in some way without immediately needing to push that thought away to preserve their own self-esteem.

Offering an apology is in this way a profound act of humility that sets aside one’s own discomforts in order to join with the other person in their pain, humiliation, or sadness.

If the person apologizing already feels too guilty about their actions, or already are prone to get flooded with feelings of shame, then being open to another person’s pain long enough for this person to feel understood, can be extremely difficult.

However, an apology, at the end of the day cannot be offered without genuinely connecting with the other person’s feelings. They must “feel” that you truly feel them. They need to see that you express remorse from a place of empathy, not from a place of wanting to exonerate your own guilt as quickly as possible, or from a place of appeasement to avoid trouble, or as a mere formality. Only then is your apology believable at an emotional gut level, and only then will it have its desired effect.

Only through this kind of humbling transformative experience of truly connecting with someone else’s pain, can true forgiveness be offered in return.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples repair relationships after relationship betrayals and breaches of trust, such as infidelity, abandonment, and other disappointments. 


How to Increase the Intimacy in Your Relationship

Many people end up feeling rather lonely in their relationship over time.

Sometimes it might seem to you that your partner doesn’t really care as much anymore. He or she may not answer your text messages as often, may seem more preoccupied with work, or may leave you with most of your shared household responsibilities. You may start to wonder: Am I really in a relationship here, or are we just ships passing by in the night, two separate lonely existences?

If you have entertained this thought, you may also deep down have begun to wonder if you are really losing your emotional connection. You may have started to quietly and secretly wonder if you are ever really going to be happy and fulfilled in your relationship.

If this sounds familiar, then you may sometimes be teetering on the brink of despair, and may sometimes feel so utterly lonely and disconnected that you begin to think about ending your relationship.

How to Feel Close to Your Partner Again:

If you are going to save your relationship or find a way to be happy again, the remedy is to find a way to increase your partner’s sense of engagement with you, so you can feel once more that you and your partner are involved in a shared meaningful existence.

A Bond is a Fragile Thing:

Most relationships begin to go awry when one or both partners stop paying attention to the fragile bond that connects them. Once one person begin to have doubts about their level of emotional connection, it sows the seeds of discontent that can quickly turn into a negative downward spiral that can end in break-up, separation, or divorce.

Although the bond between two people can sometimes be taken for granted, it is actually in need of continuous monitoring and attention. If we neglect it for too long, our relationship will soon become very difficult. Fights will increase, and so will the level of criticism and contempt. We should all heed the message of a recent Facebook post that warned: “My love is like a candle. If you forget me, I will burn your fucking house down”

Anger as a Sign of Disconnection:

When one person begins to feel emotionally unfulfilled or disconnected it often manifests as anger toward their partner for being thoughtless, inattentive, for not helping out, or not participating. Angry complaints such as: why do you never start the dishwasher or take out the trash? Or: Why do you always fall asleep or watch TV? are often disguised longings for more emotional connection.

We need to feel that our partner is emotionally present, interested, and engaged so that we can feel a bond between us, and when we don’t, we become discontented and ultimately angry.

Anger: The Solution that Doesn’t Work

Getting angry about our sense of loneliness or disconnection, unfortunately often doesn’t work. You can’t yell at somebody and expect him or her to want to give you a hug. Most often, in fact, anger and criticism, or a barrage of complaints about ways in which your partner is falling short, will only serve to drive a deeper wedge between you.

The most frequent response from your partner, when you express your discontent, is to pull away emotionally so he or she does not have to feel inadequate. Your partner may begin to feel that it is more risky to open up to you or talk to you about their real thoughts and feelings, and what you therefore end up with is less intimacy – not more.

Finding a Solution that Does Work:

So what are you to do? Should you just accept your partner’s lack of involvement and lack of attention? Should you just be content with living a lonely dissatisfying existence?

The answer is: of course not.

The secret to increasing intimacy with your partner is to get in touch with your frustrated longing, to let it inform you about what you really miss in your relationship.

This longing, you will often find, is a longing to feel more connected, to spend more quality time together, to feel like your partner cares about you as a person and understands more about your feelings and intimate thoughts. It is a longing to feel that you matter, that you are important, that you can count on your partner to be there for you emotionally. It is a longing that tells you that you miss feeling close to your partner, and that you get scared that your partner is forgetting about you, not really thinking of you, and not really caring about you anymore.

If you can get in touch with your soft underbelly: your wishes, your fears, your desire for connection and for closeness, and if you can communicate those in a loving respectful way, then you stand a much greater chance of having your partner respond to you with increased affection and closeness than if you blame and criticize.

The road to greater intimacy and connection is to always lead a conversation about your relationship with your softer, more loving emotions. You have to start from a place of vulnerability, and you have to risk letting your partner in on what you are really feeling underneath your seething anger and contempt.

Remember, underneath your anger and resentment, is a very loving realization: Your partner matters so much to you that when they become distant or uninvolved, or when you doubt if you really matter to them, it hurts you and deprives you. You want more of your partner, not because they are failing you, but because they are important to you. If you can express this, which is no minor feat of courage, you may just find that your relationship will slowly grow into a more loving and intimate connection.

free relationship guideAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, an emotion-focused couples therapist in Houston Texas. I help couples find their way out of their negative interactions and restore intimacy, love, and connection. To schedule an appointment, or download a free relationship guide, visit my website:

How to Stop Your Spouse from Nagging

It is one of the most common occurrences in couples therapy: a nagging, complaining wife, and a husband who feels criticized and can’t seem to please his wife.

These are of course gender stereotypes, but they are stereotypes for a reason. Statistically, it is often the woman who complains about not getting enough attention or consideration in the relationship, and the man who feels perplexed about how he can really please his wife.

From the male perspective, the dilemma of the “nagging wife” is a well known cultural fact. It is the butt of many a joke about who “wears the pants” in the family, and gets expressed in sayings such as “happy wife, happy life”. In a recent episode of Bravo’s hit series “The Million Dollar Listing”, a husband called up his real estate broker demanding to move back in to his apartment, because, as he said, “my wife wants it”. “I have to go to bed with her”, he told his broker, “you don’t”.

Crass as that may sound, many men, and of course also quite a few women, find themselves on the defense in their marriages or relationships. They get frequent complaints or demands from their partner, and feel like they are often trying to avert the next argument, or that they are always waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Of course, the roles can be reversed, and it might as well occur in same sex couples as in heterosexual relationships. The important point is that one partner often becomes the “nagger”, while the other becomes the “appeaser”.

How Can We Understand Nagging?

In relationships, nagging is rarely about the content that gets nagged about. Yes, of course it is aggravating when the trash does not get taken out, or the household chores are not shared equally, but these frustrations are really just cover-ups for underlying feelings that are rarely discussed.

A wife who nags is often missing something in her relationship. She feels a hole or emptiness in her relationship, and she is trying to fill this hole, by asking her partner to change. The hole, however, is not really filled by concrete demands. When we look a little deeper we often find that it is rooted in doubts about being valued or loved. The nagging is like a “protest” that one is not feeling prioritized or special, and does not feel like one can depend on one’s partner.

According to attachment theory this kind of doubt activates primal instincts in all human beings. At a biological level, we are all wired to react when we feel that the dependability and commitment from a loved one is threatened. Nagging is often simply an attempt to reach out and say “I need more from you”, “my secure attachment to you feels threatened”, “I need to know that you will be there for me, that I can depend on you”.

The Negative Consequences of Nagging:

In couples therapy, it is well known that couples tend to get stuck in negative patterns based on the activation of such attachment fears. When the wife or husband starts nagging, their partner may initially respond to their call for more closeness, but over time they are more likely to retreat.

As the wife or husband criticizes or complains, their partner goes into self-protection mode. They often start feeling bad about themselves or to feel like they are always falling short of what their spouse or partner wants. Nobody likes to feel they are not doing things right, and it is easy to mistake angry complaints for criticisms of one’s personality and character. Prolonged nagging from an unhappy spouse can often lead to depression and low self-esteem and can create even more distance in the relationship as the criticized spouse retreats inward or begins focus more on their hobbies, going out with friends, or retreating to the garage.

How to Stop the Nagging?

When couples come to therapy they are often stuck in this pattern of nagging and withdrawing, or complaining and retreating. With each demand for change, the accused partner takes a step back, or agrees just to appease, leaving the nagging partner feeling more dissatisfied and wanting. This then sets in motion more demands or protests, which in turn leads to less safety for the other spouse, and an increased need to withdraw.

The first step to stopping this pattern is to recognize that both partners are stuck in a negative cycle and that each are trying to meet their own attachment needs in ways that are not working. The nagging spouse is really asking to feel more wanted, desired, special, or loved, and the retreating spouse is really trying to protect the relationship from harm or destruction, fearing that the barrage of criticisms might eventually lead their partner to leave them.

Once partners understand that there is more at stake in this dynamic than simply whether or not one person comes home late for dinner, or the other feels constantly in the wrong, they can begin to address the real issues that underlie the attachments protests and fears. One common error in most couples is that they get stuck in fighting about concrete situations, rather than addressing their underlying universal human need to feel safe, liked, and cherished by their partner.

Simply beginning to let your partner know what you really feel underneath your angry complaints or your emotional withdrawing, can go a long way to break the negative cycle and reestablish a more secure connection with your partner.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., couples therapist and marriage counselor in Houston, Texas. To learn more about my approach to couples therapy, or to schedule an appointment, please visit my website. You can also sign up to get a FREE guide to making relationships work.