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  • Ben Culhane

We Are Responsible for Our Partner's Emotions


How a couple argues predicts the future of their relationship

I realize that some people will completely disagree with me on this, and that’s OK. Please, hear me out.


Responsibility is a word made up of two words, the word “response” and the word “ability.” Responsibility is not what someone throws in your lap. Responsibility is not your job description or a paper you sign. Responsibility is a choice as I will explain.


Conflict is inevitable in relationships. We will all find ourselves in situations with our partners where we will disagree or argue. Each of us has our own set of abilities which are different from one another. What are yours? And given your abilities, you must ask, what will be your response with those abilities? Do you have the ability to listen? Do you have the ability to understand your partner’s perspective? Can you validate your partner’s feelings? If you do have these abilities, what will be your response? And will it be loving or unloving?


RESPONSIBILITY does NOT equal requirement or obligation.

I want to be clear about what I am NOT saying. You are not required to “take care of” or “fix” your partner’s feelings, drop what you’re doing and attend to him or her as if the room is on fire. You are not required to listen to name calling or hurtful language. You are not required to suppress or never ask for your needs to be met. You are not required to do something that goes against your values. Sometimes you have the ability to respond to your partner’s needs and being responsible for our partner’s feelings, doesn’t mean you must meet that need. You always retain control. You always maintain choice.


RESPONSIBILITY Options

Learn vs. lovingly disengage. We can, assuming we have the ability in the moment, listen with curiosity. Jon Gottman, long-time couple’s researcher, speaks about this as the “What’s this?” way of listening instead of the “What the hell is this?” way of listening.


Cultivate curiosity in your relationship

“What’s this?” is an activate mode of authentically feeling interest in learning about your partner, his or her feelings and needs. In this mode, our heart rate goes down, certain nerves activate that may raise our brows, lower our chin, tilt our head and immobile our body. Blood flow changes in the brain, increasing in areas of neural activation. We are learning. Think about the last time you witnessed a baby see something new and interesting.


“What the hell is this?” mode is a defensive mode and defeating to authentic listening. In this mode, our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, our alarm system is activated, and we are either in or about to enter fight/flight mode. Blood moves away from out extremities and concentrates in our trunks in preparation for reaction. We are listening closely but for rebuttals to our partner’s words. We are in persuasion mode not learning mode. We are not fully present and will find it difficult to let compassion into our hearts, let alone learning into our minds. We are flooding.


CONSIDER your responsibility to your partner’s feelings.

If, for example, your partner is sharing their anger or hurt or both, you can tune into your own feelings and physiology and gauge your ability to respond in a loving way. You can choose your response between learning or lovingly disengaging. If, in the face of your partner’s unloving behavior, you can maintain compassionate curiosity, then you might choose to be responsible for your partners feelings. Part of your ability rests in knowing how your partner would like you to respond in that moment. More on that later.


If, on the other hand, you notice a “What the hell is this?” response within yourself, you are only half-listening to your partners words. The other half is attending to your rebuttal in your head, or the urge to interrupt and defend your intention or perspective. You may need to lovingly disengage if managing your own emotional discomfort is difficult.



At a heart rate of around 100 beats/minute, adrenaline and cortisol enter our blood stream, our oxygen saturation degrades and our ability to respond in a loving way can be compromised. How you lovingly disengage is up to you. Consider how you might want your partner to disengage from you. A 20 to 30-minute break is recommended before returning to the conversation. This gives each partner an opportunity to self-soothe, allows each of your heart rates to return to resting and regain control of curiosity and loving behavior.


WAYS that partners can help each other.

During a conversation, there are two roles, Speaker and Listener. Each has a responsibility to themselves and each other. The speaker can help the listener stay curious and in a physiological zone of understanding by respecting the suggestions below which create potential opportunity for the speaker to receive his or her need. The listener can do their part in helping the speaker by considering their role as well.


Speaker role.

Blaming and criticism are quite difficult for most people to stand in the path of. Blaming and criticizing often begin with “You statements” and make it difficult for others to lovingly lean in and learn about what emotion is fueling his or her partner’s words.


No one is a mind reader. Your partner must be able to state his or her feelings using “I statement” about a specific situation. A soft-start up might sound like, “I feel [name the emotion]. We often want to explain the reasons behind our negative emotions compared to our positive ones. Try to avoid this as sometimes can lead to “You statements” as in “I feel hurt because you’re never home...and you always go ... and you never think about.... I think you get the point here—try to avoid explaining why you feel the way do. You are feeling and therefore your feelings are valid.


That might look something like this: “I feel hurt about our conversation yesterday.

Then he or she states a need in positive vs. negative language. What might that that sound like?

Negative need: You talked about yourself for the last 3 hours. (Sounds blaming and critical).

Positive need: I need you to ask me about what I’m doing. (Sounds like an opportunity to respond given your partner’s abilities). Your partner can say: “That’s true. Tell me about your day.”


If you struggle with coming up with a positive need, remember that behind every complaint there is a longing or need. What do you wish would happen? If you could wave a magic wand, what would you want to happen?”



Listener role.

Sherry Fleming, a licensed marriage and family therapist, calls this part “making LUV.” Listen. Understand. Validate.


As the listener, and the person who has a responsibility for our partner’s emotions, we need to be willing to listen non-defensively, accept a “What’s this?” perspective. Then seek to understand your partner’s feelings. It can be helpful to summarize, to your partner’s satisfaction, what he or she just said. You can ask them after summarizing, “Did I miss anything?” We can all relate to wanting to feel heard.


It may be helpful to ask open ended questions before you validate your partner. For example, “Help me understand why this is so important to you?” Then, use language like, “It makes perfect sense that you feel ...” Side note: validation should be authentic not like dialogue between actors. If you need more help in understanding, perhaps you could ask, “Is there a story behind this need?”


If more help is necessary, perhaps you might consider this: given his or her perspective and the way he or she sees the situation, is their emotional position valid? If yes, then let your partner hear that you “get it.”


Pushing Pause

We may not always have the ability to respond in a loving way as much as we may want to. There is no shame in needing to take a break during a conflict. It does not mean that there is “something wrong with you,” or that you are weak. Quite the opposite in fact. If you can say to your partner, “I need a time out,” or “Can we push pause?”—then you are being mindful and present. And that is a strength to be celebrated.


It is helpful to add that the two of you will return to the conversation and specifically state the time frame. This can help your partner calm down because they know they are not being thrown away like some feather in the wind.

© 2018 by Ben Culhane, Psy.D. 

Marriage & Couples counseling for adults who are struggling in relationship and love, looking to go deeper in connection and communication located in Newport Beach, California | serving the surrounding irvine, san diego, los angeles, laguna beach, newport beach, mission viejo, rancho santa margarita, costa mesa,and huntington beach