‘Upset’ is Not an Emotional State…Why is This Important for Couples Who Can’t Communicate?

Conventional wisdom in the shrink world tells us that mental health improves when we’re more ‘in touch’ with our emotions. In other words, the more specifically you can understand and articulate your psychological state, the better your quality of life will be. This premise isn’t about just being an emotional giant nor is it some touchy-feely exercise. It actually has practical implications as well.

Given that women are stereotypically associated with being more ’emotional,’ let’s consider an example with a man to demonstrate the universality of emotion recognition. Years ago I had a client in his late 30’s, a man I’ll call Jeff, who was well-educated and financially stable. He had three children and had been married for about 10 years. While his marriage would be considered good by many, he and his wife would often engage in unproductive arguments. Jeff would ultimately perceive his wife as not understanding him and she would view him as unable to be placated. They were both correct.

When Jeff would recount the exchanges with his spouse it quickly became apparent what was wrong.

“When she wasn’t home within an hour of when she said she would be, I got upset. She apologized for being late but I kept pushing her not to do it again. She got annoyed because she said it ultimately wasn’t a big deal and that she didn’t know what to say to help calm me down.”


“Let’s go back to one of the first things you said. What does that term mean, ‘upset’?”

“I don’t know if I understand what you’re asking.”

“The word ‘upset’ is kind of a basket term for emotions. It doesn’t really tell us anything other than something doesn’t feel right. It’s like ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘distressed.’ We use them socially without a problem but they are basically empty words. They don’t describe what you were feeling when she didn’t come home.”

“So what did I feel?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, but many options come to mind. If you perceived her lateness as a sign of disrespect you might feel angry. If you thought she might be late because she was with another man you might feel jealous. If you thought her to be in danger or have gotten hurt you could feel anxious. There are probably many more possibilities as well.”

“I think I felt anxious.”

“That’s a good start. How did you decide that? You thought she was hurt, like in a car accident or something?”

“No, I thought she might leave me.”

“Why would she leave you?” I asked.

“Rationally I don’t think she would. But years ago when the relationship was still young we had a huge fight and she had threatened to break up with me. She didn’t contact me for a few days and I had no idea where she was or what our status was. I was completely lost and afraid.”

“So when she didn’t come home it reminded you of a time when you thought you might lose her? Are the feelings for those events similar?”

“Absolutely.”

“Now you’re getting somewhere. This wasn’t just some vague emotional freak-out. At some level you were afraid she had left, that she was gone. You see now why it’s important to be more specific about your psychological state?”

“So my wife can reassure me that she’s not leaving?”

“Possibly. I’m guessing that she doesn’t know how to console you because she doesn’t know what you really need help with. If she knows that this is about prior feelings of abandonment she is in a position to reiterate that isn’t an issue now, should she choose to. But even if she doesn’t go that route I suspect you’ll feel better simply because you’ll feel more understood.”

“I actually feel a little better having articulated it here.”

“Good.”

“Have you ever considered bringing this stuff to TV?” Jeff asked. “This would fly incredibly well with housewives and guys who need to get in touch with their girly side.”

“I’ll…keep that in mind the next time Oprah calls.”

Since I’m not slated to be on The View anytime soon, keep this post in mind the next time you get ‘upset.’ I can’t guarantee it will improve your relationship but at least you’ll be more girly. And who wouldn’t want that?

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17 Responses to “‘Upset’ is Not an Emotional State…Why is This Important for Couples Who Can’t Communicate?”

  1. Tam says:

    I once managed to use one of my therapist’s techniques on my boyfriend, helping to clarify things in a similar way. He was telling me that, when we lie in bed together, he’s afraid to get up to get a drink or go to the bathroom because he’s afraid I might get upset.
    Instead of reassuring him that I wouldn’t get upset, I said (as my therapist often does), “And then?”
    “Well, I don’t want to upset you.”
    “Because…”
    “Because it’s your time,” he said.
    Ahhh. Now we’re getting somewhere!
    (Note: even though I used the word ‘upset’ here the revelation wasn’t a clarification of that word. Just so I’m not too confusing.)

  2. Amber says:

    I’ve never looked at it that way before. It makes sense though…

  3. Anonymous says:

    You should she was hurt, like in a car accident or something?”
    Freudian slip?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Oh gosh Rob, are you baiting me now?
    “So when she didn’t come home it reminded of you that time when you thought you might lose her? Was the feeling then the same as now?”

  5. Zac says:

    You are lord.

  6. Lidia says:

    Personally, I think it’s difficult to identify feelings…
    Recently my friend said her therapist asked her how she felt when she was arguing with her son.
    She told me it took her the entire session to identify what was that she was feeling at that moment.
    Now I wonder what precisely is a feeling…

  7. Wayland says:

    I like how you get people truly thinking with your posts and I view that as a sign of a good writer. Speaking of writing: are you still chiseling away at your book?

  8. What a great post! I think many of us are also afraid to express those types of feelings that specifically, even if we’ve identified them, because it makes us even more vulnerable. Just my opinion, it’s not like Oprah’s calling me either 😉

  9. People rarely have a handle on what is a “feeling”. I wrote a blog about how FAT is not a feeling.

    Fat Is Not A Feeling

  10. Kyle Fleming says:

    Very interesting post. It’s dangerous to extrapolate things, but I think that this can sort of be used to show how no one is really communicating with anyone, using empty words and emotions to express something, and then getting even more frustrated when their empty words aren’t being understood. I might have to save this post, think over it, and write something of my own.

  11. Chris says:

    This is actually a really good article. It bothers me when people use those “empty words” when they are trying to communicate something to me or someone around me. The way I am interpreting your article is; failures of communication. In general, it can be hard for some people (myself definitely included) to relay their message in a way that’s just as meaningful to the person on the other side. Maybe other times people feel something powerful, and that emotion almost traps them and makes it difficult for them to express why or even how they are feeling. When they have to translate this from their own emotionally-gripped mindset, they can’t make that “translation” connection and use empty words that just “feel” or communicate a rough emotional texture, and not words that “describe” as you said.

    Once they are really able to explore that feeling that occurs, for example in a setting like a therapy appointment with their PhD/PsyD/MD/CSW, they can discover a context to frame it all in, and start to reason their problem out.

    Good post.

  12. […] The main benefits of premarital counseling aren’t much different than regular couples’ therapy (unless the couple is truly using the treatment to decide if marriage is a viable option). There are countless books on marital therapy, but for most couples the work usually boils down to honing their communication skills so that each party gets his/her needs met. Almost everyone fancies themselves as great communicators, but within the confines of such an intimate relationship, it is virtually impossible to be the ideal talker and listener. For couples who are not experiencing extreme hardships such as domestic abuse, financial issues, substance abuse or extreme child-rearing problems, communication style is usually the focus of the therapeutic work. (Note: you can read more about communication within a romantic relationship here). […]

  13. Annie says:

    I use vague words to describe my feelings. I´m a girl who hates to be in contact with her “girly” side, as you call it. I tend to say I don’t know what I’m feeling; leading my therapist think I have some sort of anxiety issue.

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  17. Seviah says:

    Even the usage of “upset” in my day differed: one “upset” an apple cart, not a state or a couple or a communication.

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