Why a Couples Therapist Says ‘Emotional Fluency’ Is Crucial for a Relationship

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The whole “till death do us part” thing has always struck me as a surprisingly metal aspect of wedding vows and also, like, unbelievable — humans apparently stay with the same human for over half their lives? At least a large percentage people do? Amazing. Way to go, guys.

In trying to understand this long-haul magic, I recently spoke with Brian Gleason, LCSW, who co-founded the Exceptional Marriage practice with his wife, Marcia, who is also a social worker. The pair co-authored the book Exceptional Relationships: Transformation Through Embodied Couples Work and have been together for nearly four decades, which is some serious intimacy and commitment. From what Gleason has seen in his practice, one of the biggest reasons couples get into trouble is because they haven’t cultivated what he calls emotional fluency in themselves — and it’s also something the singletons among us should look for in a potential partner.

It’s a skill that’s very much learnable, but probably not covered in your fancy liberal-arts education, unless you went to a super-progressive school. “We’re just not trained to speak in emotional language,” Gleason says. But in an intimate relationship, you’re constantly feeling some sort of emotion, whether it’s longing or anxiety or joy. So it would behoove those of us interested in having actual long-term, growth-oriented relationships (they’re possible, really!) to be able to put those emotions into words, to have a medium for your partner to know what’s going on. “The more that we’re able to put into some sort of language and convey it to our partner, that these are my inner experiences right now, the more empathy there is in the relationship,” he says. “The obverse of that is that the less I can say, this is my inner experience, the more my partner is going to be reacting to my outer behavior, oftentimes with judgement and frustration, rather than where they would relate to your experience with empathy.”

Say, for example, on a given morning, you’re having breakfast together and you have an appointment coming up — with your boss, maybe — that you’re really worried about. But instead of putting those anxieties into words, you gaze into your phone. In that case, Gleason says, your partner doesn’t have anything to work with from your outside behavior, which can lead to misunderstanding. Your partner reacts: “That’s what you always do, you’re never available, you’re never initiating anything, you’re always kept inside your devices.” Without a way in, your hypothetical partner can’t respond to your inner experience. But if you do learn to convey the experience — so long as they respond to your “bid” for connection, as relationship experts have found to be so essential — Gleason says that instead of a conflict, you get an alliance. If I say to my partner, “I’m really worried about this meeting today, I’m worried about screwing up, my job is in jeopardy, my promotion is in jeopardy, I don’t want to look bad. I’m not sure I’m prepared — what’s your advice? What else do you think I should do?” Almost inevitably, there’s support: a hug, a compliment, an assurance.

But if the behavior that helps you cope with your anxiety is to avoid contact, to pull back within yourself, then all your partner is left with is responding to your behavior. They have no idea that you have something important going on; you just look like you’re checking your Twitter notifications like you always do. And with that, the recriminations can start up: They’re frustrated with you walling off, you’re frustrated with feeling misunderstood.

Disfluency with regard to expressing your interior states primes conflict, in other words, while fluency primes cooperation. Instead of bickering, you’re strategizing. “All of a sudden,” Gleason says, “there’s an alliance.”