At any given moment, each of us has a leading-edge feeling—a thought or feeling that lies as the center of our attention and that motivates, intrigues, preoccupies, distracts, unnerves, or haunts us. The leading-edge feeling is what’s “alive” for us at that moment, as Marshall Rosenberg put it. It’s who we are at that instant.
A significant subset of leading-edge feelings are those of unease: worries; aches; yearnings; irritation; surges of loneliness; pangs of anxiety; waves of regret; wisps of shame, jealousy, regret, or envy; feelings of inadequacy, hurt, rejection, abandonment, or engulfment; crises of confidence, ten-minute clinical depressions, and other unnerving or disquieting feelings.
A couple relationship is a major source of such feelings and a major resource in dealing with them. People may experience considerable relief in confiding to their partners:
- “I had this horrible frustrating day where everything went wrong. First…and then….”
- “I couldn’t wait to get home to tell you that….”
- “I’m so very pleased by your success but I’ve got to admit I also feel a little envious.”
- “It was good, of course, that you spent the afternoon consoling Robin about losing her job; I was surprised, however, how much I missed the chance to take our usual afternoon walk,”
- “When we’re quiet like this, I worry that we’ve become one of those couples who don’t talk. Do you worry about that too, sometimes?”
When you confide your feeling of unease and your partner empathizes, you feel less alone and the distressing feeling quiets down.
But much of the time we don’t confide such feelings. We lose our voice. We’re unlikely to express our feelings of unease if we:
- Experience shame rather than relief in doing so. Of course, shame is itself a feeling of unease, so some people find relief in confiding, for example, “I’m so very pleased by your success but—and I’m embarrassed to tell you this—I also feel a little envious.” Other people just feel more embarrassed making such an admission.
- Fear, often justifiably, that doing so will hurt, provoke, or alienate our partners; lead them to withdraw; provide them with ammunition they’ll use against us later in a fight; or expose ourselves to rebuke or ridicule. We don’t want to hear, “I can’t believe that you begrudge my going off for a few hours to comfort Robin. Can’t you do anything without me? You’re such a baby!”
- Lack access to the feeling because we don’t have words for it, are unused to thinking about ourselves in such terms, or are unable to pick out the feeling from the flow of experiences passing through us.
Bernard Apfelbaum talks about our sense of entitlement or unentitlement to our experience. In order to feel entitled:
- We need to feel that the thought or feeling in question is okay to have and that we’re okay for having it.
- We need to belong to a culture, family, or subculture that recognizes the experience and doesn’t condemn or ostracize us for having it. We need models—people around us, in the movies, or on social media—who talk about such experiences.
In order to feel comfortable confiding our intimate feelings to our partners, we need to have worked out an understanding with them that it’s acceptable, even desirable, to do so. Mona Fishbane, Stan Tatkin, Sue Johnson, John Gottman, and Harville Hendrix, among others, view partners ideally as reciprocal soothing agents in dealing with life stresses, particularly those created within the relationship itself.
When we lose our voice, we’re unable to recruit our partners’ help in dealing with what’s bothering us. We’re stuck resorting to fallback measures that typically make matters worse.
”Fallback measures” can be thought of as the Collaborative Couple Therapy alternative to the concepts of defense and resistance. Viewing your clients as defensive and as resisting your therapeutic efforts predisposes you to see them as working at cross purposes with you. Adopting the Collaborative Couple Therapy perspective—viewing your clients as resorting to fallback measures because they’ve lost their voice—predisposes you to see yourself as working with them to discover their voice.
In couple relationships, there are two major types of fallback measures: the adversarial and avoidant shifts of everyday life. I say “everyday life” to emphasize how almost everyone repeatedly engages in them.
In the adversarial shift, we take a feeling that makes us uneasy and turn it into something our partners are doing wrong.
- “I feel ashamed” becomes “You’re trying to shame me.”
- “I feel guilty” becomes “You’re trying to make me feel guilty.”
- “I feel unlovable” becomes “You never say you love me.”
- “I’m sensitive, I take things personally” becomes “You’re cruel.”
- “I have trouble sometimes asking for what I want” becomes “You should know what I want without my having to ask.”
In the avoidant shift, we take a feeling that makes us uneasy and sweep it under the rug. We change the subject or stop talking entirely.
If Karin is unable to confide to her wife, Brenda, “When we’re both silent like this, I worry that we’ve become one of those couples who don’t talk. Do you worry about that, too, sometimes?” Karen is stuck:
- Making the adversarial shift: “Why don’t you ever have anything to say to me?”
- Or remaining in the avoidant mode and just continuing to be silent.
Jerry was unable to confide to his wife Rosetta, “It was good, of course, that you spent the afternoon consoling Robin about losing her job; I was surprised, however, how much I missed the chance to take our usual afternoon walk.” He felt embarrassed to admit this—it made him feel weak and needy—so he kept his feelings to himself. He made the avoidant shift of everyday life. Half an hour later, he made the adversarial shift, blurting out, “Do you always have to be everyone’s nursemaid?”
Fallback measures are substitutes. They’re replacements. They’re what we resort to (fall back on) when the chance to express what we’re feeling is closed off to us. This substitute—this fallback measure—immediately becomes the next leading-edge feeling. When Jerry shifted from the vulnerable “I missed the walk” to the angry “Do you always have to…,” he really shifted. Anger now became his new leading-edge feeling, what’s alive for him at the moment.
The new leading-edge feeling itself might be blocked and occasion a subsequent fallback measure. Jerry felt his anger at Rosetta was unjustified, since she was just helping out a friend. He slipped into self-reproach, which now became the next leading-edge feeling.
Each feeling in the succession of leading-edge feelings is:
- A response to immediate events—for example, our partner ignores us and we feel hurt.
- Or a fallback measure—our feeling of hurt is blocked and turns into anger.
- Or an association—our anger at our partner triggers memories of anger at our father.
We track the feelings of each partner in search of those that might trigger a collaborative cycle. In addition to the feelings that they obviously have, we include those that they:
- Haven’t directly expressed but we can imagine they might be having.
- Aren’t having at that moment but might have had earlier in the session or in the past.
- Haven’t been able to articulate but might recognize once we point them out.
- Feel too ashamed of to acknowledge but that we might be able to bring out of the shadows by showing them to be a natural part of the ordinary mix of feelings people have. We entitle partners to their experience in the process of suggesting what it might be.
A goal of Collaborative Couple Therapy is to enable partners to become better witnesses of the thoughts and feelings passing through them.