"Feelings about feelings"

John Gottman created the term "meta emotions" and "meta-emotional mismatch" to describe when people in relationships have different emotional understandings and displays. He called them "feelings about feelings."

This notion highlights the significance of understanding our emotions and recognizing and respecting our partner's emotional experiences. In essence, it refers to the differences in how individuals perceive, interpret, and respond to emotions in themselves and their partners. This dynamic can significantly impact relationship dynamics. It is a common relationship problem that brings couples into therapy.

Gottman's research shows that how couples deal with emotions affects the quality and length of their relationships. The meta-emotional framework focuses on three core components:

  1. Awareness: This includes recognizing and understanding one's emotions and being attuned to a partner's emotions. It involves being emotionally perceptive and responsive.
  2. Regulation: Meta-emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage and navigate emotions constructively, individually, and as a couple. It involves regulating one's emotional responses and supporting a partner in regulating theirs.
  3. Expression: Effective communication of emotions is crucial in relationships. Meta-emotional expression involves conveying one's feelings openly and empathetically, allowing partners to understand and respond appropriately.

Emotional dismissing vs emotional validation

Gottman's concept of emotional dismissing and its opposite, emotional validation, are crucial aspects of understanding how partners interact within relationships.

Emotional Dismissing:

Emotional dismissing happens when one partner disregards or downplays the emotions expressed by the other. It involves invalidating or ignoring the partner's feelings, experiences, or concerns.

In emotionally dismissing interactions, the dismissing partner might respond indifferently, minimizing the significance of the other's emotions or criticizing their feelings. Over time, this can create a sense of emotional isolation. This isolation erodes the foundation of trust and intimacy within the relationship. It invalidates the emotional experiences of the partner, leading to feelings of neglect or unimportance.

Emotional Validation:

Conversely, emotional validation involves acknowledging, accepting, and empathizing with a partner's emotions. Showing understanding, support, and empathy for the feelings expressed is what it's about. Validating responses involve listening, comforting, and recognizing the partner's emotions, even if they differ from one's own.

Validating emotions fosters a sense of connection, trust, and emotional security within the relationship. It communicates value and respect for the partner's feelings, creating a supportive environment for emotional expression and mutual understanding.

Understanding the contrast between emotional dismissing and emotional validation is pivotal in cultivating healthy communication patterns. Emotional validation strengthens the emotional bond between partners, whereas emotional dismissing can create rifts and emotional distance within the relationship. Recognizing and practicing emotional validation contributes significantly to nurturing a more fulfilling and resilient relationship.

Examples of meta-emotional mismatch can manifest in various scenarios within relationships:

Conflict Resolution Discrepancy:

In this scenario, Alex openly expresses their emotions during arguments. On the other hand, Sarah tends to avoid discussing her feelings. In this situation, a meta-emotional mismatch arises.

Alex might feel frustrated by Sarah's avoidance, perceiving it as a lack of care or interest. Meanwhile, Sarah might feel overwhelmed by Alex's directness, viewing it as confrontational or aggressive. This mismatch in emotional expression and conflict resolution styles can escalate tensions and hinder resolution.

meta emotion mismatch

Different Emotional Needs:

Imagine a couple where one partner, David, likes discussing feelings and finds comfort in discussing during tough times. On the other hand, Emily, their partner, finds solace in solitude and prefers processing emotions independently before sharing them.

This mismatch in emotional needs can lead to misunderstanding. David might feel neglected and unimportant when Emily retreats and withdraws from him. He may interpret her behavior as a sign of indifference or lack of interest in their relationship. David may feel insecure and doubt if Emily cares about him, which can cause him to question their relationship.Emily might feel stressed and tired from David's constant desire for intense talks. She likes that he is open and vulnerable, but it can be tiring for her to always talk about emotions. This interactional dynamic can make her feel overwhelmed and violated. She may struggle to find time and energy to process her feelings.

As a result, David and Emily may experience a breakdown in communication and emotional connection. David's neglect and insecurity may isolate him more, causing a cycle of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. On the other hand, Emily may feel resentment or frustration towards David's emotional demands. Her frustration can strain their relationship further.

To address these issues, David and Emily must have open and honest conversations about their needs and boundaries. They should try to balance emotional closeness and personal boundaries, ensuring both partners feel listened to, understood, and valued.

Seeking professional help, such as couples therapy, can also be beneficial in navigating these challenges and strengthening their relationship.

Parenting Styles and Emotional Coaching:

In families, parents often display varying approaches to handling emotions in children, leading to a meta-emotional mismatch. For instance, one parent might emphasize discussing and validating emotions openly. At the same time, the other might encourage a more stoic approach, emphasizing self-reliance and downplaying emotional expression.

This discrepancy can confuse children, causing them to feel uncertain about whether or not it's okay to express emotions openly. As a result, children might struggle with understanding and regulating their feelings, affecting their emotional development.

Gottman found that when parents understand and accept their children's feelings, it dramatically affects how children grow up. When parents show they truly understand their children's feelings, it helps children to feel safe and good about themselves. Children are more likely to handle their feelings well, make friends easily, and bounce back from tough times. They also do better academically.

Children with these parents learn to trust their feelings, talk about them, and deal positively with others. They also become good at interpreting how others feel. This way of parenting helps kids grow up feeling sure of themselves and able to handle their feelings and friendships in a healthy way. Gottman's research shows that this kind of understanding from parents plays a critical role in how kids grow up to be emotionally strong and confident.

Addressing meta-emotional mismatches involves fostering empathy, open communication, and mutual respect within relationships.

Couples can bridge these gaps by:

  • Engaging in empathetic listening and validating each other's emotions.
  • Seeking compromise by understanding and integrating each other's preferred emotional communication styles.
  • Developing shared strategies for regulating emotions during conflicts or challenging situations.
  • Cultivating a supportive environment allows for individual emotional processing while respecting each other's needs.

Recognizing and navigating meta-emotional mismatches lays the groundwork for healthier, more fulfilling relationships by fostering emotional understanding, support, and connection.

John Gottman's "meta-emotional mismatch" concept highlights how differences in understanding and expressing emotions impact relationships. It emphasizes recognizing and respecting both our own and our partner's emotions. Gottman identifies three key elements—awareness, regulation, and expression of emotions—that shape relationship dynamics significantly.

Additionally, he discusses "emotional dismissing," where one disregards a partner's feelings, leading to isolation. A dismissing attitude contrasts with "emotional validation," which involves understanding and accepting emotions and building trust and connection.

Examples of conflicts due to emotional differences can strain relationships. Couples can address these by communicating openly, understanding each other's needs, and finding common ground. Recognizing and navigating these emotional differences pave the way for healthier, more fulfilling relationships built on understanding and support.

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Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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