Have you ever felt like your partner just doesn’t “get” your emotions? Or struggled to understand why they react so differently to stressful situations? These disconnects may point to an underlying “meta-emotional mismatch”—a term coined by renowned relationship expert John Gottman. In this article, we’ll explore Gottman’s groundbreaking research on meta-emotions and how these dynamics play out in real relationships. We’ll also share some practical strategies for bridging these emotional gaps and strengthening your bond.

What Are Meta-Emotions?

Gottman defines meta-emotions as our “feelings about feelings”—in other words, how we think about and respond to both our own emotions and our partner’s. 1 His research has found that couples often have very different meta-emotional styles or “philosophies.”

For example:

  • One partner may believe that expressing anger is healthy and constructive, while the other sees it as destructive and tries to avoid conflict. 2
  • One may see sadness as a sign of weakness, while the other views it as a normal human emotion that shouldn’t be suppressed.
  • One may want to process difficult feelings together, while the other prefers to work through them alone.

When partners have clashing meta-emotional styles, it can lead to chronic misunderstandings, invalidation of each other’s feelings, and a sense of not being truly seen or supported. Gottman calls this a “meta-emotional mismatch.”1

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 eroding 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 involves acknowledging, accepting, and empathizing with a partner’s emotions.

Emotional Validation:

Conversely, emotional validation involves acknowledging, accepting, and empathizing with a partner’s emotions. It involves showing understanding, support, and empathy for the feelings expressed. 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 and creates a supportive environment for emotional expression and mutual understanding.

Understanding the contrast between emotional dismissing and emotional validation is essential 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.

The 3 Key Components of Meta-Emotional Style

According to Gottman, our meta-emotional style has three main components: 1

  1. Emotional awareness and attunement – how perceptive we are of emotions in ourselves and others
  2. Emotional regulation – how we manage and express intense feelings
  3. Emotional expression and communication – how openly and skillfully we discuss emotions with others

Partners with very different strengths and weaknesses across these three dimensions are more likely to encounter meta-emotional clashes. For example, an emotionally aware but poorly regulated partner may overwhelm a partner who struggles with emotional communication.

Meta-Emotional Mismatches in Action: An Example

To see how meta-emotional mismatches can strain a relationship, consider this scenario:

Bridging the Gap: 4 Strategies for Overcoming Meta-Emotional Mismatches

The good news is that by developing greater meta-emotional intelligence and flexibility as a couple, it’s possible to break out of these negative cycles. Here are some expert-backed strategies to try:

  1. Practice empathetic listening. Make a conscious effort to understand your partner’s emotional experience and validate it, even if you don’t fully relate to it. Show them that their feelings matter to you. 4
  2. Communicate your own emotional needs. Share how you typically prefer to process and express emotions, and what kind of support is most helpful for you. Help your partner understand your emotional world better.
  3. Find compromises. Look for middle ground between your meta-emotional styles. For example, you might agree to check in about difficult issues at a set time each day, so both partners’ needs for processing can be met.
  4. Seek professional support. If you keep getting stuck in meta-emotional mismatches, consider working with a couples therapist who can help you identify your patterns and build new skills.

In Gottman Method Couples Therapy

When couples present with meta-emotional mismatch, Gottman designed a series of questions to ask in the form of an interview. These are asked in front of the partner who is often surprised to learn how different his or her partner’s family’s messages were. An example of these questions include:

  • What would you look like, what would I see if I saw you sad?
  • Could you tell if your Dad was sad? Your Mom?
  • What does your partner do when sad or a little blue?

The goal of these questions is to allow each partner to get a sense for how different families handle different emotions. For instance, one parent might express anger easily, while never displaying sadness that the other parent does. Some families punish children for expressing anger, even if that anger is done appropriately. Just being angry is, itself, a punishable offense.

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

The Benefits of Meta-Emotional Attunement

While bridging meta-emotional differences takes effort, the payoff is a relationship built on deep understanding, trust, and emotional security. Research shows that when partners feel their emotions are validated and supported, they experience: 5 6

  • Greater relationship satisfaction
  • More effective conflict resolution
  • Increased intimacy and connection
  • Better mental and physical health

By learning to recognize and navigate meta-emotional mismatches, you and your partner can tap into these benefits and build a relationship that truly meets both of your emotional needs.


  1. Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1997). The heart of parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child. Simon & Schuster.
  2. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. Crown.
  3. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Harmony.
  4. Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2008). Gottman method couple’s therapy. Clinical handbook of couple therapy, 4(8), 138-164.
  5. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14‐year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.
  6. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two‐factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14‐year longitudinal data. Family process, 41(1), 83-96.