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Meta-Emotion Mismatch

There’s an old saying that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who know better. It’s funny because it’s true. But there is one factor we assess in Gottman Method Couples Counseling for which there truly are two kinds of people in the world. It’s called meta-emotion style.

If you’ve never heard of meta-emotion before, you’re not alone. In fact, even most couples therapists are unaware of it, which is sad – because a meta-emotion mismatch is probably the single most-common reason couples present for counseling. If your relationship is a meta-emotion mismatch you need to know and you need a plan to address it.

What is Meta Emotion? 

Meta-emotion is basically how you feel about feelings. More specifically, it is how you deal with emotions that might be considered difficult, like sadness, disappointment, rejection, or loss. There are two meta-emotion styles:

  • Emotion Coaching
  • Emotion Dismissing

As we take a closer look at both styles, see if you can tell which of these describe you and which describes your spouse.

Emotion Coaching

Emotion coachers tend to be accepting of emotions like sadness, disappointment, and loss. More importantly, when they experience these emotions they want to talk about them and talk through them. If they are married, coachers especially want to talk about these emotions with their spouse. In fact, coachers find it very difficult to feel connected to their spouse unless they can share these emotions and be responded to with understanding and empathy.

Coachers aren’t looking for solutions or apologies when they talk about their emotions, at least not initially. What they want is to know that they aren’t alone in their emotions. They want to know that someone else “gets” them. They want empathy.

Coachers tend to have a difficult time “compartmentalizing” their emotions. When they have an argument with their spouse it is hard for them to feel like things are ok until they can process the argument and feel understood.

Emotion Dismissers

Emotion dismissers tend to avoid difficult emotions if they can. They have just as many emotions as coachers do, but they deal with those emotions in a very different way.

When a dismisser experiences a setback that leads to negative emotions they don’t really need or want to talk about those emotions. What they do want is to put the setback behind them and move-on. Dismisser’s generally respond to negative emotions by counting their blessings, looking on the bright-side, focusing on the positive, or finding a solution. They like to “fix” things and consider talking about emotions a waste of time.

Dismissers believe that they should try to be happy and that others should as well. For a dismisser, talking about sadness, loneliness, loss, disappointment, rejection, loneliness, or any other negative emotion is just “dwelling on the negative.” They don’t perceive any value in “wallowing” in such things.

Dismissers can be very good at compartmentalizing their negative emotions and moving-on to other things. A dismisser can have an argument with their spouse and act like nothing happened 20 minutes later. To a coacher this is tough to comprehend.

How Meta-Emotion Affects Marriage

By now you probably see the obvious conflict that occurs when you have a dismisser and a coacher in the same relationship. We call this a “meta-emotion mismatch,” and it almost always presents a major issue.

When coachers try to share hard emotions with their dismissive partner they may get solutions or apologies, but rarely do they feel understood. When a coacher doesn’t feel understood they feel emotionally disconnected and alone in their relationship. Eventually the coacher will begin to protest the disconnection, often by criticizing the dismisser about things that are unrelated to the real issue (feeling disconnected) like housework, money, parenting, or other such issues. They don’t do this from pettiness. They actually don’t realize the true source of their discomfort and are looking for some reason or cause for it.

The dismisser becomes exasperated because they don’t understand what the coacher wants from them. The dismisser usually tries to help the coacher the way they would help themselves with their own negative emotions, but those attempts are frequently met with anger and refrains of “you don’t listen to me!”

When coachers become critical, dismissers feel attacked and picked-on. Dismissers reach the conclusion that coachers are just “unreasonable” or “negative.”

Left unchecked, a meta-emotion mismatch can lead to deterioration of the relationship to the point that the bonds of attachment begin to unravel. Eventually the coacher will begin confiding their emotions to others and give up on trying to feel understood by the dismisser. The dismisser begins to believe that nothing they do is good enough and stops trying altogether. Both often conclude that there is something lacking, or even malignant in the other’s character.

What To Do If Your Relationship Is a Meta-Emotion Mismatch

The first step towards mitigating a mismatch is for both of you to realize that the mismatch is the problem, not your spouse’s character. That’s a good start. 

For Coachers

For Coachers

1. Stop telling your dismissive partner that they don’t listen to you. You want your spouse to listen-to-understand, and then reflect that understanding back to you so that you don’t feel alone in your emotions. Dismissers do listen, but they listen to solve problems. When you tell a dismisser that they don’t listen they have no idea what you are talking about. They will also feel attacked because telling someone they don’t listen is a form of criticism. Instead, tell them that you don’t feel understood.

2. Don’t assume that your way is the “right” way to listen. It’s how you want to be listened to. It is not how your dismissing spouse wants to be listened to.

3. Understand that your dismissing partner is not necessarily being uncaring or rejecting when they offer solutions and apologies. Remind yourself that your dismissing spouse is trying to help you the way they would help themselves. In other words, it’s not personal.

4. Learn to use Gentle-Startups. You may need some help learning how to share your complaints in a way that is less likely to make your dismissive partner feel criticized. In Gottman Method terms we call this the Gentle-Startup. It’s extremely important for Coachers to learn and practice the Gentle-Startup with their dismissing spouse if they want to be understood. Download instructions on how to use Gentle-Startups with this link.

For Dismissers

Here are some tips for better results when your coaching spouse is upset about something or upset with you.

  1. Stop apologizing and offering solutions when your coaching spouse is upset. Apologies make coachers feel dismissed and unimportant when offered before making them feel understood. Coachers see quick apologies as insincere attempts to sweep things under-the-rug. When you offer solutions before empathy to a coacher they feel like they’ve fallen into a pit and you are standing over them saying “why aren’t you up here?”
  2. Understand that discussing negative emotions doesn’t make them worse. Dismissers fear that discussing negative emotions will only dig the pit of emotion deeper. Trust me on this. If your spouse is a coacher then trying to move-on before they feel understood is what will dig the pit deeper. Do the opposite of your first impulse – climb into the pit with your coacher by inviting them to discuss their emotions.

  1. Listen to coachers to understand, not to solve or fix their problems. The problem to be solved is that your coacher feels alone in their emotion. Solve that before you try solving whatever problem or issue they are presenting. Coachers won’t accept your advice until they believe that you have empathy for their experience.
  2. Focus on the emotion your coaching spouse is expressing. Identifying the specific emotions your coacher feels is the key to success. If you identify the emotion you have what you need to make your spouse feel understood and validated.
  3. State the emotion to them. To make your coaching spouse feel understood you have to let them know that you see what they are feeling and that it makes sense to you that they would feel the way they do. This is how you demonstrate empathy. It sounds like this:
  • “That sounds really hard”
  • “I can see that you feel misunderstood”
  • “You feel lonely”
  • “That was really disappointing for you”

Final Thoughts

If your relationship has a meta-emotion mismatch that doesn’t mean you are with the wrong person. With the right tools a coacher and dismisser can have a great relationship. But I would say at least 80% of the couples that make their way into our office are there because of a meta-emotion mismatch. We help mismatched couples by teaching them the skill of attunement. If you think your relationship needs help, contact us. Most couples wait 6 years after a problem arises to go to couples therapy. Don’t be that couple.

For further reading I recommend John Gottman’s book pictured on the right. I’d love to interact with you in the comments section below if you have questions about this article. If you found it helpful, please use one of the social media buttons below to share it with others. And while you’re here I hope you’ll join our mailing list to be notified when new articles are posted. Just click on the “Join Our List!” tab in the upper right corner of this page.

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