“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” Craig finally said haltingly, after a long uncomfortable pause.
When he looked up into his wife Liz’s eyes, he was shocked at what he saw…
As a couple’s therapist, I’ve worked with hundreds of couples over the years. If I had to name the one most ubiquitous challenge that I see couples facing, it’s this:
How to know what you’re feeling, and manage those feelings so you can share them with your partner.
It’s just so much easier to talk about logistics and happy things. The kids, our jobs, finances, vacation plans; these are all important. And they all share one common factor: they mostly happen at the surface.
The real glue that holds two people together in a way that is strong and true does not dwell there on the surface. That glue is made of emotion, feeling, conflict and, yes sometimes pain. These can only be accessed by courageously wading deeper, into the messy world of emotions with your partner.
Literally, all couples struggle with this to some degree. But the ones who I see having the most difficulty with it are couples in which one or both partners grew up with CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect). When you grow up in a household where feelings are ignored or discouraged, you have little opportunity to learn about your emotions: how to manage, express and work with them. This can pose a formidable challenge to any committed relationship.
Here is an easy-to-learn technique that you and your partner can use to access each other’s hearts and emotions, and build that valuable relationship glue. It’s called The Vertical Questioning Technique.
The Vertical Questioning Technique
First, it’s important to understand the opposite of vertical questions: horizontal questions. These are the questions that you ask your partner on a day-to-day basis. Here are some examples:
Why are you home late?
What are the plans this weekend?
How much did you buy?
Where were you?
What do you think we should do?
All of these questions have value, yes. But they are geared toward gathering information, not deepening your relationship.
In contrast, vertical questions are geared toward accessing emotions. They are challenging questions that make your partner look inside, not outside. They challenge him to go deeper by looking more deeply into himself. Here are some examples of vertical questions:
How do you feel about that?
No, really…why did you really say/do that?
Are you angry? Why?
You look sad. Are you?
Do you realize that your expression (or body language) doesn’t match your words?
Yes, it’s true, these questions are not for the faint of heart. They are challenging and can be difficult to give and to receive. But they will take you somewhere real and meaningful.
Now let’s revisit Craig and Liz so that you can find out why Craig was shocked by what he saw in Liz’s eyes. Here is the full story.
Liz had noticed that for weeks, Craig had been coming home from work unusually late. She was worried that he continued to be angry about a disagreement they’d had several weeks ago. Several times she had asked him if anything was wrong. Each time he’d smiled and said, “No, not at all, everything’s fine.” Yet he continued to be distant and disconnected from her. He talked easily about logistics and plans but seemed uninterested in her. Try as she might, she ended up feeling frozen out.
Liz Tries Vertical Questioning With Craig
Liz: You’ve been coming home late, and you seem kind of distant. Is anything wrong?
Craig: (With a smile) Don’t be silly. I’m just tired, everything’s fine. I’m going to bed.
Liz: Wait a second. Do you realize that your words don’t match your body language? Your smile doesn’t look real, and you’re walking away as you tell me that everything’s fine. Could there be something else going on with you?
Craig pauses and looks annoyed for a moment. Then the annoyance passes, and he looks perplexed. Liz waits while she sees his attention turn inward.
Craig: I-I don’t know. What’s the big deal? (but he is clearly flustered by Liz’s questions).
Liz: I’ve been sad lately because you seem so distant and disconnected. Can you please try to figure this out for me? I don’t want to live like this.
Craig: (Looking truly concerned for the first time, as he sees his wife’s sadness) Well, believe me, I’m over it. But I still can’t believe you talked to my mother about my drinking problem behind my back. It was a total violation of my trust. I can’t imagine why you would do that to me. Obviously, you don’t care how I feel.
Liz waits while Craig looks at the floor, tears welling in his eyes.
“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” he finally says.
Craig doesn’t see it, but while he’s talking Liz’s eyes are also filling with tears. She feels a combination of sad because she hurt Craig, angry that it’s taken him so long to say this, but relieved and grateful that he’s finally saying it. When he finally looks up, Craig sees how much Liz truly does care what he needs, feels and thinks.
Believe it or not, it almost doesn’t matter what happens from here. Liz’s Vertical Questioning (and her willingness to be vulnerable by sharing her own sad feelings) has helped Craig access his true feelings. And now they have shared what I call an emotional-meeting-of-the-minds.
It is truly a golden moment. Craig and Liz have both sat with their strong emotions together and felt each other’s pain. This moment forms the glue that will bind them together and keep their love and their passion strong.
So don’t be afraid. Ask those hard questions. Challenge your partner, and challenge yourself. It’s the best way to show, and strengthen your love.
To learn more about Horizontal and Vertical Questioning, Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to build the emotional skills that are needed for a strong marriage, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.
A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.