Learn why it is important to leave emotional space to connect
By: Jennifer Seip, LMFT
When my husband and I first moved in together, like many couples, we had to workout a few kinks. We discussed the usual stuff like, who would do the dishes, make dinner and take out the trash. However, one thing we didn’t anticipate, was how our work schedules would affect our ability to connect and communicate.
Let me give you an example. Dalia and Stephanie are married. Dalia works as a stay at home mom and Stephanie spends 50 hours a week at work. At 6pm when Stephanie comes home, Dalia greets her immediately and wants to talk about their days. But Stephanie wants some alone time. Consequently, Dalia starts to feel even more lonely and disconnected. So she yells at Stephanie which then turns into their usually cycle of arguing.
What do you think is happening in this scenario. Is Dalia being a nag? Is Stephanie being a jerk? Do you think one or both people are wrong?
The thing most people miss when they hear this story is not that one person is wrong. It’s that they are both right.
What is emotional capacity?
You see we all have a certain amount of emotional capacity that we can expend on others each day. That is how much we can be available to listen, be present, empathize and have productive and engaging conversation.
Everyone is different. Think of your capacity as a soft drink that you get at your favorite fast food restaurant. We can either have a small, medium, or large cup. (My emotional capacity cup is probably a size medium.) Now, assuming that it’s a normal day, we all begin with a full cup. As the day continues your cup starts to slowly empty by engaging with other people. The love tank is also a good example of this.
For instance, my job is one that requires me to expend a lot of my emotional capacity. The more people I see and engage with, the more my cup empties and the less I will want to connect later.
There are many days when I completely empty my cup. There is nothing left! However there are also many days when I only spoke to 3 people and my cup is only half empty.
Now I think about my husband’s job. He is in sales. All sales people know that sometimes you spend a lot of time talking to customers and sometimes you’re alone. The days change often. There are times when I come home and my husband’s cup is empty. Those are the days he wants to connect more than others. There are also times when I come home and his cup is three quarters the way filled.
An important thing to note here is that we all want to empty our cup a little. Some days we want to empty it more than other days. If I have been alone all day, the only thing I want is to engage with someone so that I can empty some of my cup. However, if I empty all of it, I am completely unable to be present in any type of serious conversation. Get it?
So let’s go back to my example of Dalia and Stephanie. Dalia wants to talk to Stephanie as soon as she gets home because she needs to emotionally connect. She hasn’t emptied her cup like Stephanie has. Stephanie has been at work all day engaging and being active. Her cup is empty. Neither person can meet each other’s needs right now.
What to do when you don’t have enough emotional capacity to connect
I know you’re asking “so what do we do?!” The answer is the same answer I give to many relationship questions. You communicate and come up with a plan!
On days when I’ve completely emptied my cup I say to my husband, “I love you, and you’re important to me, but right now I need to be quiet just so I can re-energize, and I promise that tomorrow I will be more present.” It’s such a therapist response, I know 🙂 But he understands me and since we’ve had the conversation he respects my need to be alone.
During the times when his cup is empty he typically says something like “I need to be alone for a little bit. It’s not you.” He says that and I know it’s because his cup is empty and when he’s had enough time, he’ll be able to engage with me again.
You see, we each have our own way to communicate our personal needs and we’ll say it while also letting the other person know that just because one person needs some quiet time, it won’t take away from engaging with the other later on.
Another thing to remember is that it can’t always be about the person who’s cup is empty. Sometimes it’s about the person who’s cup is full. If I work a full day, but know that my husband has been alone the whole time, I push myself to try be available as much as possible. “I can empty it a little more,” I tell myself. I mentally prepare for connection because he needs it. Because he’s important too and he does the same for me.
So next time you find that you and your partner(s) are not connecting after work ask yourself about their capacity. What do they do all day? What kind of job do they have? How big is there cup? Do they need connection or have they had too much? What can you do to be sympathetic to their needs?
Communicate what you need while not forgetting to validate their feelings. It’s always a balancing act.
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