The Two Layers of Emotion in Arguments

It’s a typical scene... partner, let’s call him John, is stuck late at work. The other partner, let’s call her Jane, is at home wondering when John will be home from the office, and fuming that he hasn’t called to say he’ll be late. When John finally does get home, he’s met with anger and resentment from Jane: “Why didn’t you call? I’ve been waiting here for hours not knowing when you would be home! Didn’t you think to call me?” Feeling attacked, John either fights back or withdraws into himself, and thus a fight begins…

As a marriage and family therapist I can say that most of the time when couples fight like this, they’re not actually fighting about what’s really bothering them. This is because in arguments there are always two layers of emotion happening at the same time:

  • The first layer of emotion is called Primary Emotion – this is the emotion we feel deep down in the core of our hearts. It’s usually a vulnerable emotion such as shame, hurt, or loneliness. The problem in arguments is that this vulnerable, primary emotion is not usually what we show to our partners when we’re upset with them. Instead, we show them our second, more reactive layer of emotion.
  • This second layer of emotion, called Secondary Emotion, is a reaction to our primary feelings of shame, hurt, loneliness, etc…

Let me explain: in the example above, when John came home late from work, Jane showed him her secondary emotion of anger and resentment. However, what Jane was probably feeling deep down in her heart was actually hurt and alone: hurt that John didn’t think to call her, hurt that she didn’t feel like a priority to him, and alone in the relationship. This vulnerable, primary emotion can be a scary thing to show other people, which is why we usually show them the less vulnerable, secondary emotion instead.

In healthy relationships, both members of the couple are in touch with what their primary emotions are, and feel safe enough to share those vulnerable primary emotions with one another. However, a lot of couples don’t feel comfortable enough to show their partner their primary emotions, which is where seeing a couple’s therapist can help you build that level of safety with one another. Therapy is also a great way to help you identify what primary emotion is actually being activated in arguments.

So the next time you’re in an argument with a significant other, stop and ask yourself these two questions:

  • What emotion am I SHOWING my partner?

  • What emotion am I actually FEELING?

The more you can show your partner what you’re actually feeling, the more accepted and understood you will begin to feel.


Reference: Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. 2nd Ed. Taylor & Francis, 2004.