“Why can’t you just be happy?!”
“How can you be feeling angry about that?!”
“You’re so sad all the time”.
When you are experiencing problems in your marriage, you and your spouse are likely to be feeling a lot of different emotions. And the thing is, we can’t help but be affected by how our loved ones are feeling.
Emotions are powerful – and hearing from our spouse that they are ‘not happy’ can make our stomachs churn with dread.
When we hear something like this, it is often that our first response is to become defensive, invalidate our spouse’s emotions, and ‘fight emotion with emotion’.
Take this example. Todd says to his wife Laura, “I’m just not happy at the moment”.
Laura, who is immediately hit with a wave of fear about what this means, exclaims angrily, “How can you not be happy right now? There is nothing you should be upset about. We’ve just bought a house! You’re just tired from everything that’s been going on at work”.
To this, Todd responds with even more anger; “You’re not listening to me! It’s not about the house or work!”, and storms out of the room.
What happened here?
Todd told his wife Laura that he is not feeling happy. And Laura, rather than accepting that Todd is not feeling happy, got angry herself and told him that this couldn’t be the case and brushed it off as simply being ‘tired from work’.
In doing this, she avoided talking about the real issue, as the fact that Todd may be unhappy in the relationship was likely too painful for her to fathom.
And often, we DON’T want to hear it. We don’t want to accept that our spouse is feeling unhappy, sad, angry, disappointed, or hurt.
Often, during disagreements, we invalidate our spouse’s emotions.
The reason we often react so defensively and deny our spouse’s negative emotions comes down to the fear that these can arise inside us. For example, fear of abandonment and marriage break-up. Fear that your spouse no longer loves you. Fear of being alone.
Hearing that your spouse is feeling (or not feeling) a particular way can feel like a personal attack.
You immediately start making assumptions about yourself being the reason behind these feelings, and then can start thinking defensively that they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling like this, and try to invalidate this emotion. For example, by saying that they have no right to be angry, or they should be happy about something.
Because your spouse feels like you are invalidating the emotions they are feeling, they can become even more angry, frustrated or resentful, such as Todd did in the example above.
In turn, this may cause you to become all the more defensive yourself, and thus the argument continues to escalate. Not to mention that nothing gets resolved, and neither party feels like the other really listened to them.
The thing that can be hard to accept is that feelings are neither right nor wrong, and emotional reactions are not something a person can control. It is the actions that we take as a result of these emotional reactions that are under our control and therefore can be judged by others, not the feelings themselves.
It is up to us to work out WHY we, or our spouses are feeling a certain way, and be able to constructively work out ways that will allow these negative emotions to be reduced.
What you need to do first when your spouse tells you how they are feeling, especially if it is one of these emotions you don’t want to hear, is acknowledge and accept that they are feeling this way, without judgment. And then reflect this understanding back to them.
“Okay, so you’re not feeling happy right now.”
“I understand that you are feeling frustrated”.
Now, the key here is to resist the temptation to add a “But…” onto the end of that sentence.
Because as soon as you add a “But” to the equation, and list off why you don’t understand why they are feeling like that, or why they shouldn’t have reacted that way, you are again invalidating their feelings. And are straight back to square one.
Once you have acknowledged that your spouse is feeling a certain way, it is time to bite the bullet and ask them the reasons why they are feeling this emotion.
“I understand that you’re not feeling happy right now, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Can we talk about why you’re feeling unhappy?”
Once the problem has been identified, you can ask your spouse how they feel this problem could be solved, in order for them to stop feeling angry, sad, or any other negative emotion they may be feeling, and start feeling more positively again. “What would help you to feel happy again?”
Of course, it can be really hard to keep your cool while doing this, when your own emotions are going to be involved. But no matter how much you may disagree with an aspect of your spouse’s behavior, their reasoning, or something they say, you cannot disagree with the EMOTION they are feeling.
Your spouse may even be feeling this emotion as a result of something else that is going on in their life, not their relationship with you. So make sure to always to give your spouse the chance to reflect on why they are feeling a certain way, and try not to jump to any conclusions.
This involves active listening, and allowing your spouse to explain their side of the story completely before it is time to explain yours.
Think about it in reverse. You’re going to be a whole lot more able to have an effective conversation with your spouse if they can accept that you are feeling frustrated without being judgmental. Rather than if they tried to tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling frustrated, or that what you are feeling isn’t actually frustration.
If they can listen to you and try to understand your perspective without interrupting with their own, you’re going to feel like they actually care and are making an effort to understand how you are feeling, even if it is hard for them to hear it.
Therefore, the conversation is likely to be a lot calmer and it is much more likely you are going to get any issues resolved.
Obviously, in a perfect world we would always be feeling happy and loved in our relationships. But that’s not the way it works, is it?