How to Care for 'Negative' Emotions in Your Marriage

husband compassionately holding wife's shoulders
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Emotions were designed by God to have value and purpose; they're not just accidental outcomes of being human. Since emotions have a purpose, they need to be appropriately understood, valued and utilized so you can better understand and care for yourself and know your spouse deeply and relationally.

Women are more likely to admit they have emotions and can usually identify them, but women often have learned through experience to discount any "negative" emotions, thinking they're not supposed to burden anyone with their feelings. A woman can't care for something she's pretending doesn't exist.

Men have strong emotions, too, but their feelings are typically masked by anger or labeled as unmasculine and therefore buried so deep that men aren't aware of them. If a man doesn't even know the emotions exist, he can't care for them.

Talking about emotions in marriage is often neglected because couples have had unpleasant experiences when they've revealed their feelings. For example, if a husband tries to make his wife's emotions go away, he's trying to eliminate an essential part of who the wife is. In essence, the husband is attacking the wife's identity, the core of her being. That's painful, and it's no wonder the wife eventually stops talking about emotions. But when couples avoid talking about emotions, they miss the opportunity to deepen their marriage relationship. Couples should deal head-on with emotions by embracing and understanding them.

Accepting emotions without judgment

If husbands and wives understand that their spouse cares for them, that someone is concerned about what is going on inside them, it sends a clear message that their feelings matter. It's saying, "I want to know what's going on, and I'm not afraid to listen. Your emotions are something for both of us to understand, and your feelings matter to me because you matter to me. I want to hear about it."

What often happens is that someone becomes upset, and the other spouse withdraws until the upset spouse has stuffed the feelings to avoid judgment. But keep in mind that emotions were created by God on purpose, with purpose. So even "negative" emotions have purpose, giving couples the best opportunity for developing an intimate connection. Sharing joy unifies people; sharing grief, fear or shame cements them together. Don't be wary of powerful emotions; embrace them as assets to developing closeness and connection.

Emotions are information

Emotions are morally neutral data — neither good nor bad. Learning this can help you draw closer to your spouse. It frees husbands and wives to discuss feelings without fear of value judgments. If emotions are just bits of information, you can't talk about them in terms of being good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.

Here's an example: If a husband feels lonely because his wife has taken a new, exciting job with a longer commute time, it doesn't necessarily mean he's a jerk for not supporting her career. It might just mean he's lonely, period. He shouldn't be shamed for experiencing loss. Likewise if a wife takes a lot of time to get ready for church on Sunday morning and she's sometimes late, it doesn't mean she's disrespecting the worship service. It might mean she just has a desire to look her best. A husband should appreciate that and not devalue that desire.

Emotions — especially fear, pain and grief — inform us what's going on in our inner life: what we need, what we want and where we struggle. In a marriage, spouses need to help each other discover and meet their emotional needs.

After couples are able to talk about those emotions and identify those needs, they can develop an appropriate strategy in response to the emotions. It's similar to knowing to bring an umbrella when the forecast is for rain.

Good plans usually require spouses to care for each other. For example, a strategy to help the husband who feels lonely because his wife is gone for longer than she used to be would require his wife to suggest ways to spend more time with him or to invest in the relationship in other ways. The husband wants his wife to give something; she can meet his emotional need. The wife who wants to look her best for church may need her husband to pick up some of the duties on Sunday morning. To have her emotional need met, the wife desires her husband's help.

Following up on the plan

The plan to address the emotional need, want or struggle should be implemented in a timely way. If the supporting spouse doesn't act on the plan, it's useless. Worse, it sets up a pattern of eroding trust. For example, if the wife won't schedule more date nights with the husband, he will not only feel ignored but also disrespected and unloved. He will learn to avoid sharing his emotions with his wife.

If any one of those parts of the emotional care system — identifying, planning or following up — is missing, your relationship will be severely handicapped. If they are in place, however, your marriage can thrive.

Robert S. Paul, licensed professional counselor, is vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. He is the director and creator of the Hope Restored marriage intensive counseling program and is a co-author of The DNA of Relationships for Couples.

Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.

© 2018 Focus on the Family.

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