“I think we should get away together. How does next weekend sound?” I asked my wife, Diane. We had had a lot on our plates the previous few months, so I figured it would be a welcome break. I figured she’d be enthusiastic. I figured wrong.
She paused just a little too long before saying, “Well, maybe.”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re very excited about that idea,” I said.
“I am,” she responded with a hint of frustration in her voice. “But I just want to get the deck done.” I began replacing the large wooden deck in our backyard last summer. The process was much more involved than I expected it to be, and my time to work on it had been limited. So months later, it still wasn’t done.
What was my first response to her rejection of my plan to go away for the weekend? I was irritated and wanted to punish her with silence or sarcasm because she had hurt me and had made me upset. But I knew that she couldn’t make me angry. My irritation was just the way I chose to respond to what she said.
We’ve all said, “You make me so mad!” But when we blame others for the way we feel, we’re giving them the ownership of our emotions. That means they’ll become the landlord of our feelings, and we’ll expect them to fix everything.
Renting a house is easier than owning one. But renters aren’t nearly as committed to maintenance and repair, and they’re restricted on making improvements. When someone owns a home, he or she dreams of the possibilities and makes the changes happen. The sky’s the limit — but owners often have to do the work themselves.
Marriages never thrive when spouses rent the relationship, expecting their husband or wife to be responsible for fixing their feelings. If we become the owners of our emotions, we’re free to be co-owners of the relationship. Together with our spouse, we have the potential to build something great.
How do we start? Here are three simple, practical steps to begin the process:
Find the right perspective
Blaming our spouse for the way we feel lets us slip into a victim mentality. Here’s the pattern:
- I feel fine.
- You said or did something, and I don’t feel fine anymore.
- It’s your fault that I don’t feel fine.
- I’m the victim, so you’re the problem.
The truth is that no one can force us to feel. Sure, our husband or wife can do something, and we become angry or frustrated or defeated. It’s not something we planned; it just happened. But what we do next is up to us, not up to our spouse.
It’s the difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is just an emotion. It’s not right or wrong, it just is. Our spouse says or does something, and an emotion pops to the surface. He or she didn’t plant that emotion in us; it was ours.
Often, we assume that we’re stuck with that emotion — that there’s nothing we can do about it. But a response acknowledges that while the emotion is real, we can choose what we do with it. If we stay stuck, we’re waiting for the landlord to do something. But if we take ownership of that feeling, we’re free to move forward in a healthy way.
That’s why two people can be in the same car, stuck in the same traffic jam, late for the same appointment — but one person is upset while the other is calm. What’s the difference? One person is blaming everyone else and the emotion escalates. The other person knows they can’t control the situation, so they choose to control their perspective.
Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation … we are challenged to change ourselves.”
How do we learn to respond instead of react? By changing our perspective. When we feel strong emotion (a reaction), that should be our reminder to slow down and decide what to do next (a response).
Focus on what you can change
Have you ever filled a large tumbler with ice cubes and cool water? The ice cubes melt a bit but then re-form into single blob of ice. When you take a drink, the ice unexpectedly comes crashing forward, soaking you in the process.
In the early days of marriage, we are amazed at all of the wonderful things about our spouse — and we hope they’ll never change. A few years later, all those little, icy irritations build up into an iceberg of frustration — and we wonder if they’ll ever change.
Yes, people can and do change. But anytime our happiness is dependent on others changing, we’re setting the stage for frustration. We’re no longer in control — they are. Healthy relationships happen when two people take responsibility for their own choices.
It’s like playing tennis. I’m responsible for what happens on my side of the court. When the other person serves, I choose what I’m going to do with that serve. But in marriage, it’s tempting to become frustrated with how Diane is playing, and I want to rush to her side of the court and take over. But that’s not my job, and Diane becomes frustrated at my attempts to change what she’s doing.
Owning our emotions means staying on our own side of the court. We can’t force a spouse to change, but the choices we make will influence him or her. There are never guarantees, but there is always hope. When we spend all our time focusing on the faults of others, we don’t have time to work on our own.
The apostle Paul was surprisingly practical in his advice about emotions. He told us not to worry about anything and just pray. That’s good advice, but it can feel trite when we’re in the middle of the emotion. Even if we pray, the emotion still hangs on like the scent of a skunk. That’s why Paul adds a few verses about the need to replace the negative emotion with an intentional focus on things that are true, honest, pure: “Whatever things are true . . . think on these things.” (Philippians 4:4-8)
Choose your words carefully
When we’re feeling strong emotion, our words reveal who owns those emotions:
- “You make me angry” vs. “I’m feeling angry.”
- “You lied to me” vs. “I feel deceived.”
- “You hurt me when you withdrew” vs. “When you withdrew, I felt hurt.”
Blaming our spouse for how we feel usually defaults to criticism. After all, if it’s his or her fault, it makes sense for us to be upset, right? When our husband or wife doesn’t “repent,” we feel even more negative — and our words become sarcastic or cynical.
Here’s the filter, directly from Scripture: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). The first part suggests that it’s often best to simply say nothing and listen intentionally. The second part implies that we’re taking control of our emotions and how we express them.
When a couple has become accustomed to renting their emotions, taking ownership might feel unrealistic. Sure, working through deep-seated issues in a marriage can take time and even require professional help. But taking ownership of one’s emotions can be done by one person making some basic changes. It doesn’t depend on how the other person responds because it’s a matter of taking personal responsibility.
When we take ownership of our own emotions and give up the blame game, we don’t see each other as the problem. Instead, we see each other as a unique, valued partner in a great adventure, and we’ve started the foundation for a world-class relationship.
In case you’re wondering, we didn’t go away that weekend. But we made some great progress on the deck over the next couple of months. It’s not quite done yet, but close enough that we’re heading out of town for a few days next week — and we both feel great about it.
Dr. Mike Bechtle is a sought-after speaker and the author of Dealing With the Elephant in the Room: Moving from tough conversations to healthy communication.
If your marriage is in trouble, our Hope Restored marriage intensives can help put you on the path to hope and healing. Call Focus on the Family at 866-875-2915 or visit HopeRestored.com.