For those of us raising families, the anxiety and busyness can ratchet to extremely high levels. My wife, Erin, is always on the go. You have to be when you’re a therapist, a writer, a speaker and a mother of four. And then she has to deal with me! It’s not easy, and sometimes I tell her to just relax as I rub her shoulders. Or I encourage her to just relax when I give her a gift card to her favorite day spa.
But while the word relax is useful and appropriate sometimes, there’s a time not to use it — and it’s during an argument. I learned this the hard way recently (after just 27 years of marriage).
Erin and I were having a (cough, cough) “discussion.” It progressed like a fairly innocuous conversation at first. But suddenly Erin’s energy escalated — and the emotional stakes did, too.
What just happened? I wondered. Wanting to de-escalate the energy level, I told her to “just relax.”
It had the exact opposite effect. Instead of making her less agitated, Erin’s muscles tensed, her breathing quickened and her face went red with anger.
I remembered something important in that moment: Telling someone to calm down — to “just relax” — when they’re agitated doesn’t work. It might not even be humanly possible. (Physiologically, it can take several hours to return to a relaxed state.) But emotionally, when you say, “Just relax,” the person you’re talking to hears something different: I’m not taking you seriously. So they feel the need to raise the intensity level a notch or two to make sure you do.
The problems with ‘just relax’
So why do we keep telling someone to just relax when it doesn’t work? Because it makes us feel better.
I placed the blame solely on Erin — the one who was “not relaxed.” Things work out better for me when I attribute the problem to Erin. Then I don’t need to deal with my contribution to the situation.
The phrase “just relax” (or its siblings “calm down,” “chill out” or “lighten up”) may seem like I’m taking care of Erin: After all, her skyrocketing blood pressure and anger can’t be good for her physical, emotional or mental health, right? Wrong! In that moment, I’m not trying to help Erin feel better; instead, I want her less agitated so I feel better. Saying, “Just relax” isn’t caretaking; it’s just taking, not caring. I attempt to control Erin because her emotional intensity makes me feel uncomfortable.
When we tell our wife to “just relax,” we’re really communicating, You’re just being silly or You’re crazy for overreacting. This comes across as demeaning and judgmental: Your emotional intensity is unjustified, so you need to stop!
It also implies that you don’t care. Whatever has you so upset isn’t really that important to me, we’re suggesting.
This condescension implies that your calm and collected state is right and their emotional intensity is wrong. You come across as superior and arrogant. And pride will always lead to more conflict (Proverbs 13:10). The Bible makes it clear that God opposes the proud (James 4:6) … and your spouse will certainly oppose your pride, too.
Naked and unafraid
The goal during conflict is not to win. As husbands, we need to help our wife feel safe — free to be vulnerable and express emotions without fear of judgment or manipulation. It’s the same idea of Adam and Eve being “naked and unashamed” in the Garden (Genesis 2:25). In marriage, being “naked” isn’t just about nudity (Do I have every husband’s attention now?). Being naked is also emotional — deeply knowing your spouse and allowing your spouse to fully know you.
But intimacy requires vulnerability and risk. This is the dilemma in marriage. To reach the most profound levels of intimacy and connection, you must give your wife access to the most vulnerable part of yourself — your heart. And there’s no guarantee how she’ll handle your heart. Once open, will you be unconditionally loved and accepted? After seeing the real you — all your flaws, imperfections, embarrassing stories and past mistakes — will you be cherished and protected?
One of the greatest relationship truths I’ve learned is that a heart opens when people feel safe. This is why your marriage needs to feel like the safest place on earth.
So how do you define emotional safety? I explain emotional safety as feeling free to open your heart and be fully known, and knowing that your spouse will unconditionally love, accept and cherish you. You feel safe with someone when you believe that they will handle your heart — that deepest and most vulnerable part of you — with the utmost caution and care. If you want your wife to be emotionally vulnerable — to let you see the real her (warts and all) — then you need to focus on creating safety. You want her to be “naked and unafraid.”
Creating emotional safety in marriage
But how do you go about creating this safe space? Instead of saying, “Just relax,” how can you make her feel truly relaxed and comfortable to share herself with you? You need to take two steps to create safe conflict.
First, think about why these emotional confrontations feel so uncomfortable to you. Did your parents fight in unhealthy ways? Or maybe you never saw your parents argue, so you have no idea how to deal with intense emotions. Perhaps you quickly withdraw around difficult emotions. Whatever the case, own your discomfort.
Second, when emotions become intense during an argument, try to understand why your wife feels the way she’s feeling instead of trying to control her emotional state or telling her how to feel.
This is a powerful way to lead amid conflict. You’re communicating, I want to understand you before being understood. You can say something like, “Help me understand what’s going on for you right now.”
To the best of your ability, focus on her emotions and her reactions. Focus on the emotional buttons that have been triggered. “It seems like you’re feeling misunderstood,” you could suggest. Or say, “Help me understand what the emotional intensity is about for you. What are you feeling?” When someone puts a name to how they’re feeling, they tend to feel calmer.
Then remind her that you’re a team. Say, “I can see that this is upsetting to you and I want to figure this out together — as a team.” When she feels that you’re her partner, not her adversary, this can help diffuse the situation. Remember Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
What if my wife does need to just relax?
“But what if she really does need to relax and calm down?” men ask me. Here’s the thing: It’s not your job to regulate your wife’s emotional intensity. That’s her job. Your job is to care about how she feels and better understand her concerns.
That said, it’s never OK for your wife to express her feelings at your expense (or for you to express your feelings at her expense). If her emotional intensity is too overwhelming or becomes abusive, tell her, “Your intensity is making it difficult for me to listen and understand you. I’ll take a break, but I’ll be back and we can finish our conversation later.”
It’s good to relax — but it’s never good to try to force someone to relax. By understanding why your wife reacted with intensity, you stand a much better chance of dealing with conflict, moving to resolution and finding a place where you both can relax … together.
Other things you should never say to your wife
- “You’re crazy.”
- “Is it that time of the month?”
- “I’ll get to it later.”
- “You should have asked for help.”
- “You’re acting like your mother.”
- “You look fine.”
- “You’re so emotional.”
- “I told you so.”
- “Stop being such a nag.”
- “This is exactly what my mother warned me about.”