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Understanding Your Feelings to Stay Connected In Your Marriage

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Photo illustration of a troubled-looking husband and wife adrift in separate row boats, symbolizing relationship problems.
Tanya Cooper
We can improve our ability to control our emotions. The skills we develop can make us more aware of what we are feeling, which can help us break the cycles in the way we interact with our spouse.

Jan and I were very young when we got married — and we had a rough start. We developed a pattern of behaviors early in our marriage: When we hit a problem, we reacted. That reaction would begin with me getting upset and Jan going quiet. The more upset I would become, the more Jan would shut down. And the more she shut down, the more upset I would become. It didn’t take long before she would leave the house.

I would worry about her, so I’d go looking for her. Then (the way I remember it) I would apologize, and we would go home. Nothing more was said about what had happened. We had no idea what to do with our difficult emotions. We both grew up in homes where we never saw our parents have a conflict. If they did have one, we didn’t see it. So how to manage emotions was never modeled for us.

Since that time, as I’ve counseled couples, I’ve come to realize that what Jan and I experienced wasn’t really that unusual — we were maybe just a little more intense about it than most couples.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence. In it, he made the distinction between the measure of our thinking — as determined by our intelligence quotient (IQ) — and the measure of our emotions. He clarified that IQ is a genetic quality that doesn’t change much over our lifetime. It is not based on how much we have learned but describes our ability to learn. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is based on how skillful we are in understanding and managing our emotions. Unlike our IQ, we can grow and develop our emotional quotient (EQ).

Growing our EQ starts with the understanding that our emotions are never bad or wrong. If we become angry about something, for example, that emotion is intended to serve a purpose — perhaps to protect us or to register a protest about something. The same is true of other emotions — they each have a positive purpose. The problem comes when we hold on to an emotion beyond its intended purpose. We may escalate the emotion, become controlled by that emotion or sit in silence fighting off the feelings attached to that emotion. None of those options help to manage what we are feeling.

But as we learn more about emotions and practice a few techniques, we can improve our ability to control our emotions. The skills we develop can make us instantly aware of what we are feeling as we begin to feel it. This emotional identification can help us learn how to break the cycles that are so entrenched in the way we interact with our spouse.

3 Ways to Boost Your EQ

The first step to a healthy emotional relationship with your spouse is self-awareness. The goal is to deepen your knowledge of yourself, especially as it relates to your emotional self. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

Determine your basic emotional posture

We all have a reactive response to stress, when in a microsecond we experience a basic emotion. This is called a basic emotional posture (BEP). Some of us, when stressed, have a BEP of being angry and irritable. Others may approach life from a fearful, anxious posture. There are also those who are more melancholic, seeing life through a generalized sadness, while others are always fighting with themselves over unresolved guilt or shame. Take some time to identify what you think your BEP might be.

Think about your feelings

Whenever we get caught up in our BEP, there is always an internal dialogue going on that fuels the out-of-control emotional response. So think about what you’re thinking whenever you experience a feeling. What are the internal conversations you have with yourself related to those feelings? It’s never easy to define exactly what you say to yourself when you have a particular feeling, especially one associated with your BEP. Because that response is almost automatic, we have to slow the process down by deliberately thinking about it. Writing about our emotions can help us understand them, too.

Understand the roots of your feelings

Everyone has emotional sore spots. And they are called buttons because it is easy for someone else — especially our spouse — to push them. When your buttons are pushed, you suddenly become overwhelmed by negative emotions, especially defensive anger.

But you can work to better understand the roots of your vulnerable spots and make changes that will help you. Here is a map for how to reprogram your emotional buttons:

  1. Talk with your spouse about what you think your buttons are. Listen to what your spouse thinks. In doing this, you bring the mechanism of the buttons out into the open — into the conscious zone.
  2. Trace back in your memory to earlier experiences of reacting, or wanting to react, when someone pushed your buttons. How far back can you remember?
  3. Identify the primary person who made that vulnerable spot so raw and placed it in your emotional programming.
  4. Seek to understand what was broken in that person’s life that caused him or her to act that way.
  5. Talk with your young self in your imagination. Continue the conversation verbally with your spouse. Comfort that young part of you that has been hurt so it can be released to become part of the grown-up you.

When we understand the emotional roots of our behaviors and how we develop our automatic responses, we are gradually able to manage our reactions. Then we can begin to respond to situations without being controlled by either anger or fear.

Five Competencies of Emotional Intelligence

As Jan and I began to understand emotional intelligence more, we identified five competencies that relate to the emotional experience of marriage. We arranged them in a way that would be easy to remember by using the letters S-M-A-R-T:

  1. Self-aware of emotionsSelf-awareness is the starting point. It involves being able to clearly articulate our values; know what’s really important in our lives; understand our tendencies in certain situations; and identify our dreams, goals and desires for our future. It’s the ability to fully know ourselves from the inside out.
  2. Manage emotionsManaging our emotions is a matter of resolving the battle between the emotional part of our brain and the reasoning part of our brain and somehow calling a truce — or better yet, finding balance. When we actively choose how we are going to act when we feel a certain emotion, we create a growing sense of integrity, comfort and fairness in our marriage. We can also experience a greater degree of mutual respect.
  3. Accountable to myself, to my spouse and to other couplesAccountability begins by holding ourselves accountable for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. From that foundation, we learn to be accountable to our spouse out of love for him or her. And if we’re a wise couple, we go a step further and bring in third parties — other trusted couples to whom we are mutually accountable.
  4. Read the other person’s emotionsEQ competency is essentially the ability to be empathetic. Understanding our spouse’s perspective in a situation requires that we know our own emotional world and are able to separate our emotions and expectations from those of our husband or wife. It is a shared process of listening and responding while we suspend our own personal biases so that we can share in our spouse’s personal world.
  5. Together, comfortable with emotionsFor us to relate emotionally, we have to be connected with our spouse. So to succeed in marriage requires that we resolve an internal conflict: How can I be connected with my spouse and yet still be me? This internal conflict means that we sometimes move toward our spouse to connect but at the same time feel we should move away to protect our autonomy. We must move to where we can be emotional with each other in an empathic way while being more confident in our autonomy because we are comfortable in our emotions.

Dr. David Stoop is a clinical psychologist and an ordained minister. Dr. Jan Stoop is a counselor and seminar speaker. Together they have written more than 30 books, including Smart Love.

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