Okay, we’ve all had those conversations. You know the ones. We need to talk about something important with our spouse – a concern, a frustration, or some other issue – and it ends up going south. We both end up angry, we feel unheard and unloved, and the issue is never resolved. And more times than not, it’s not what we say that cause the trouble.
It’s how we say it.
Over time, we learn not to bring certain things up. I believe every couple has what I call “The Bottom 10%.” These are conversations we’ve learned over time not to have. It’s not safe, we both end up angry, so we just try and avoid it. The list of “Bottom 10%” conversation are endless. Finances, sex, parenting, in-laws, you name it.
But what if we could have those conversations and resolve them in a healthy way? A way where both couples feel heard and neither party ends up angry.
It is possible.
But we have to understand the complex issue of how we handle emotion. Here’s what I mean. Anger is a power emotion, a secondary emotion, that’s typically tied to a weaker emotion underneath the anger. We don’t like to feel or process weak emotions, so we revert, almost automatically, to anger. It feels more powerful to feel angry, than to feel a weaker emotion like sadness or shame or disappointment. But if we can learn to stay in the weak emotion, we can communicate more clearly, and in a way that our spouse can hear us.
Here’s an incomplete list of weaker emotions that we must learn to acknowledge and then respond from so we can achieve resolution to the real issues: Fear, worry, sadness, helplessness, overwhelmed, betrayed, hurt, injustice, embarrassed, ashamed, insecure, threatened, powerless, confused, rejected, unappreciated, unloved, unforgiven, failure, abandoned, guilt, regret, dumb, or disrespected. The list is pretty much endless. But if you can identify the weaker emotion that is making you revert to anger, you can communicate to your spouse from the weaker emotion and dramatically change the nature of the conversation.
Here’s how to do it. Always begin the conversation with “I” not “you.” When you start a conversation with “you” it puts the other person in defensive mode immediately. And suddenly, the living room becomes the courtroom, with one person being the prosecutor and the other the defendant. Not good. Instead, say something like, “I feel, or I’m concerned, or I’m experiencing…” This allows your spouse to hear the weaker emotion your feeling and it creates a sense of compassion or empathy instead of angry defensiveness.
For instance, you’re feeling worried or disappointed about how finances are being used. When you start the conversation with, “You’re spending too much money! We’re never going to be able to maintain our budget if you keep spending out of control’ your spouse understandably feels defensive and is more likely to come back with an angry rebuttal, often about how you’re spending money.
Instead, begin the conversation with, “I feel worried about our finances. I know we want to be able to help with our child’s college education, but I’m worried we won’t be able to unless we make some changes in our spending. Are you feeling some of the same concerns?” (By the way, notice how I said “we” are spending. Again, this keeps you in a position of “we,” instead of “me” against “you.”) This then gives your spouse the opportunity to share their feelings, also staying in the weak emotion. “Yeah, I’m feeling a little embarrassed about some of my purchases. I realize they’re probably not helping us achieve our goal of the college fund. I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to do better.”
If both parties are able to stay in the weak emotion, without powering up into the secondary emotion of anger, the conversation can be radically different and resolve can be achieved. By the way, never be afraid to say the words, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” These are five of the most powerful words in any relationship.
If you’ll intentionally use this tool over and over again in your marriage, new neural pathways can be formed in your communication patterns and you’ll find that you can have any conversation, even the “Bottom 10% ones, without becoming angry.
We’ll be sharing these kind of communication tips at the upcoming Cove Church Marriage Momentum Weekend, September 28-29 at Lake Guntersville State Park. I hope you’ll join us for a great weekend of learning to love your spouse well. You can get all the details and registration information at our secure website here: https://brucewmartin.com/marriage-cove/