Build a stronger connection by being emotionally safe for your spouse

Feeling frustrated with your spouse?  Basically, you want your marriage to work out.  But you’ve tried things to make it better, and now – well, maybe you’re more cynical than you’d like to admit.

One of the problems? You just seem to keep tripping into and over each other’s emotions.  Using a weather system to describe the two of you, it’s either cold, or the storms just keep blowing in.

What do you do when you can’t seem to get on the same page?

Maybe emotional safety is something you need to pay more attention to.  I’ve taken an excerpt from my book Before You Split[1]to offer some thoughts on whether it’s possible to move closer, rather than moving on.

Here it is…

When I worked as a pharmacist, I attended a lecture by a respected palliative-care physician. He talked about his tendency to have a very clinical approach as a doctor. He didn’t demonstrate his own emotions while he was treating patients in his early years.

He dedicated his life to them by offering skilled diagnoses and the best treatments available. But he gradually recognized that he came across as being cold and uncaring, which didn’t line up with his approach to practice. After all, he was passionate about providing excellent care for his patients.

His advice carried a lasting impact:

By responding and reacting to your patient’s emotions, even if you only say a few words, you will come across as being warm and caring. If you skim over them and don’t respond, you’ll be perceived as cold and indifferent. For example, when your patient goes through the emotional shock of their diagnosis, don’t ignore their emotion. Respond to it. Say something like, “It’s so difficult to get this news. I feel for you. It’s normal to cry…”

If you respond and react to your patient’s emotions instead of ignoring them, you are forging a closer relationship.

The same is true of marriage. If you like memory aids, here’s one that fits: Showing your spouse you care builds the bond you share. In other words, making the effort to read your spouse’s emotions and body language, and responding to their emotion—by validating it—will help build a closer emotional connection between you.

This opens up the vast subject of emotional intelligence. Put into simple terms, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to be aware of, to control, and to express your emotions, and to perceive and respond to the emotions of others, using both good judgment and empathy.

Just as the doctor learned, hearing the other person’s emotions and accepting them at face value as legitimate, as well as acknowledging that he hears them, brings trust and respect into a relationship. Even if you aren’t sure you do, you have a need to be heard and understood emotionally—and so does your spouse.

Perhaps your spouse—or you—are more melodramatic where emotions are concerned, and it gets exhausting to “buy into” what you perceive as over-the-top emotions. But what if you took a moment to notice their emotion and validate it? Don’t judge whether the emotion is right or wrong. Don’t argue about it either. Just say, “It seems like you’re angry/afraid/sad [or whatever the emotion]. Tell me more.” Simply acknowledge your partner’s emotion for what it is.

If you find reading your spouse’s emotions, and accepting them without judging is a challenge, join the club. For most of us, it is! But it’s worth the effort, and fortunately, this is a learnable skill.

Our emotional intelligence is not static or beyond our control. It isn’t an unchangeable part of us, like our height. We can hone our emotional intelligence through practice and reps, just as we build muscle by lifting weights.[2]

That’s good news because let’s face it: dealing with kids, work pressures, community or volunteer activities, and marriage means that we all are challenged sometimes to respond to our husband or wife’s emotions in a way that feels safe for them. In marriage, to build an authentic connection, each spouse needs to be emotionally safe for the other.

If you find reading your spouse’s emotions, and accepting them without judging is a challenge, join the club. For most of us, it is! But it’s worth the effort, and fortunately, this is a learnable skill. Click To Tweet

Carey and I had to learn the hard way how to be emotionally safe for each other. Carey’s personality is highly energetic, while I tend to dole out energy like it’s a scarce resource. He becomes frustrated when there’s an obstacle between him and his achievable goal. I feel a sense of dread when faced with something on my to-do list after my physical and emotional reserves are depleted.

So late one evening, Carey began to hang window blinds in our bedroom. He needed my help, but I was ready to fall into bed. Our emotions quickly fired up. I felt I didn’t have it in me to hang the blinds, even though earlier we’d agreed we would do it that day.

I felt criticized for being drained. Carey felt judged for being frustrated about ditching our plan. We lacked insight into how our emotions were mirroring our wirings. We both held that sense of injustice about being judged for how we felt, which only pulled us further apart. We needed to learn how to be emotionally present and safe with each other.

Acclaimed researcher Dr. Sue Johnson teaches couples how to be emotionally present with each other to build a stronger connection. She stresses that couples need to slow down to listen to each other and respond to each other’s emotions with compassion and not defensiveness or judgment.

This is important to a relationship, because our surface conflict may be driven by our basic human need for our loved ones to be present with our emotions without criticizing them. When people lash out at each other, often underneath they have hurts related to feeling rejected or fears of abandonment. And when a spouse criticizes or judges, those hurts and fears feel more legitimized, and the couple’s connection takes a hit.

Dr. Johnson leads couples to feel more strongly connected by being open and vulnerable, listening to each other and responding to the other’s emotions. She remarks that by doing so, “they have the ability to de-escalate conflicts. But more than that, every time they do this, they are creating a platform of safety on which they can stand to manage the deep emotions that are part of love.”[3]

What does an emotionally safe conversation look like? Marriage counselor Dr. Tim Lane uses the following conversations to demonstrate the difference between passes and fails in how one spouse responds to the other’s venting at the end of a day:

 

Case Number 1

Andy is upset because his life is a roller coaster of workplace politics. When he comes home at the end of the day, he likes to debrief with his wife, Melissa, who is also arriving home from work.

Fail:

Andy: You wouldn’t believe what happened today! Jeremy went behind my back and [blocked] a change that I had put in place to increase our department’s efficiency. It drives me crazy the way he does this. It feels disrespectful. He reports to me.

Melissa: Well, Andy, you should know by now that he is going to do that. Can’t you just confront him? I mean, it is really that simple. I think you should send an email to him saying that you need to talk to him. Don’t put it off… Let him know who is in charge. If you don’t do it now, it will just get worse… (blah…blah…blah).

Andy: (Dead silence…)

Pass!:

Andy: You wouldn’t believe what happened today! Jeremy went behind my back and [blocked] a change that I had put in place to increase our department’s efficiency. It drives me crazy the way he does this. It feels disrespectful. He reports to me.

Melissa: Oh no, this happened again? I am so sorry you had to experience that… . You must really be upset.

Andy: Thank you so much for understanding. Sometimes I just need to share my frustrations, and it helps me to know that you are there for me. I may want to talk with you later tonight once we get the kids to bed. I could use your insight.

 

Case Number 2

Sara has been home all day taking care of their five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. When her husband, Dan, comes home, she shares some of her struggles that she has encountered throughout the day.

Fail:

Sara: You wouldn’t believe what kind of day I have had. First, Johnny vomited three times from a stomach virus that came out of nowhere. And Jessica has been at it again with her strong-willed nature, pushing all of my buttons. I am exhausted!

Dan: You know, it’s so hard to come in the front door every day after I’ve been at work and listen to you complain about the kids. You need to have a firmer handle on caring for them. I have a job too, but I don’t come home complaining about everything that is on my plate… (blah…blah…blah).

Sara: (Silently cries)

Pass!:

Sara: You wouldn’t believe what kind of day I have had. First, Johnny vomited three times from a stomach virus that came out of nowhere. And Jessica has been at it again with her strong-willed nature, pushing all of my buttons. I am exhausted!

Dan: Wow! What a day it has been for you! That’s a bummer about Johnny. Is he okay? And I’m sorry you had to deal with Jessica pushing your buttons all day while that was going on. How can I help?

Sara: I am so glad you are home! I know you’ve had a long day too, but I really could use some help. Thanks![iv]

While on their own even the fails may not appear to be marriage breakers, the cumulative effects of failing to respond in a compassionate way to your partner’s emotions will wear and tear on your connection. It will push you apart instead of drawing you closer.

 

If you’re like the typical couple, your natural wiring is not the same. You both may react very differently to the same circumstance. So ask yourself: Am I willing to make space in our relationship for our differences? Can I view my spouse’s strengths with admiration and weaknesses through eyes of compassion?

Being emotionally present and responsive may not be your natural modus operandi. I grew up in a family environment where emotions weren’t acknowledged or managed well. But as I said, your emotional capability is a skill you can learn.

When your partner is emoting, don’t jump to be self-defensive or critical. And for sure, don’t jump to the “logical” thing to do, even if solutions seem dead obvious to you. Try to understand their emotion from their perspective, and show you care when your spouse is hurting. Once you’ve sat with their emotion and acknowledged it, maybe your next step is simply to ask, “How can I help?”

You may be wondering, What if my spouse is emoting so much that I’m overwhelmed? There’s so much emotion coming at me, I can’t handle it anymore! When you’ve listened and validated your spouse’s emotions and refrained from judging them—after you’ve done what you can to help, and there’s still more anger or fear or sadness—then maybe something else is going on.

Am I willing to make space in our relationship for our differences? Can I view my spouse’s strengths with admiration and weaknesses through eyes of compassion? Click To Tweet

In a calm way, be honest with your spouse about how you feel. Propose that you search together for more insight into where all that emotion is coming from. Encourage your spouse to reach out for help and explain that the weight of it is too much for you to carry all by yourselves. That’s fair. A spouse isn’t designed to bear the full emotional burden of the other’s brokenness.

We’re meant to be part of a community that’s larger than just two people. You know the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Well, it applies to marriage too: it takes a village to raise a marriage. Even if your husband or wife doesn’t see the need, don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you need in managing this situation. Don’t think twice about seeking help from a marriage therapist, psychologist, or a medical professional.

 

 

[1] Excerpted from Before You Split: Find What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage. Authored by Toni Nieuwhof. Copyright © 2021 by Carey Nieuwhof Communications Ltd. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

    [2]  For more information, see Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More than IQ.

    [3]  Dr. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (New York: Hachette Book Group Digital Inc., 2008), 134–8.

[iv] These examples are taken from Tim Lane, “Marriage and Emotional Intelligence,” Tim Lane and Associates blog, September 5, 2017, http://timlane.org/blog/marriage-and-emotional-intelligence. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

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