Tag Archives: Emotional Intelligence

How to Respond to Your Emotional Spouse Without Making Things Worse

mirroring and building rapport with others

(Image/cristianobaraghini.it)

More often than not, when my wife reacted emotionally to anything—something I said or did; something on TV; something that happened at work, whatever—my gut reaction was to think of her response as an overreaction.

This was not me intentionally trying to demean or disrespect her. This was my honest, natural, and I believed—objective—reaction to whatever she was saying or doing that I perceived to be disproportionate to whatever triggered the emotional response.

I was using commonplace, relationship-killing invalidation methods, but I wasn’t doing so maliciously. Never.

I don’t like injustice. So if my wife told me a story about how a co-worker or client had upset her earlier in the day, and I agreed with the offending co-worker or client, I would say so. I was sharing my honest opinions and feelings, and believed that happy, healthy marriages were built on such things.

When my wife would act pissy because I wasn’t taking her side, I was once again appalled by the notion that my wife would rather me dishonestly side with her than share my actual beliefs.

Lastly, I felt protective of my wife. Loved her and wanted her to be the best, healthiest, smartest, most balanced person she could be. I felt morally and lovingly obligated to point out that I thought many of these situations were beneath her.

Babe. You are very smart. You are very talented. You are very decent. I wish you wouldn’t let these inconsequential things negatively affect how you feel. If you learn to see them as minor nuisances rather than these big, day-ruining things, then moving forward you will have more good days and feel happy.

I believed these were honest thoughts and feelings, and that sharing them with my wife was not only appropriate, but that I was offering her a path to feeling more peace and joy in her life.

But then, of course, in all of my blind ignorance, my marriage continued to slowly—very slowly—deteriorate, one dinner or car-ride conversation like this at a time, until it felt like my wife hated me, and we spent more than a year sleeping in separate bedrooms until she finally ended it for good.

The entire time, me thinking she was emotionally broken—that her internal calibration was misaligned—and that once she made a few subtle adjustments, she would feel better, and then we could get back to having that marriage we both believed we were signing up for.

The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test

If you’ve read this far, and you are in 100-percent lockstep philosophical agreement with how I processed and responded to my wife sharing her emotions with me during our marriage, then I think it’s safe to assume you have a lot of conflict in your romantic relationships.

If you agree with my good-hearted, well-intentioned approach to supporting my wife in my now-failed marriage, or are married to (or dating) someone who behaves as I did, I bet you have The Same Fight, which produce the same toxic feelings of stress and anxiety, tones of voice, and emotionally unpleasant results over and over again. I assume you are incredibly frustrated with your failure to make progress in these conversations, because you are stuck in this conflict cycle that won’t stop repeating itself.

Most of us are familiar with the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, but fewer of us, it seems, are familiar with the Emotional Quotient, or EQ—the measure of a person’s emotional intelligence.

While IQ can help you solve advanced math theorems or learn a foreign language, it’s EQ that will determine the quality and fate of your romantic and interpersonal relationships.

Here’s a Mind Tool for Connecting with Your Emotional Partner and Ending the Fight Cycle

This is not exclusively a male behavior—this attempt to “correct” or “adjust” someone else’s emotional reactions—but it’s most typically seen in men, which is why we have the stereotype of men frustrated by their overly emotional wives or girlfriends.

The majority of my male coaching clients report feeling this same sense of helplessness with their wives.

“Suddenly, she’s mad about something again, and I don’t even know what I did wrong. It’s like nothing I do is ever good enough for her.”

Right now, some of you guys are nodding. I am too. This is exactly how I felt when I was married. Like I could never win. And I didn’t understand why my efforts to help my wife feel better only seemed to make her feel worse.

Men in this scenario have an opportunity (responsibility?) to adjust their response habits to their relationship partners during these conversations and situations, and many will discover that by doing so, these emotionally volatile, conflict-heavy discussions will lessen in both frequency and severity, leading to two partners increasing their connection and moving closer together instead of drifting further apart.

Here’s where I was getting it wrong, and where you (or your partner) may also be getting it wrong.

When my wife started reacting emotionally to something, my first reaction was to evaluate the situation and determine whether I would react the same way to that same scenario. I was very good at empathizing with people whenever I recognized that I would feel just like them if I had gone through what they had.

But my wife would typically react to things in ways that I would not.

And my VERY FIRST ACTION was to decide that her reaction was disproportionate to whatever had happened. Another way to say that is that my very first move was to determine that my wife was wrong, incorrect, mistaken, misinformed, ignorant, crazy, or emotionally weak to be acting the way she was.

Imagine that every time you told your spouse that something made you mad, sad, or hurt, they told you were wrong—that you either didn’t know how you really felt because you were confused, or that you were incorrect for feeling as you did. That you’re too dumb to know that none of that stuff matters.

Imagine that when you told them that THEY were saying or doing things that resulted in you feeling shitty, that they DEFENDED and JUSTIFIED their actions, all but ensuring that in the future—both short-term and long-term—you could count on feeling shitty because of your partner’s actions over and over again.

What they did wasn’t bad or wrong! YOUR feelings and opinions are what’s bad and wrong! So you just go ahead and fix whatever is wrong with your brain and body chemistry, and then you won’t have to feel bad anymore!

Imagine it.

When a person tells you that something you did or said caused them pain, and then you respond in ways that essentially promise you will repeat that pain-causing behavior because you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it? It makes perfect sense for that person to hurriedly remove you from their life.

We should not allow people to hurt us after they refuse to stop doing something we have repeatedly asked them to stop doing. Those people should not be granted permission to continue torpedoing our lives.

It’s this inclination to match or compare how we would react to certain events that creates conflict with our partners.

I ask my coaching clients who report this conflict pattern in their relationships to cut that shit out, stat.

Instead of matching or comparing their predicted reaction to an identical scenario, I ask them to reverse-engineer it.

I ask them to match or compare their current emotional state to that of their partner’s.

Psychologists call it emotional mirroring. I’m not asking people to intentionally make themselves feel sad or angry. I’m simply asking them to swap out the thing they’re currently comparing for something else that will foster positive emotional connectivity, which is often what’s missing in conflict-heavy relationships.

It’s not useful to waste the time debating the merits of whether they SHOULD feel as they feel. They DO feel as they feel.

Deal in reality. And an effective emotionally intelligent response to someone in pain, or who feels sad or angry, is to match or compare YOUR emotions to THEIRS.

They’re sad. Should they be sad? WHO CARES? They ARE sad. What makes you sad? What happened the last time you were sad? What behaviors and words are consistent with what feels appropriate when you’re in that state?

They’re angry. Should they be angry? Doesn’t matter. They ARE angry. What makes you angry? Can you remember the last time you were really angry and your entire body felt shitty? What could your wife or friend or whoever have said or done to help?

Trying to correct someone else’s emotions is a recipe for DESTROYING your relationship with them.

Instead, attempt to evoke that same emotion. Notice how they feel. Communicate that you understand that they’re feeling that, and that you know it sucks. Communicate that what they think and feel MATTERS, because THEY matter. Communicate that you’re there to be whatever version of a support system they need to get through whatever is happening.

If it’s something you said or did to trigger those feelings, DO NOT attempt to defend or justify whatever happened. Do not double down on the thing that’s causing all of this suck. Seek to understand both WHAT and WHY something hurt. Communicate that you want to be their teammate—their partner—in cooperatively finding new ways to say and do things so that the shitty thing doesn’t repeat itself.

After a competitive sporting event like a football game, all of the viewers, fans, and participants have WILDLY different reactions.

The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.

The losing players, coaches, and fans are sad or angry.

Some neutral viewers didn’t experience any emotion at all.

You can see the lunacy in any of those people acting as if others should share their identical emotional reaction, yes? OF COURSE losing players and fans are typically going to feel shittier than winning players and fans.

Same event. Different reactions.

Just as contextually, all of those different reactions make sense when you understand things from their perspective, we’ll discover that people reacting emotionally to something in ways that might be foreign or surprising to us ALSO have a very sensible, understandable reason for responding that way.

If you’re interested in loving, living with, sleeping with, sharing resources with, this other human being who behaves differently than you would, I think you’ll find it incredibly useful to seek out those reasons for this surprising reaction. That’s information you’ll be able to use to NOT say and do things that lead to your partner (or anyone you care about) feeling hurt and mistreated.

Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.

And the adjustments we must make in our minds and hearts are equally subtle and nuanced.

It’s not hard because it’s especially difficult to do any of this stuff. It’s hard because we frequently struggle to notice, to see, to recognize these moments for what they are.

Good news: We can do hard things.

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Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When it Feels Like Nothing Happened

Did you almost cry but pretend like you weren’t because crying over a volleyball feels REALLY stupid when you watched our boy Tom lose his only friend in the movie “Cast Away”? Whatever. That’s what I did. (Image/newsmov.biz)

I almost wrote something outrageous about how Galileo Galilei’s and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion was effing up relationships.

The first law of motion—also called the “law of inertia”—states that a body or object at rest remains at rest, and that a body or object in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.

Or, in regular-speak: If shit doesn’t happen, nothing changes. At least that’s how I always thought about it. If I set a lamp on a bedroom nightstand and never touch it, the expectation is that the lamp will sit still—right there—forever.

Applying that to my marriage, I believed stillness—inactivity or uneventfulness such as going several days or weeks without an argument or negative incident—while not necessarily a positive, was at worst—a non-event. Harmless. Benign. Safe.

If my wife was watching something on HGTV in the living room, and I was watching basketball in the basement rec room, NOTHING was happening. Thus, in my brain, nothing bad happened.

I was going to quibble immaturely with Galileo and Newton. I was going to say that their laws of motion don’t apply to movement within our human relationships.

But then I realized I was the one getting it wrong (shock).

The laws of motion absolutely apply to our relationships. My mistake was thinking of the people in the relationship as being still.

If they were still—then nothing happening would be totally harmless.

But they’re not still. In our relationships, we are not at rest. We are CONSTANTLY adrift, and in my estimation, slow drifting away from one another when we don’t have a strong tether. It’s only now occurring to me how apt the metaphor “tying the knot” is.

And since a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force, two people doing nothing AREN’T sitting still. They’re drifting apart at a constant velocity until someone does something about it.

Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other

This was the running theme of both of my coaching calls yesterday.

While we’re busy at work, distracted by our personal stresses, tasks, hopes, and dreams. While we’re busy simply trying to stay alive, do a good job at work, keep our bills paid, etc., we are drifting away from our romantic partner.

A visual aid:

I <——> I

Connected.

A month later.

I <————————————> I

Drifted apart a little.

Three months later after a great vacation, a nice anniversary dinner and gift exchange, mind-bending orgasms, and a job promotion for one of them which alleviated financial stress.

I <–> I

Boom.

Four years later after a new baby, a blown anniversary by the husband because ANOTHER promotion made him super-busy and away from home a lot, five consecutive months without sex, and quiet avoidance of one another at home.

I <—————————————————————————————————————————> I

On the brink.

If they continue to avoid the growing distance between them, they will continue to drift away from one another. The further they distance themselves, the weaker their connection—their bond—becomes, which then makes it vulnerable to outside forces. (Traumatic illness, a death in the family, sexual affairs, etc.)

Every Day—Every Conversation, Every Moment—is an Opportunity to Move Closer to One Another or Further Apart

Doing nothing is a death sentence.

Because when we do nothing, we are NOT sitting still, biding our time waiting for something to happen. While we wait, we move apart. And I think couples—often men—are unaware of this drift that’s constantly occurring.

This is why focused, connected, mindful, present dinner conversations are so important.

This is why six-second hugs are significant.

This is why planning activities to do together—often and intentionally—is fundamental to the health of the relationship.

And most notably, THIS is why being competitive with one another—trying to WIN debate points in your next emotion-fueled fight with one another is, as Galileo famously said: “totally fucking stupid.”

His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.

The Objective is to Connect—Not to Teardown or Dominate Your Partner

We are always moving away from each other. Always. So we need to row our little boats against the current back toward each other. Tie knots. Tether ourselves to one another. Anchor ourselves to one another.

The goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can be to try to win debate points with them, while you essentially shove them further away from you. Or, maybe the goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can simply be to decrease the distance between you two.

Maybe the merits of right vs. wrong—the value of being “correct”—is a big, fat zero when it comes to your relationship.

Maybe the only thing you should be measuring is the gap between you, and constantly fighting to move toward the other.

Just maybe, that shift alone would change everything for you.

When you wake up in the morning, you can make the choice to connect. A kind word. A thoughtful action.

When you’re sitting at the office, or hiking in the park, or waiting for the doctor’s appointment, or standing in line at the grocery store, you can make the choice to connect. Maybe I can text her right now to let her know how important and beautiful she is. Maybe I can remind her today and every other day, how grateful I am for her to choose me and sacrifice for me.

When we’re tired after a long day at work, or irritated by our unsympathetic children, or in the middle of something at home—maybe we can strengthen our capacity for awareness, for patience, for mental discipline.

Maybe we can NOTICE the things in our lives that are All The Time. The stuff we look past. Forget to feel grateful for.

Forget to hug.

Forget to nurture.

Forget to love—not the feeling. We think and feel love, and forget that other people don’t always know that we think and feel it. We forget to love—the action. They NEVER misunderstand love the action.

We forget every day to prioritize that which matters most to us.

It’s so hard to be a person and juggle all of the things.

We grew up with no one but ourselves to care for and our parents and guardians did most of the heavy lifting. It takes work—guts and work—to show up every day for the unpleasantness of adulthood.

And it’s even harder to be that person when caught up in the vortex of life and dysfunctional relationships, and trying to put our families and jobs ahead of our personal wellness, and then wonder why we don’t have anything left to give our marriages when it feels like our spouse thinks we’re constantly letting them down anyway.

But it’s almost impossible when no one sees you. When everything you live for and invest in every day—your reason for living—goes unnoticed by the people who matter most. If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all of the invisible parts.

This is why relationships are a thing. This is why marriage brings beauty and value and enrichment to people’s lives when it’s done well.

Because all of this shit is hard, but we can do it when we have people in our corner, lifting us up, and helping us carry things when our piles get too high.

The inevitability of doing nothing—of inertia—is a broken relationship. The inevitability is broken people.

When we’re not moving toward one another, we’re moving away.

Love is a choice.

Please choose it.

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How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce

(Image/Upsplash)

Only two kinds of people could help me feel better during my first year of coping with, adjusting to, and healing from my divorce.

The first kind of person was a friend or family member who knew me before I was married. My relationship with them lived independent of my marriage. My identity—for them—wasn’t intertwined with me being married.

My ex-wife and I were together about 13 years in total, married for nine. And the majority of people in my daily adult life met me and knew me as her husband or us as a couple. So when I spent time with them as a frightened, depressed, embarrassed divorced guy during those initial weeks and months, being with them only amplified all of my fear, sadness, and shame—through no fault of their own.

People who knew me BEFORE I was married had a personal relationship with me as an individual. Was I still ashamed, sad, and afraid? Yes. But one of the biggest parts of healing after divorce is readjusting from a WE to a ME. From an Us to being an individual again. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It hurts when everything feels wrong. It’s hard to not feel like yourself. But O.G. friends and family make you feel like yourself automatically because it’s not weird or different to be an individual with them.

The second kind of person who could help me was someone who had experienced divorce or an ultra-significant breakup of a long-term relationship where the emotional and logistical loss is essentially the same.

The second kind of person could be a total stranger, but if they knew what I knew, being with them and talking with them was more cathartic than some of my best friends and other people who loved me could ever be.

People who understood—I mean, really got it down in their core—were people whose lived experiences were similar to mine. And people with shared life experiences are best equipped to offer one another the thing people in crisis need: empathy.

Let’s roll with a good, old-fashioned Do’s and Don’ts (<— that can’t be grammatically correct) list.

Let’s start with the Don’ts.

Things You Should Never Do or Say to Someone Getting Divorced

1. Don’t say “You’re going to be fine! Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to [insert you or whoever here].”

Not all marriages, divorces, families, nor the humans that comprise those things are the same. Divorce IS totally great for people who escaped abusive situations, or for people who WANTED the divorce, or for people who don’t have children and profited from the situation.

For some people, divorce doesn’t make them a social pariah in their neighborhoods, families, churches, social groups, workplace, etc. But for others, it does. For others, they’re mostly sad because of their children. And for others still, divorce was literally the #1 thing in their entire lives they didn’t want to have happen.

Dismissing it as some rad thing they’ll grow to appreciate later makes you a tone-deaf asshole.

[Side Note: You can learn how to be less of an asshole in life and relationships here.]

2. Don’t say “You know what you need? To get laid,” or try to manufacture a party or night out at the bars where that happens.

I promise that sexual beings will have sex when they feel like it. So you don’t need to encourage them, unless YOU are someone they are potentially sexually attracted to and feel like propositioning them.

Few things in life have insulted me more than when a few guys I knew thought me hooking up with some drunken rando at a bar would be beneficial or somehow right things that were wrong.

Does copious amounts of alcohol-driven euphoria and intense orgasmic ecstasy generally feel good? Sure. If you eliminate anything mental, emotional, or spiritual from the conversation, yes. But when people are suffering from divorce, the problem IS mental, emotional, and spiritual. Tying one on and climaxing a few times (or probably just once) with someone you’re never going to see again is infinitely more likely to make someone feel worse than better. Please encourage your loved ones to NOT do that.

3. Don’t say mean things about their ex as a method of offering support.

If you’re just talking out of your ass and don’t really mean it, then you’re being a ridiculous asshole and telling your friend/family member/colleague that they were stupid to marry and share resources (and possibly children) with such a substandard human being. You’re tearing down and verbally desecrating the good, sacred, beautiful thing the sufferer is grieving the loss of, and you’re doing it from a place of nonsense where you don’t actually know or believe what you’re saying.

And if you ACTUALLY do mean it and believe it? Then you’re doing those same things intentionally. Don’t.

Things You Should Say or Do For Someone Going Through a Divorce

1. Make yourself available to listen. Not to speak. Just to be there.

Make yourself available to share space with them and be prepared to do nothing except sit there, still, listening. If you have lived a similar experience, it will be easy to respond in affirming, supportive ways. If you have not, there’s NOTHING you can say to make it better, but you BEING THERE is making it better. That’s the gift you’re giving, and it’s a powerful one.

The greatest lesson I learned from my divorce (or rather my reflections on my failed marriage) is that we MUST—if we desire a happy, healthy, peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship—allow people to care about whatever they care about. Maybe that’s horse racing, maybe it’s knitting, maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s I just got divorced and I feel like I want to die. Everyone has their own unique list of things that are meaningful to them, whether it be something deeply personal and emotional, or something mentally stimulating like a hobby or entertainment pursuit.

One of the most valuable things we can give someone is the gift of respecting, honoring, sharing interest in the things that matter to them. There is no agenda. There is no natural interest or pleasure, necessarily. Just a very basic: That person really cares about this. I really care about them. So I’m going to behave as if I care about this too out of love and respect for them.

That applies to all relationships, no matter what. It’s also particularly useful when supporting someone who is grieving a loss and trying to heal a personal trauma.

2. Encourage them to take all the time they need.

Don’t abandon them or stop inviting them to social get-togethers because they’re not “over” their divorce or break-up as fast as you would like, because you feel like they’re not as fun as they used to be.

If you’re truly interested in helping them heal, then remind them that there’s no blueprint or How-To manual for any of this.

I have had a variety of coaching clients talk to me about feelings of shame stemming from their swirling intense emotions, or from their impatience with themselves for feeling like they haven’t moved on.

And I always remind them that divorce is hard, and if they weren’t totally freaking out I’d be way more worried about them—especially if they’ve lost time with, and influence over, their children’s lives. It’s NORMAL to spaz out big-time when your entire life is disrupted and you lose things that are most precious and meaningful to you. It’s all of the people who bounce back in a day or two that scare the shit out of me.

Remind them that it’s hard and they’re responding in a way totally consistent with something excruciatingly difficult. Encourage them to be patient with themselves. Encourage them to be kind to themselves. Our primary job as people moving past something difficult is to breathe. To stay alive for one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year.

When you do that long enough, you eventually arrive at a year, month, week, day, hour, or moment where everything is okay. Where you get to be you again.

Where something amazingly good and beautiful happens. Something that could have, and would have, never happened unless every day before that one had happened exactly as it did.

People deserve to have something to look forward to. And when we stay alive long enough, that moment inevitably arrives.

To stay alive, all that’s required is that we keep breathing. Kindly, remind them.

There is nothing we can specifically do to heal the individual trauma suffered by another.

We can simply be the friend or supportive family member/colleague that creates an environment where grieving people can heal on their own terms.

You don’t need to fix anyone. You shouldn’t try to save anyone.

Just love them. No matter what. And, if they choose healthy things, time will do what time always does.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

It almost seems as if nothing happens, but everything happens.

If we’re not careful, it can sound trite. Maybe even cheap. But it’s true and important, and I like to remind people as often as possible in the most empathetic and encouraging way I can, and I would encourage you to remind everyone that you care about:

Just breathe.

Everything is going to be okay.

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