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Negative Emotion is Vital For Relationships

In preparation for my shiny new blog plan (month long themes complete with corresponding love experiments, social media posts and podcast episodes), I surveyed you, my readers asking for what you are currently struggling with most in your marriages right now.

Responses ranged all over the gamut from stress with in-laws to finances to communication. But a common theme stood out among the responses: dealing with negative emotion.

Most of the responses talked about dealing with their spouse’s negative emotions:

  • Partner is frequently stressed and taking it out on others
  • Partner is depressed and emotionally unavailable
  • Partner gets upset when spouse tries to follow their dreams or conscience
  • Partner is mad at lack of sex

These are all very difficult circumstances, and I hope to give them their due diligence.

But I’ve noticed that an intolerance of OTHERS’ negative emotions is precluded by an intolerance of our own negative emotions.

This leads to a downward spiral in marriages: I can’t tolerate YOUR negative emotions, so I start attempting to CONTROL you and/or your environment so you won’t feel negative emotion. But these controlling efforts inevitably spark some resentment or other negative emotion in ME and I can’t tolerate my own negative emotions, so I take them out on YOU or hand them to you in the hopes that you can soothe/validate/love me enough to stifle my negative emotions (which they often can’t because they are dealing with their own, and the cycle continues).

It’s a downward spiral if ever there was one.

Example: Husband frequently comes home from work in a bad mood. Wife takes responsibility for husband’s emotions. She tries to have the house cleaned and dinner cooked before he gets home. She takes responsibility to offer him time to himself or other offerings. She feels stuck and frantic trying to control his environment and emotions and becomes resentful for trying to have everything perfect so he won’t be upset. She gets upset. She hopes her husband will notice and soothe HER, give HER more time and attention and affection. 

On and on it goes.

We can just as easily flip the role play: Wife is in a bad mood. Husband takes over dinner and bedtime with the kids in the hopes that wife will cheer up. When kids get whiny and bedtime runs long, husband starts to become resentful that wife doesn’t come and help HIM. Doesn’t validate how hard he works. He is in a bad mood, which only furthers the wife’s bad mood. 

The truth is that bad moods strike all of us. Some more than others, yes, but the problem in the above scenarios isn’t the bad moods, it’s the INTOLERANCE OF NEGATIVE EMOTION both in our partners and in ourselves!

If the husband came home in a bad mood and the wife thought, “Oh, he’s in a bad mood, bummer. I wonder why?” And then didn’t make it a problem, didn’t take responsibility for it, didn’t break her back trying to prevent it, then it wouldn’t have been a problem.

When we are intolerant of our spouse’s negative emotions, we will try to control them. We will try to prevent them. We will run ourselves haggard thinking, “I HAVE to do this (clean the house, manage our finances, have sex) or I HAVE to do that (say no to social experiences, put my dreams on hold, parent in their way) or else my spouse will be upset!” We will end up frustrated, feeling stuck and resentful.

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A better way is to anticipate your spouse WILL have negative emotions, and they are not your responsibility to prevent or control.

Yes, you can (and should!) love your spouse DEEPLY without taking charge of their emotional regulation! You can sacrifice for them, but out of LOVE and desire, NOT obligation. You can feel empathy for their sadness, a desire to soothe their angst WITHOUT taking on that sadness and angst yourself.

Healthy relationships SHOULD involve sacrifice, but it should be out of love, not out of an intolerance for our spouse’s negative emotions. (how do you know which is your motivation? The presence of resentment is a BIG clue)

So, how do we increase our tolerance for others’ negative emotions?

So glad you asked!

We cannot forge tolerance of our spouse’s negative emotions until we are tolerant of OUR OWN!

How tolerant are you of your own negative emotions? What do you do when you feel lonely or stressed or anxious or frustrated or upset? Do you think it is a big problem? Do you seek something to take the edge off? 

If you find yourself running to food, your phone, others’ validation, shopping, Netflix or even alcohol or porn when you feel strong emotions of anxiety, anger or sadness, you probably have a pretty low tolerance for negative emotion (join the club- it includes most humans).

We are going to be talking more about more specific tactics for feeling our negative feelings later this month, but for now, let’s get started on our love experiment for the month, shall we?

When a negative emotion arises in us, we often don’t even notice it! We often just unconsciously reach for some brownies or our phone or whatever our numbing agent of choice is (for me its the internet and food) to quell the feeling without ever evening processing or naming what is happening.

So, the challenge of the month is to 

  1. Acknowledge what you turn to when you are feeling a negative emotion.
  2. Catch yourself before you reach for that thing and ask yourself “What am I feeling?” Give it a name and “What do I REALLY want?”

Negative Emotion Intolerance

For me, I’ll unconsciously run to the cupboard when I’m actually feeling concern that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. What am I feeling? Concern. What do I really want? To talk to a friend.

Or at the end of a long day, I’ll want to numb all my feelings by distracting myself in front of a screen for an hour or more.  What am I feeling? Tired. What do I really want? Sleep.

Just because you acknowledge what you really want or need, doesn’t mean you always provide it, but it is an important exercise to notice and get curious.

Good luck lab mates! I’ll be back next week talking about how to take responsibility for our feelings. Yay!