Why Emotional Responsibility Will Save Your Marriage

emotional responsibility

In the early years of our marriage, confrontations between Sheri and me usually involved her turning into a T-rex and me turning into a clam. We simply did not have the tools or awareness to manage our anxiety when we experienced something scary or painful, so we typically succumbed to our instinctive fear reactions—Sheri went into “fight” mode and I went into “freeze.”

Thankfully, we finally realized that conversations between T-rexes and clams were categorically doomed to failure, and began to seek a better way to do confrontation in our relationship.

The main hurdle for us to overcome was that we needed to get better responding, rather than reacting, to pain and fear. In other words, we had to become more emotionally “response-able.”

You’ve probably heard people talk about emotional intelligence and how important it is for success in every relational and social arena. The heart of emotional intelligence really is emotional responsibility. It involves actively cultivating emotional awareness—taking the time to stop and assess what we’re feeling and why—and the skills to manage and express those emotions in healthy, pro-social ways.

Successful confrontation requires, and is an exercise in, emotional responsibility. As I explained in the first blog in this series, a successful confrontation is:

  • a respectful conversation between two powerful people . . .
  • that addresses a specific issue that is hurting connection . . .
  • for the purpose of achieving mutual understanding of the issue and building a plan to adjust behavior to better meet the needs of the relationship . . .
  • which ultimately results in restoring and strengthening the relationship.

Here are 4 reasons why emotional responsibility is critical to successful confrontation.

1. EMOTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY IS A CORE SKILL OF BEING A POWERFUL PERSON. 

Powerless people are controlled by their emotions and instincts—that’s practically the definition of what it means to be powerless.

Powerful people, in contrast, have self-control, which means that they can tell themselves what to do and do it regardless of their instinctive, emotional urges. And the only way to grow in self-control is to learn self-awareness. Powerful people know how to stop and pay attention to what is going on inside them so they can discern what the voices of their instincts and emotions are saying, hold them up to the light of truth (upon which they build their core values, beliefs, and commitments), and then make powerful choices in alignment with that truth.

Confronting someone respectfully to resolve an issue is always a powerful, emotionally responsible choice. Listening and adjusting when someone confronts us are also powerful, emotionally responsible choices. If we want to be powerful in making these choices, then we must grow in emotional responsibility.

2. EMOTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY ENABLES US TO UNDERSTAND AND CONFRONT THE COMMON FEAR THAT HIJACKS CONFRONTATION.  

As Sheri and I started practicing greater self-awareness and self-control, we were finally able to examine the fears that confrontation commonly triggered in us and discover what they were all about. Probably the biggest fear we uncovered was this:

We were afraid that the other person wouldn’t care enough to listen and fix the problem. 

I believe this fear is the great hijacker of confrontation. When we listen to this fear, we shift into a defensive posture instead of a collaborative posture. We show up to the confrontation thinking that we need to convince, pressure, manipulate, or intimidate the other person into hearing us out and responding to our needs. More often than not, when we show up in a defensive posture, the other person will mirror us and start self-protecting too. This is how confrontations become escalating battles that only further damage connection.

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Now that we are aware of this fear, we can actively confront it. We choose to move toward one another with an attitude of, “I trust you to care about me and our relationship as much as I do. I trust you to listen and adjust like I will. And even if you choose not to reciprocate the care in this confrontation, I will be powerful in my choice to care, because your choices do not control my choices.”

3. EMOTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY ENABLES US TO HAVE RESPECTFUL CONVERSATIONS. 

A respectful conversation is built on the understanding, “It’s my job to tell you about me, and it’s your job to tell me about you.” It requires assertive communication, which says, “Your thoughts, feelings, and needs matter, and so do mine.”

Obviously, it’s going to be really hard for me to do my job and tell you about me when I don’t know what’s going on inside me. It’s going to be hard to send the message that my thoughts, feelings, and needs matter when I haven’t even taken the time to examine, know, and own them. There can be no respectful, assertive communication without emotional responsibility.

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for verbal processing in a respectful conversation—as I discussed in our previous blog on the art of listening, helping one another investigate and understand our emotions can be a critical part of a confrontation. But such verbal processing will only be productive if emotional responsibility is the shared goal on both sides.

4. EMOTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY HELPS US GROW IN UNDERSTANDING AND MEETING THE NEEDS OF OTHERS. 

One of the reasons we can get tripped up by the fear that others won’t care about what we need is that in every relationship, it doesn’t take us long to discover that the other person has different needs than we do, thanks to their personality, temperament, family background, and many other factors. Often, experiencing these differences triggers thoughts like, “Oh my gosh—you’re not me! I would never need that! I would never do that! If you’re not like me, how can I trust you to love me and meet my needs like I would? I need you to be more like me!”

The mindset shift we make as we grow in emotional responsibility is this:

I don’t need you to be like me—I need you to understand me. 

I don’t need to be like you—I need to understand you. 

We send each other the message of care convincingly by investing the time and energy to understand one another’s needs and make room for two totally different people to show up and thrive in this relationship. 

In contrast, we send a message of selfishness when we make no effort to grow and expect each other to become us before we extend love and trust.  

The main reason we love using the DISC behavior styles tool (besides the fact that it’s easy to teach, learn, and use) is that it gives people a framework for understanding themselves and others. And this is really the benefit of every type of assessment for personality, strengths, motivators, behaviors, etc. They are all tools that can help us grow in emotional responsibility.

In our new eCourse, Successful Confrontation, we spend the first two sessions exploring how DISC can help you grow in understanding yourself and others so you can approach confrontations with increased emotional responsibility. Click here to watch the first session now! 
Peace,