Avoid getting into a habit of trying to cheer up or calm down your spouse when he or she is upset. Your good intentions might lower your odds of having a happy marriage.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment. Think about that last time you felt upset, and someone tried to cheer you up or calm you down. It’s likely that the person’s attempts to change your attitude made you more upset.
Well-meaning adults often do it with fussing toddlers. By handing them a toy or making a funny face they try to distract a tot throwing a tantrum or crying child. But adults aren’t kids who want to be coddled. What any upset person wants most is to be understood.
A few weeks ago our family arrived home from church to find our neighbors had dug a couple of large holes on their property near to our house. We live in a rural area outside of Portland, Oregon, where each home has its own septic system for wastewater. We quickly recognized the holes as possible test sites for a future septic system.
My wife searched the county records online and learned our neighbors had filed for a permit to partition their land. If approved, they would sell the partition for a new home site. My wife was visibly upset. She likes the buffer we currently have from our neighbors and the peace and privacy it provides. “I don’t want neighbors close to us,” she said. She followed by expressing her fear that we could get neighbors who didn’t appreciate peace and privacy as much as we do.
My wife and I have learned over three decades of getting to know each other that cheering the other up or calming the other down is not a helpful response when one of us is upset. But I immediately wanted to say, “Don’t worry about it.”
I knew that wouldn’t help. Instead, I said, “You know, we could end up with nice neighbors.”
That wasn’t any more helpful. “Well, we might not!” she said.
I had forgotten it wasn’t my responsibility to make her feel better. Many husbands and wives are intimidated by negative emotions in their spouse. Often it’s because they feel a need to do something to make the negative emotions go away. The best we can offer the other when he or she is feeling distressed is understanding. That understanding is best expressed with compassion and empathy.
These are the best antidotes for a spouse’s feelings of distress.
Couples who cultivate satisfying and lasting marriages build on a special kind of friendship. This friendship develops as couples discover and remember intimate details about each other’s thoughts and emotions.
Discovering these details relies on each spouse’s ability to tune in to the other’s words and actions at important moments. One of those moments is when your spouse is angry, sad, afraid or disappointed.
In the days that followed, I occasionally had to remind myself to tune in to what my wife is saying and feeling about the changes coming to our neighborhood. I try to offer to understand instead of trying to help her feel better. It works like this:
1.) Give your attention. The compassionate response is to turn toward your spouse’s negative emotion and listen with your heart. Show him or her that how they feel about what’s bothering them is important to you.
2.) Show interest. Empathy is to understand what’s upsetting your husband or wife from the other’s perspective. As you listen to your spouse’s story about what’s upsetting to him or her, give a sincere verbal acknowledgment that you’re seeing and hearing what’s being said. The simplest ways to do this are to express curiosity about what you’re seeing and hearing by putting into words what you see and hear.
For example, if your spouse’s eyes are tearing up and his or her words express disappointment, you can say, “It seems you’re very sad about that. Am I right?” If he or she is saying little and pacing with arms crossed, you can say, “You look nervous to me. Are you afraid?”
If his or her voice is raised, facial muscles tense and hands clenched, you might say, “You sound angry. I’m listening if you want to talk about it.”
Defensiveness will only intensify the negative emotions your spouse feels.
Never tell your spouse to calm down or that they’re overreacting. And if the negative emotions were triggered by something you did, avoid getting defensive. Defensiveness will only intensify the negative emotions your spouse feels.
3.) Practice positive touch. Once you’ve taken time to be attentive and show interest, positive touch offered at the right time can be comforting. It may help lower the intensity of the negative emotions, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to show you care. Examples of positive touch include gently holding your spouse’s hand, caressing his or her back, or a warm hug.
Some spouses will prefer to not be touched. Discover and remember what kind of touch, if any, is most soothing to your spouse when he or she is upset.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”