Couple Communication: Your Emotional Responses

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, your first response to any situation is emotional. You are created that way. Our emotions are like a barometer designed to tell us that something is going on inside of us or in the space around us. So it’s our job to figure out what our feelings are telling us about what’s happening and what we can do in response.

Our emotions ebb and flow, especially when we’re under stress. At one time or another in the counseling process, one or both partners will tell me that they are giving up on their relationship. And I always say I’ll hang in there with them, even when they don’t feel like going on. They usually keep going on because they love one another. And the more they trust in the Lord, the better things become for them both. Go figure.

Being created in the image of God, we experience a full range of emotions. Joy, anger, sadness, hurt, and fear are the basic ones … with lots of variations. Unfortunately, due to the consequences of the Fall, guilt and shame are also very common in our human experience.

And God designed us in such a way that our emotions are primary.

That is, feelings come first. He did it that way for some very good reasons. Mostly, He did it so that we could experience Joy in Him and in one another. So much for that lie about God not caring about our happiness, eh?

Our emotions are like a barometer designed to tell us that something is going on inside of us or in the space around us. So it’s our job to figure out what our feelings are telling us about what’s happening and what we can do in response.

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, your first response to any situation is emotional. You are created that way.

Information gets into your brain via two pathways. The emotional pathway is faster. Reason is the slower pathway. Emotions tell you action is needed … now!

If you’ve ever seen a child run into the street in front of your car, you know what I mean. You slam on the brakes as soon as you see him. A few seconds later, your brain kicks in and tells you what happened. If you’d had to reason your way through the situation, your response would’ve been too late.

We have some notable gender differences in emotional expression.

Because women are emotionally sensitive and often express their feelings verbally and openly, many have assumed that women are more sensitive than men. Feelings are primary for a woman. However, they are primary for a man as well. It’s just our expression of them that differs.

Volumes could be – and have been – written about the role of emotions, as well as gender differences in emotional experience and expression. It’s a fascinating subject. But I want to give you some practical information, so I’ll stick to a brief, mostly user-friendly example of how men and women use emotional information differently..

Simply put, it’s Analysis vs. Action

Stephania is watching TV, and she gets hungry. She begins to think about her recent food intake. She’s torn between wanting the chocolate cake that’s left over from Sunday’s birthday party and realizing she probably already overshot her calorie-fat-carb-count for today with the extravagant lunch she had at Olive Garden with her best friend. She also calculates how much exercise she’s had … and how much exercise she can commit to over the next 24 to 48 hours. Her deliberation goes on for more than 30 minutes before she makes up her mind.

Eduardo is sitting beside her. He feels a slight hunger pang, gets up, goes to the fridge, and devours the chocolate cake. Stephania didn’t stand a chance.

Generally speaking, emotions mean different things to men than they do to women. For men, emotions signal a need to take action. In short, fix the problem, or get away from it.

And if it’s painful, don’t go there, Dummy!

For a woman, however, feelings are there to increase your understanding … especially in the context of relationship. (a) What does this mean? And (b) what should I do?

So much for men thinking they’re the logical ones, eh?

Actually, men who tend to use a logical approach are also operating on the feelings-first basis. Because men are so sensitive to others, they may have a difficult time sitting with unresolved emotions … whether those feelings are theirs or their mate’s. Thus, “Let’s get this problem solved!”

As previously stated, many women deal with anxiety and worry about almost everything … most especially about their relationships. It’s a driving force in their need to talk. Most women – not all – have difficulty “letting things go.”

And so many men struggle with an enduring belief about their own inadequacy. Many a man carries an internal critic … like an irritated coach who has taken up a permanent residence inside his own head … one who’s never satisfied with his performance and continually shouts out to him the play-by-play of what a failure he is. So whenever he hears his mate’s anxiety – which usually sound a lot like anger – he adds the data to his backlog of failures.

And to protect himself, he builds a wall.

What about that Stone Wall?

Fear is a primary emotion. It’s meant to move us to action quickly because it protects us from harm. In our culture, we’re mostly afraid of being vulnerable … of being kicked while we’re down. And our first reaction to fear is to hide.

But fear isn’t the real problem!

The problem is hiding! We hide from God, which assures we won’t receive His help, which we so desperately need. And we hide from one another.

That means we put up a “wall” to protect ourselves. Walls keep bad things out. But walls also keep good things out! Plus, our walls always hurt our partner.

What style wall do you build? Some prefer the walls of avoidance and withdrawal. Others build walls of criticism, attacking, or blaming to keep the focus off themselves. Both approaches are hurtful.

As a couple’s therapist, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to observe how hard women work at their relationships. When something’s wrong, it’s often the woman who notices it and wants to talk about it – to figure out what’s wrong and fix the problem. Here’s an example of a frequent complaint from our Relationship Survey:

We have problems agreeing on the way in which we will deal with problems. I want to deal with them when they come up, and he wants to think about it on his own for a long time and hope the problem goes away before we talk about it.

Chances are, this woman won’t be able to wait for him to bring up the problem again. She’ll be miserable waiting on him to say something. At best, she’ll feel like it’s just not that important to him. At worst, she’ll feel like SHE’S just not that important to him. As the hours and days tick by, she’ll start to feel more and more anxious about their relationship.

So what is stonewalling?

Stonewalling is withdrawing or refusing to respond to your partner. For a man, it may be a response to his own confusion or due to his feeling overwhelmed. Remember that early in life, a man learns that he has to come up with the answers to problems on his own, so

this behavior makes sense. However, the stone wall is a defensive move, which is different than the Man Cave discussed in Chapter 20.

For women, being stonewalled by her mate creates excessive anxiety – and anger. Women Stonewall, too!

Now, for the surprising side of stonewalling: It’s actually much more damaging to the relationship if the woman is the stone-waller!

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Your love story matters. It matters because it belongs to you. It’s what you know and where you live.

Mostly, it matters to God.

What happened to you growing up matters because it’s how you learned about Life and Love and God.

Some of what you learned is true. Some isn’t. That’s what this book is about.

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