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Marriage 911 08/22/17

How to Stop Reacting to Your Irritating Spouse

unhappy couple not talking

For as much as I like to pride myself in being thoughtful, far too often I'm reactive. Triggered by some troubling event, I act impulsively, usually regretting what I say and do.

Can you relate? Have you fired off an email in haste only to regret it later? Have you voiced your thoughts, believing you were simply 'speaking truth', only to regret it later after feelings have been hurt and damage done?

It is, sadly, common to 'lose it' when facing a challenging situation. Consider Kelsey's situation:

"I want to talk to my husband calmly," she said. "But when he says something that really upsets me, I just lose it."

"What do you do?" I asked.

"I started yelling and saying things I didn't mean. It's embarrassing later."

"What does your husband do?"

"He does the same thing," she said. "We're both embarrassed, but usually justifying ourselves. So, nothing really changes."

To get help for your marriage from Dr. Hawkins and his qualified staff, please visit The Marriage Recovery Center website or call 206-219-0145.

"Your reactivity is very common Kelsey," I said. "Our reactivity is usually the result of feeling threatened in some way and then becoming defensive and activated. Our brain pumps out adrenaline and we slip into fight, flight or freeze."

"What makes matters worse," I continued, "is that we don't recognize what is happening. We have little awareness until it's too late."

"That is certainly true for us," Kelsey said.

Perhaps you've found yourself in a similar situation, up to your eyebrows in challenging feelings before your brain had even kicked into gear. Overwhelmed by troubling emotions, making comments you later regret, you don't realize what occurred for hours. By then the damage has been done. Our brain reacts to a situation in a microsecond. But to fully understand what is taking place is quite another matter. I don't know about you, but I've found I don't fully appreciate a situation, and my feelings about it, for minutes, sometimes hours and occasionally days.

You can see this puts me at a distinct disadvantage when faced with an emotional threat of any kind. I can hardly say to my wife Christie, "Slow down. I need a couple of hours to think about what is happening right now." This would not work. So, what are we to do?

1. Slow everything down.

Our first, most powerful tool to emotional reactivity is to slow things down. An escalation of emotion typically brings an escalation of conflict. Slow things down. Think! Scripture tells us "be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." (James 1:19) This takes practice, but once learned can be a very powerful antidote to reactivity.

2. Understand it takes longer to think than to feel.

You must have full appreciation for your feelings, understanding they need to be tempered by thought and wisdom, and this may take some time. Feelings can, and will be, overwhelming at times. You may not know what to do with them, and that's OK.

3. Ask for understanding.

Asking for understanding not only allows you to slow down the process, but activates another part of your brain. Instead of reacting, you are actively listening. Seeking understanding also sends a signal to your partner that you are not preparing a response, but seeking a connection with them. 

4. Empathize and validate your mate's experience.

Seeking understanding is a powerful antidote to conflict. Empathizing with them and validating their experience creates a powerful bond with them. This process binds your heart to theirs and will likely bring compassion back from them to you.

Scripture tells us, "The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore, stop contention before a quarrel starts." (Proverbs 19:11)

5. Agree to talk about your feelings, and listen to your mate's feelings, when you have time to truly attend to the other.

Trying to share feelings in the heat of the moment is rarely productive. More often than not this will only lead to an escalation of feelings. Move slowly, be kind in your reaction, and agree to talk about the situation when you can think! You will be able to think more clearly when you have calmed down, have plenty of time to attend to your mate and be attended to, and can feel and think simultaneously.

Do you react suddenly to your mate, regretting words spoken impulsively? Does it take time for you to understand what you are feeling?

If you would like more information on managing your emotions, we're here to help! Share your feedback below or send us confidential note at [email protected] and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com.You'll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, our special Marriage Intensives, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

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