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Shadows of the Mind

What to do with negative emotions toward your spouse.

Bob is lying in bed, wide awake. Earlier, he'd been laughing, smiling, and telling Susan how beautiful she looked. But his mood crashed when he approached her for sex and she said three simple words: "I'm tired tonight."

He feels rejected, disappointed, frustrated, and angry. His negative emotions hold him prisoner.

Then there's Marcia. She and her husband, Merv, had planned a special night out. She delivered the kids to her mother's, dressed, and waited—for an hour and a half. By 8:30 Merv still wasn't home—and hadn't even called.

When he finally walked through the door, her emotions set her up for a miserable evening.

Many of us can identify with Bob and Marcia. But what should we do with our negative emotions? We know what we've done in the past: withdraw and suffer silently, or engage in word battles that leave everyone wounded and bleeding. Is there a better way to respond?

1. Acknowledge and identify negative emotions. Negative emotions aren't sinful. Even Jesus felt anger, disappointment, and frustration. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus' healing on the Sabbath, for instance, Jesus "looked around at them in anger … deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts" (Mark 3:5).

Ask yourself, What am I feeling? Name your negative feelings. Be specific. You may even want to write them down.

2. Find the source. Next, ask yourself, What caused my feelings? Often there's both an external and an internal source. The external source may be something your spouse did or failed to do. Marcia's disappointment was stimulated by Merv's failure to arrive on time. Internal sources may include lack of sleep, stress, unrealistic expectations, and unmet emotional needs.

3. Make a covenant with God that with his help, you won't allow your negative emotions to lead you to destructive behavior. This step is crucial. If you don't bring God into the situation, you'll likely be captive to past negative behavior patterns.

4. Take wise action. Pray for God's wisdom. It may lead you to take some of the following actions:

Plan A: Seek peace before the battle starts. For example, knowing that sometimes Merv had to work late, Marcia might have called him at 3 P.M. and asked, "How do things look for tonight?" Whatever Merv's response, Marcia may have alleviated an evening of negative feelings.

Plan B: Call a truce. If Plan A fails and the battle erupts, call a truce before one of you destroys the other. Tell your spouse what you feel, that you don't wish to be controlled by these feelings, and that you're requesting an opportunity to discuss your feelings later. Bob might say to Susan, "I understand you're tired, but

I feel disappointed, frustrated, and rejected. I know this isn't the time to talk about it and I don't want to hurt you. But if possible, I'd like us to discuss this tomorrow." Bob has set the stage for Plan C.

Plan C: Negotiate. Negotiation allows us to share the negative emotions we feel, give our spouse an opportunity to explain his or her behavior, and resolve the issue. It requires listening with an intent to understand and reconcile.

Plan D: Establish a treaty. Ask each other: How can we handle this differently in the future? What steps can we take to avoid letting negative emotions set up a battle between us?

A new treaty means a new approach. Perhaps Bob and Susan will agree that when either of them wants to be sexually intimate, they'll allow each other time to prepare mentally and physically for genuine love making. Or at least they'll verbally assure the other of their love so they won't feel a rejection.

The more we commit to the new treaty, the better chances we've resolved the problem. But it may take time and work—and may call us to repeat Plans A – D and to make new treaties. Negative emotions need not destroy our relationship.

Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D. is a marriage and relationship expert and best-selling author of The Five Love Languages (Moody) and Covenant Marriage (Broadman & Holman).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Disappointments; Emotions; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2004
Posted September 12, 2008

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