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Disturbing the Peace

Is your bad mood bad for your marriage?

Exhausted, I rolled out of bed after a rough night. Our oldest daughter had battled the stomach flu into the wee hours of the morning.

Thinking a cup of coffee with my favorite French vanilla cream might salvage the day ahead, I opened the refrigerator and looked for the familiar carton. Soon I was frantically rummaging around behind jars, bowls and cartons. No cream. The closest I came was an expired container of cream cheese that most likely harbored an entire civilization of mold colonies.

I settled for a cup of instant flavored coffee, but was in no mood to "celebrate the moments of my life." Just as I took a sip, my husband, John, bounced into the kitchen. Showered, clean-shaven and chipper, he asked, "What's for breakfast?"

I felt like saying, "How about a bagel with cream cheese?" It would serve him right for having slept soundly all night. Instead, I shrugged and grunted, "Whatever." He poured himself a bowl of cereal.

"Would you mind picking up a can of paint at Home Depot today so I can finish the gate tonight?" he asked with a smile.

Didn't he know I like going to Home Depot about as much as he likes going to craft boutiques? Didn't he know our daughter was sick and I'd be stuck at home all day? Maybe I was just too tired to deal with it, but I started crying. His smile disappeared.

"Never mind. I'll do it," he said quietly. Then he added, "Sorry you're having a bad day."

A sick child, no French vanilla cream and a trip to the hardware store aren't the only culprits that steal the good from my mood. Sometimes it creeps in after eating too much junk food or suffering a disappointment at work. It could be overcommitment at church, paying bills or just plain boredom. Bad moods are as likely to attack men as they are to bite women. And our bad moods, if left unchecked, can damage relationships. So how do you keep a sour mood, whether it's yours or your spouse's, from ruining your marriage?

Managing a Bad Mood

For many of us, the natural response to a bad mood is to retreat. But according to Robert E. Thayer, a California psychology professor, isolation is the least effective way to beat a bad mood. I've had my share of experiences with bad moods, and here are a few tips I've picked up after 15 years of marriage.

Get to the root of the problem. When I'm in a bad mood and my husband asks, "What's wrong?" I answer with the ever-insightful lie, "Nothing." That's because, if truth be told, I sometimes want to wallow in my bad mood.

The Apostle Paul offers some great advice about dealing with bad moods in Colossians 3:8-10: "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator."

As much as I'd like to, I can't pin my bad mood on John or other outside factors—like no French vanilla cream for my coffee. My bad moods stem from my own selfishness, anger, resentment or faithlessness. And once I admit my weaknesses, I can explain to my spouse, "It's not you; I'm just tired. Megan was up every few hours and I hardly got any sleep. I have so much to do today and I wasn't planning on staying home with a sick child."

While my mood may communicate 'keep your distance,' sometimes I'm hoping it says, 'pay attention to me.'

A short explanation like this, where I admit my blues are attached to me, not him, takes the pressure off John. Plus, I've given him information he can use to help me work out a solution.

Before John left for work that morning, he kissed me and said, "I called your mom. She's coming right over to watch the girls so you can get some rest. And don't worry about the paint; it's not important. I love you."

Gain God's perspective. During one of my bad moods, I considered wearing a bright yellow warning label that read: "Danger! This bad mood is a feeble, immature attempt to achieve control. For your own safety and psychological well-being, stay back." While my mood may communicate "keep your distance," inside I'm hoping it says, "pay attention to me."

Bad moods create false perceptions. Frankly, I think the psalmist did much of his writing in the throes of a bad mood. Just listen to Psalm 73: "[The wicked] have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man … " (vv. 4-5).

Of course, that isn't true. But a poor-me attitude can make it seem like everyone, including the wicked, have it better than I do. But if you read a little further, you'll find the secret to pulling out of a nose-dive into the pit of self-pity.

"When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God … " (vv. 16-17). My dark perceptions change and my mood begins to brighten when I turn toward God and allow him to anchor me in the truth of who he is. My moods swing up and down, but God is unchanging. He loves me; he will never leave me; he forgives me. Those truths have the power to bring my bad mood to a screeching halt.

Use the mood. Unfortunately, I sometimes spend an entire day in a bad mood waiting for my circumstances to change. What a sad way to live, floating along on my feelings without learning and growing in the midst of them.

God wants to teach me something while I'm in a bad mood. Maybe he's trying to show me I need to be more open and communicative with my husband. Maybe he wants to root out some selfish behavior. Instead of asking God to remove my problems, I need to ask him for wisdom and strength to live through them.

When a Mate Is Down

You need to take responsibility for your own bad moods and how they affect your marriage. But that's only half of the equation. What can you do when your spouse's bad mood is infecting you?

Avoid defensive strategies. My husband, the King of Good Moods, only rarely experiences a bad one. But how do I react when he hits an occasional rough spot? If I ask, "Why are you acting like that?" not only does he descend into a worse mood, but I've picked a fight with him. That should snap him right out of it.

Being an honest, speak-your-mind kind of a guy, John often tells me what lies at the root of his feelings. I have actually been known to respond, "You shouldn't feel that way." He's so lucky to have me around to tell him how he should feel!

I know my husband's bad moods don't always revolve around me, so I have to remind myself, "Don't take this personally." Unless, of course, John says, "Take this personally." Even though I might want to be defensive in response to his bad mood, I know that certain words can either improve the situation or cause the tension to build. Saying, "I'm concerned you're trying to deal with a problem on your own. Is there something I can do to share the load?" is a lot more encouraging than my previous nag line, "Why won't you tell me what's wrong?"

Learn the triggers. At the beginning of the summer we started to plan a vacation. I noticed every time we discussed our plans, John would slide into a bad mood. We had the money set aside, so that wasn't the problem. Then I stopped to consider his stress-filled days at work. He typically did most of the planning for our vacations, and he felt too burdened to take on one more responsibility. Without his asking, I said, "Why don't I go ahead and make the arrangements this year?" His demeanor immediately brightened.

To move beyond a bad mood you often have to take a new look at how life operates. We get set in our ways and think that's how it must be done, not realizing the difficulties we create and the bad moods we trigger. If a routine chore gets us down, it's time to get creative and change the status quo.

Learn to serve your mate. What happens when I let go of my defensive reactions and eliminate the bad-mood triggers, and still my husband hangs on to a bad mood? Sometimes there's nothing left to do but make the patient more comfortable until the blue mood passes. That requires serving your spouse without thinking about what you'll receive in return.

For instance, John loves order. If one of his bad moods persists, I try to clear off the coffee table and straighten the pillows on the couch. I may even ask, "Would it help if the girls and I went to the park so you had some time to yourself?" If I refuse to offer these acts of kindness, no one wins. Submitting to one another and serving each other is key to restoring balance and brightening the mood.

And it works. I couldn't wallow in my bad mood that morning—despite my fatigue and lack of a decent cup of coffee. In a phone call, John saw to it that I had help for the day. And I didn't have to worry about making a run to Home Depot.

I whispered a prayer of thanks and headed upstairs to check on my daughter. Maybe things weren't as bad as I imagined. Ready to face any mood, I walked down the hall as my other daughter, Amy, called in a weak voice, "Mommy, my tummy hurts."

Marsha Crockett is a freelance writer living in Chandler, Arizona.

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

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Attitude; Emotions; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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