More often than not, when my wife reacted emotionally to anything—something I said or did; something on TV; something that happened at work, whatever—my gut reaction was to think of her response as an overreaction.
This was not me intentionally trying to demean or disrespect her. This was my honest, natural, and I believed—objective—reaction to whatever she was saying or doing that I perceived to be disproportionate to whatever triggered the emotional response.
I was using commonplace, relationship-killing invalidation methods, but I wasn’t doing so maliciously. Never.
I don’t like injustice. So if my wife told me a story about how a co-worker or client had upset her earlier in the day, and I agreed with the offending co-worker or client, I would say so. I was sharing my honest opinions and feelings, and believed that happy, healthy marriages were built on such things.
When my wife would act pissy because I wasn’t taking her side, I was once again appalled by the notion that my wife would rather me dishonestly side with her than share my actual beliefs.
Lastly, I felt protective of my wife. Loved her and wanted her to be the best, healthiest, smartest, most balanced person she could be. I felt morally and lovingly obligated to point out that I thought many of these situations were beneath her.
Babe. You are very smart. You are very talented. You are very decent. I wish you wouldn’t let these inconsequential things negatively affect how you feel. If you learn to see them as minor nuisances rather than these big, day-ruining things, then moving forward you will have more good days and feel happy.
I believed these were honest thoughts and feelings, and that sharing them with my wife was not only appropriate, but that I was offering her a path to feeling more peace and joy in her life.
But then, of course, in all of my blind ignorance, my marriage continued to slowly—very slowly—deteriorate, one dinner or car-ride conversation like this at a time, until it felt like my wife hated me, and we spent more than a year sleeping in separate bedrooms until she finally ended it for good.
The entire time, me thinking she was emotionally broken—that her internal calibration was misaligned—and that once she made a few subtle adjustments, she would feel better, and then we could get back to having that marriage we both believed we were signing up for.
The Emotional Intelligence Litmus Test
If you’ve read this far, and you are in 100-percent lockstep philosophical agreement with how I processed and responded to my wife sharing her emotions with me during our marriage, then I think it’s safe to assume you have a lot of conflict in your romantic relationships.
If you agree with my good-hearted, well-intentioned approach to supporting my wife in my now-failed marriage, or are married to (or dating) someone who behaves as I did, I bet you have The Same Fight, which produce the same toxic feelings of stress and anxiety, tones of voice, and emotionally unpleasant results over and over again. I assume you are incredibly frustrated with your failure to make progress in these conversations, because you are stuck in this conflict cycle that won’t stop repeating itself.
Most of us are familiar with the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, but fewer of us, it seems, are familiar with the Emotional Quotient, or EQ—the measure of a person’s emotional intelligence.
While IQ can help you solve advanced math theorems or learn a foreign language, it’s EQ that will determine the quality and fate of your romantic and interpersonal relationships.
Here’s a Mind Tool for Connecting with Your Emotional Partner and Ending the Fight Cycle
This is not exclusively a male behavior—this attempt to “correct” or “adjust” someone else’s emotional reactions—but it’s most typically seen in men, which is why we have the stereotype of men frustrated by their overly emotional wives or girlfriends.
The majority of my male coaching clients report feeling this same sense of helplessness with their wives.
“Suddenly, she’s mad about something again, and I don’t even know what I did wrong. It’s like nothing I do is ever good enough for her.”
Right now, some of you guys are nodding. I am too. This is exactly how I felt when I was married. Like I could never win. And I didn’t understand why my efforts to help my wife feel better only seemed to make her feel worse.
Men in this scenario have an opportunity (responsibility?) to adjust their response habits to their relationship partners during these conversations and situations, and many will discover that by doing so, these emotionally volatile, conflict-heavy discussions will lessen in both frequency and severity, leading to two partners increasing their connection and moving closer together instead of drifting further apart.
Here’s where I was getting it wrong, and where you (or your partner) may also be getting it wrong.
When my wife started reacting emotionally to something, my first reaction was to evaluate the situation and determine whether I would react the same way to that same scenario. I was very good at empathizing with people whenever I recognized that I would feel just like them if I had gone through what they had.
But my wife would typically react to things in ways that I would not.
And my VERY FIRST ACTION was to decide that her reaction was disproportionate to whatever had happened. Another way to say that is that my very first move was to determine that my wife was wrong, incorrect, mistaken, misinformed, ignorant, crazy, or emotionally weak to be acting the way she was.
Imagine that every time you told your spouse that something made you mad, sad, or hurt, they told you were wrong—that you either didn’t know how you really felt because you were confused, or that you were incorrect for feeling as you did. That you’re too dumb to know that none of that stuff matters.
Imagine that when you told them that THEY were saying or doing things that resulted in you feeling shitty, that they DEFENDED and JUSTIFIED their actions, all but ensuring that in the future—both short-term and long-term—you could count on feeling shitty because of your partner’s actions over and over again.
What they did wasn’t bad or wrong! YOUR feelings and opinions are what’s bad and wrong! So you just go ahead and fix whatever is wrong with your brain and body chemistry, and then you won’t have to feel bad anymore!
When a person tells you that something you did or said caused them pain, and then you respond in ways that essentially promise you will repeat that pain-causing behavior because you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it? It makes perfect sense for that person to hurriedly remove you from their life.
We should not allow people to hurt us after they refuse to stop doing something we have repeatedly asked them to stop doing. Those people should not be granted permission to continue torpedoing our lives.
It’s this inclination to match or compare how we would react to certain events that creates conflict with our partners.
I ask my coaching clients who report this conflict pattern in their relationships to cut that shit out, stat.
Instead of matching or comparing their predicted reaction to an identical scenario, I ask them to reverse-engineer it.
I ask them to match or compare their current emotional state to that of their partner’s.
Psychologists call it emotional mirroring. I’m not asking people to intentionally make themselves feel sad or angry. I’m simply asking them to swap out the thing they’re currently comparing for something else that will foster positive emotional connectivity, which is often what’s missing in conflict-heavy relationships.
It’s not useful to waste the time debating the merits of whether they SHOULD feel as they feel. They DO feel as they feel.
Deal in reality. And an effective emotionally intelligent response to someone in pain, or who feels sad or angry, is to match or compare YOUR emotions to THEIRS.
They’re sad. Should they be sad? WHO CARES? They ARE sad. What makes you sad? What happened the last time you were sad? What behaviors and words are consistent with what feels appropriate when you’re in that state?
They’re angry. Should they be angry? Doesn’t matter. They ARE angry. What makes you angry? Can you remember the last time you were really angry and your entire body felt shitty? What could your wife or friend or whoever have said or done to help?
Instead, attempt to evoke that same emotion. Notice how they feel. Communicate that you understand that they’re feeling that, and that you know it sucks. Communicate that what they think and feel MATTERS, because THEY matter. Communicate that you’re there to be whatever version of a support system they need to get through whatever is happening.
If it’s something you said or did to trigger those feelings, DO NOT attempt to defend or justify whatever happened. Do not double down on the thing that’s causing all of this suck. Seek to understand both WHAT and WHY something hurt. Communicate that you want to be their teammate—their partner—in cooperatively finding new ways to say and do things so that the shitty thing doesn’t repeat itself.
After a competitive sporting event like a football game, all of the viewers, fans, and participants have WILDLY different reactions.
The winning players, coaches, and fans are happy.
The losing players, coaches, and fans are sad or angry.
Some neutral viewers didn’t experience any emotion at all.
You can see the lunacy in any of those people acting as if others should share their identical emotional reaction, yes? OF COURSE losing players and fans are typically going to feel shittier than winning players and fans.
Same event. Different reactions.
Just as contextually, all of those different reactions make sense when you understand things from their perspective, we’ll discover that people reacting emotionally to something in ways that might be foreign or surprising to us ALSO have a very sensible, understandable reason for responding that way.
If you’re interested in loving, living with, sleeping with, sharing resources with, this other human being who behaves differently than you would, I think you’ll find it incredibly useful to seek out those reasons for this surprising reaction. That’s information you’ll be able to use to NOT say and do things that lead to your partner (or anyone you care about) feeling hurt and mistreated.
Our relationship problems are subtle. Nuanced.
And the adjustments we must make in our minds and hearts are equally subtle and nuanced.
It’s not hard because it’s especially difficult to do any of this stuff. It’s hard because we frequently struggle to notice, to see, to recognize these moments for what they are.
Good news: We can do hard things.