Emotion is the primary driving force in every relationship.
The link between behaviors and emotions is unbreakable and very powerful. A behavior on the part of your spouse triggers an emotion in you. That emotion then drives a behavior in you (moves you to act). Your behavior than triggers an emotion on the part of your spouse and that emotion, in turn, moves a behavior on his/her part, which then triggers an emotion in you, which moves a behavior in you, which triggers an emotion in your spouse which moves a behavior in him or her and on and on we go. Understanding this pattern gives you a powerful insight into how conflicts can arise between the two of you.
And the pattern goes on forever.
Behaviors trigger emotions and emotions drive behaviors. Another way to say it is that emotions put you in motion. It is important to understand that you have an emotional reaction to everything that anybody says or does to you and even to behaviors that you simply observe. (Have you ever gotten upset simply watching how your spouse talks to your child?)
There are six core emotions – four are negative and two are positive. Negative emotions are anger, sadness, shame, and fear. Positive emotions are excitement and joy. It is easy to understand how sometimes our negative emotions get the better of us, since they outnumber the positive emotions two to one.
One of the challenges in this time of forced confinement is that we are exposed to a far greater number of behaviors from our spouse than normal. By way of example: Let’s say you notice your spouse checking his or her cell phone for a coronavirus update for the 20th time and it’s not even noon yet. Each time you observe that behavior, a slight negative emotion gets triggered. After 20 slight negative emotional impulses, you are moved to say something like, “Can you please stop looking at your phone every 10 minutes. You are making me crazy.” This behavior on your part will likely result in a negative emotion in your spouse. If that negative emotion moves a negative behavior on his or her part, it will likely result in a negative emotion in your which will lead to… Yep, you guessed it – a nice little argument.
Here is the important point to understand: there is a direct line between a behavior and emotion activation, but the reverse is not necessarily true. As human beings we can choose the behaviors that we will perform. There is a space between emotion and behavior where we can think and choose. It is called free will and we human beings are the only ones on the planet who possess it.
In fact, our ability to not be controlled by our emotions is a measure of our mental health. The degree to which you are the master of your emotions is a degree to which you are mentally healthy and is also the degree to which you will have a happy and fulfilling marriage.
This means you are not a helpless victim of the Four Horsemen. You can choose to not criticize, not be contemptuous, or defensive or to stonewall. The next time you are triggered by a negative emotion and tempted to say or do something negative, stop yourself, think about what virtue you can develop at that moment and choose that.
Remember: We are perfected through our spouses imperfections.