Standing strong in the face of daunting, emanating emotions calls for a warrior heart and resolve. It doesn’t mean shutting down the person having them.
Most people enjoy big, happy emotions. Not so much when they are big, difficult emotions. Notice I didn’t say negative. Call them hard, challenging, or difficult, but I don’t believe any emotions are negative. They serve a purpose. They are an expression of how we feel at the moment. They are how we dissipate the energy associated with those feelings.
Even if difficult emotions do serve a purpose we usually don’t enjoy seeing someone we care about have them. It can be incredibly difficult to watch them upset or angry or hurt. Especially if they are emoting in an intense way. And too often we respond badly.
Because our society does such a poor job teaching men about emotions, men often feel that a woman’s strong emotional reactions feel like being in the middle of a terrible storm. And men often respond to them inappropriately.
What is a bad response to strong, difficult emotions? Let’s start with one of the most obvious—“Fixing It.” This one is hard because intuitively it seems like a great response.
I’m not talking about when you’ve actually done something wrong or hurtful. Yes, you need to take responsibility for your actions when that is the case. An apology or other action may actually help fix the situation.
I’m talking about when your partner is upset about something that you had nothing to do with. Something happened in their day and now they are expressing a painful reaction and it hurts to see them this way. Instinct says offer solutions, offer to change things, offer to take action. Make the situation different so the emotions will stop.
But this isn’t what she’s looking for. Fixing it feels like telling her to stop having her emotions. You are trying to offer steps to change the situation or different perspectives for understanding it, and she just wants to express her emotions, to release that energy. To her it feels like you are telling her she is wrong to feel that way.
Another unhelpful response is anger. This often stems from feeling attacked by her emotions. It is that same hurt I talked about above. Except this time the man feels the hurt and doesn’t like it. He doesn’t know how to handle it and becomes angry that his partner has “made him feel this way.” His inability to manage his own emotional reaction causes him to lash out at her for hers. It should be easy to see why this route quickly goes sideways.
It is even worse when the woman is expressing emotions about something the man has done (or not done). For example, she might be expressing it hurts her when he cancels long-standing plans with her to do something with the guys. I’ve actually heard multiple men respond to emotional expressions like this with, “You don’t get to attack me with your emotions.” Guys, that’s not an attack. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it is an attack.
Let me clarify something here. Expressing emotions does not mean taking harmful action based on those emotions. Calling someone names, physically hurting someone, taking punitive action, those are attacks and they aren’t okay.
One of my favorite colleagues always says, “Emotions do not require a verb to follow.” That means, “I’m angry” is okay. However, “I’m angry so I had to yell at them” is not.
So what does a good response look like? It has several components.
Standing strong. Whether you are boyfriend, husband, or dad she is looking for someone that can handle it. She wants to know her emotions aren’t stronger than you are. That means not being reactionary. Not needing to fix it so her emotions go away. Not getting angry that she is having emotions.
There is a second part to standing strong. Don’t allow her to mistreat you. As I discussed above, strong emotions are not an excuse to be abusive. Don’t issue you own treatment that is about more than her expressing her emotions. You can communicate that her behavior is not acceptable and even remove yourself from the situation if necessary.
Validation. We spend so much time in our society telling women their emotions are wrong. She wants to hear that you think she has a right to her reaction, even if you don’t agree with it.
Empathy. She wants to know you understand how she feels. Empathy meets her where she is at, in the emotional center of her brain. Logical responses require her to shift brain activity, which makes her feel like she is being told she is wrong. This seldom works in the height of a strong emotional response.
Responsibility. If she is having an emotional reaction to a behavior of yours, don’t get defensive. Don’t tell her she is wrong. Don’t tell her she is attacking you. Accept that her reaction is in regard to your behavior. You may not agree, but own up to your behavior and allow her to have her own reaction.
Men tend to be taught that being strong means avoiding emotions. That’s backwards. Being strong isn’t about denying emotions; it is about being able to stand in them and survive. To feel them yourself and be okay. To allow people you care about to feel them.
You are strong enough to do that. You are strong enough take every step above. It may be uncomfortable. It may not make sense at first. But what you’ll find is you can handle it. On top of that, you’ll find your relationships will become more connected. You’ll teach your daughters how they should be treated. You’ll show your partner how much you care.
Aren’t those things worth the effort?
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