How to respond when your spouse is angry

January 13, 2012 by  
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One of the hardest exercises for couples to do when practicing the Imago dialogue is to validate their spouse.  Validation is when, after hearing your spouse express her feelings, you let her know that “what you’re saying makes sense and you make sense.”

But it doesn’t make sense!

For many, it can be difficult just to say those words because they disagree with what was being shared.  If I disagree and have my own explanation, how can it make sense? Making sense does not mean being right or wrong; rather it means that you are validating the right of your spouse to have those feelings. Perhaps you saw things differently but this was her perspective.  It is possible for both of you to be “right” as in the realm of emotions we are dealing with one’s subjective truth and interpretation. Of course, you don’t want to say, “in your world you make sense” because that implies disagreement.

Everybody eventually makes sense

We say in Imago that if you listen long enough, everyone makes sense. Usually when we hear the deeper story or childhood memory that the current event is triggering, there is usually little question as to how your spouse’s feelings make sense.

You make sense because…

One component that is extremely powerful but sometimes risky to add is a statement of personal responsibility. This means to take responsibility for the action that triggered your spouse’s reaction. So for example, say you made a comment that left your spouse feeling insulted. Instead of defending yourself and explaining your true intention, you merely say, “what you’re saying makes sense and you make sense because I did say such and such.”

Keep it short and sweet.  If you offer too much explanation, you risk going into your own world and explaining away. While we often like to smooth over a situation  by apologizing or explaining our mistake or our true intentions, this is not what is needed at the time. At the moment of emotion, what is needed is to validate.

What to do in the heat of anger

Pirkei Avos (4:18) teaches us: ” Do not try to pacify your friend at the time of his anger and do not comfort him while his dead lies before him.” Rashi explains that such an effort will be in vain because a person will not accept an apology in the heat of anger.

If your spouse is upset with you, apologizing in the moment will not usually be effective. The best way is to mirror back their feelings and validate them without any explanation on your part of why you did what you did. A person in the heat of  emotion is consumed with themselves and their feelings. They are not interested in hearing what the other has to say, they are fully focused on themselves. By validating them you are giving them space to feel what they are feeling.  Try validating and see how it works. Once things are calm you can always apologize and explain your intentions.

I have seen the difference validating makes in my own marriage and I also know how hard it is, especially on the receiving end of intense emotion, but it is the most helpful response I have found.  Hope you will see the positive results it can have on your relationship!

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