Understanding Your Spouse’s Emotions for Marriage Improvement

Are your spouse’s confused emotions confusing you? Learn how to understand and empathize with your spouse to create connection

On today’s podcast, Coach Jack will help you to learn how to better empathize with your spouse. He will also you  help you to understand your spouse’s mixed feelings, and why that is a good thing when you are working on building your relationship or reconciling.

After listening to today’s podcast you may want to:

Understanding Your Spouse’s Emotions for Marriage Improvement



[Introduction to the podcast]

Announcer: On the Reconciling Marriages with Coach Jack podcast, Christian psychologist, author, and relationship coach, Dr. Jack Ito, will help you to build and restore your marriage. By learning just a few relationship skills, you can help your spouse enjoy your relationship more, while getting more love and affection from your spouse. Listen to Coach Jack as he helps you with one more step toward a marriage both you and your spouse will love.


Jack Ito PhD: Today’s podcast is about understanding your spouse’s emotions. How well you really understand your spouse’s emotions? Do you understand your spouse’s emotions enough to empathize and build your relationship by doing that? Some people get frustrated trying to understand why their spouses get upset or what makes their spouse happy or what makes them upset. Some people get frustrated trying to understand their spouse and have a hard time understanding why their spouse is upset and what exactly they are feeling. Some spouses are more changeable than others and their moods may vary from day to day. That can also be confusing and it can make it hard to understand whether the relationship is going well or not. The better you understand what is actually going on with your spouse’s emotions, the more you are going to know whether this is a problem you need to do something about, or this is just something to empathize with, or is this perhaps just a time when you need to give your spouse some space to deal with their emotions.


Sometimes, in an effort to understand their spouses emotions, people actually misread those emotions and then do things that make their spouses even more upset. Today  I  want to help you to understand the basic emotions in a very similar way to how counselors do. If you do that, then you will be able to empathize better and that will make you better at connecting with your spouse. It will also help you to understand and connect with other people too. After all, all the skills of connecting with your spouse are no different than the skills for connecting with anyone else. If you have been following my books and articles for a while, you know that I don’t encourage people to try to figure out their spouse. Instead, I encourage people to become really good at relationship skills that work with everyone, including their spouse.


It’s not necessary to figure out your spouse if you know how to help your spouse be attracted to you, to desire to be with you, and how to stop any damaging behavior that your spouse is doing. With those three skills you can make your relationship last for a lifetime. What I’m suggesting in this podcast is not about figuring out your spouse—it’s about understanding the general principles for emotions that are true for everyone. Regardless of your spouse’s background, personal triumphs, and traumas, your spouse has emotions for the same reasons as everyone else. So let’s get into it.


The first thing to learn is that every emotion is connected with a cause—they don’t come out of nowhere. For example, people feel angry when they want someone to do something and that person is not doing it. This is always going to be the case. We’re never going to get angry when someone is doing something that we want them to do. We’re only going to feel angry when they are not doing what we want them to do. If you understand this link between the emotion of anger and the cause of wanting someone to do something that they are not doing, then that’s going to be useful in two very important ways. First you’ll be able to correctly empathize with the person who is angry. And, this will help the other person to feel understood and it will create a connection between you and that person. Correct empathy always creates connection.


So for example, if you know that your spouse is angry with you, then you also know the cause. Because the cause of anger is wanting someone to do something and they’re not doing it, if your spouse is angry with you, you know your spouse is wanting you to do something. Many times that might be clear other times it might not. Sometimes spouses will sulk and go around the house being mad and we just can’t figure out why. If they don’t behave that way with other people, but they behave that way with us, then for sure they are wanting us to do something which we are not. They might not have communicated that very well to us, however their emotion communicates it. When you know the cause, then you have choices for how to deal with it.


For example, you can try to find out what it is your spouse would like you to do so that he or she is no longer angry with you, if you choose to do that. Or, if you find out what your spouse wants you to do or can figure that out, then you can let your spouse know if you are not going to be able to do it. Sometimes spouses will stay angry as long as they have the hope that we’re going to do whatever it is that they are wanting us to do. Only when they give up on that hope are they going to be able to get rid of that anger. So sometimes we actually have to tell our spouses, “I know you want that, but that’s not something I’m willing to do now, and I’m not going to be doing it in the future either.” Now you might think, “wow, that’s a really bad thing to say” because that is going to make your spouse even more upset. Well, it probably will in the short term, but in the long term what will happen, if you are consistent with what you said, is that your spouse is going to accept that you are not going to be doing whatever it is that he or she is wanting, and will start to give up on that idea. And as a result of your spouse is not going to be angry with you about that anymore. They probably are going to be disappointed, but disappointment is okay.


Disappointment comes before acceptance. So letting our spouses know we’re not going to be doing something that they want us to do is going to first increase anger and then lead to disappointment. And then the disappointment is going to give way to acceptance. On the other hand, maybe you can find a way to do whatever it is that they are wanting you to do and that will also resolve the anger, as long as you know what it is they are angry about. Let’s look at a few other emotions and how they can inform you about what’s going on with your spouse. Let’s take sadness. Sadness is something that a person feels when—do you know when–most people can guess this one. Sadness is what we feel when we lose someone or something important to us. Sadness is associated with a perceived loss. We might not have really lost that thing, but if we believe we have, then we will feel sad. Some examples of losses that can make people feel sad would be breaking up with someone, losing something precious that someone gave them in the past, they might have lost their job, or maybe someone that they care about has died. Those are all very significant losses. Of course there are big losses and there are small losses. Though big losses will make us profoundly sad. small losses will make us a little sad.


Intensity has to do with importance. If someone tells you that they’re sad or you can see that they’re sad in their behavior, then right away you know the cause even if they didn’t tell you cause. This is what makes therapists seems psychic. The client comes into the room, the client looks sad, the therapist right away knows that this person has lost someone or something very important to them. All they need to do is to guess that and  the client feels as though they are so tuned in—that the therapist is so tuned in to the client. Really it’s just knowing what behavior goes with what emotion. You can do the same thing yourself and it’s going to enhance your relationships. People will feel like you are really sensitive. Now let’s suppose that you don’t see the emotion of sadness or they don’t say they’re sad. But, you know that the person has lost someone or something important to them. Even if they are not showing the emotion, you know how they feel. They are feeling sad. That’s right.


They are not feeling angry. They would become angry if they were wanting someone else to do something, but they’re going to be feeling sad because they lost something important them. So when someone has lost something or someone important to them and we say, “wow, that’s really sad,” even though the other person is not showing the feeling, we will be connecting with them. What we say is going to be matching what they feel. It’s always matching that creates connection. There is no connection without matching. Disconnection happens because of differences. So, when we know the connected motivation or the connected reason to the emotion, that helps us to empathize with people even when they’re not showing any emotion. And when they show the emotions and we don’t know exactly why they have that emotion—we don’t know exactly why they haven’t emotion—we will be able to know something about it. Whether they are angry or sad or have any other feeling. Every feeling has a reason connected with it. I’m just going over a few major feelings with you today.


Let’s take another major feeling, that is frustration. Can you guess what motivates people to get frustrated, what triggers that feeling of frustration? People feel frustrated when they are trying to do something and they can’t. If someone is not trying to do something, they’re not going to feel frustrated. They might be angry because they are wanting someone else to do it, or do it for them, but they’re not going to feel frustrated. Now it is possible to feel both frustrated and angry at the same time. For example, if we are trying to make someone else do something and they’re not doing it, then we would feel frustrated because we’re trying to make them do it and not succeeding, and we would feel angry because the other person is not doing it. So those emotions commonly occur together, but they don’t cause each other. Feelings don’t cause other feelings. Although they can co-occur.


Another example might be someone who keeps trying to apply for jobs but is not actually getting a job. If they tell us that no matter how many jobs they are applying for they’re not able to get one, we can correctly empathize with them by telling them, “wow that is frustrating,” because we know they’re trying to do it and they’re not succeeding. If we empathize incorrectly with the emotion that they’re actually not feeling. so for example if they say they are trying to find a job and they are not succeeding and we say, “oh wow that’s sad,” then we actually may make the other person upset because sadness goes with loss and we would be basically saying with that kind of empathy that the other person has given up or no longer has a chance of getting a job and that might be really upsetting to that person. They are likely to respond if we say, “wow that’s sad,” they’re likely to respond “well, I haven’t given up yet,” or “I haven’t, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be getting a job,” something like that. And that’s how we can upset our spouses if we are guessing the wrong emotion. If that happens to you, if you guess the wrong emotion, don’t apologize for having empathized incorrectly. All you need to do is simply switch to the other emotion.


So maybe at first you guessed sadness saying, “wow, that’s really sad,” and the person says, “I’m not sad, I’m frustrated,” okay, they’ve told you the emotion and then all you need to do say something like, “yeah, it is frustrating to try and try and not be able to find a job…yet” So they haven’t given up so “yet” will be an important thing to put in there. And, if you do that you will then be matching their feeling, which would create connection. Guessing the wrong feeling would create disconnection—mismatching creates disconnection. Let’s take another major emotion and that is anxiety which can also be labeled as fear or worry. They’re really pretty much the same emotion, just different intensity. We feel fear when we anticipate something bad might happen to us. The more likely we think it will happen and the worse we imagine the outcome to be, the more fearful we’re going to be of that happening—the more intensely anxious we’re going to be. Fearing your spouse leaving you is going to be a much more intense fear than fearing your spouse becoming angry. Fear, like other emotions, can be very helpful or can be harmful. If really just depends on what we do with the emotion. And also we can react to other people’s fear in a helpful way or a harmful way. The best way to react to someone else’s fear is to empathize with them, to say something like, “yeah, that is scary,” or “oh yeah, I hope that doesn’t happen.”


And then beyond that another good way to deal with fear is to actually do something that will prevent that bad thing from happening, or will minimize its consequences. So, for example, a person who is afraid that it might rain and that their planned activity will be canceled, can make a plan B in case that actually happens. It will still be disappointing if they don’t get to do their activity, but they also will be less fearful because they will still have something that they look forward to. That’s kind of on the minor end of things. But on the major end of things too, you can pretty much do the same kinds of things. For example, someone who fears their spouse leaving them can react in good ways or bad ways. They can become very controlling and angry and try to make that other person stay with them, but that generally just pushes the other person further away. Convincing is not an approach I ever help my clients to use with their spouses because whenever we try to convince people of something that they don’t already want, then they become resistant. Instead, people can use their fear to do something more constructive.


For example helping their spouse to enjoy their time with them more or to become more attracted to them. That’s going to make it less likely that their spouse will leave them. They can also make a Plan B for what would happen, or what they can do if their spouse did leave. For example, they can work on becoming more independent—making  friends, having activities of their own. None of those things is going to take away the fear of a spouse leaving, however it is going to help someone to behave more securely and that is actually part of keeping the other person in the relationship. The more desperate and fearful we become of someone leaving, the more likely we are to actually lose them. The more secure that we become, the less likely we are to lose them because we will behave better when we are with them and they also will have more respect for us.


Just like the so-called negative emotions, positive emotions also have causes. Let’s look at a couple of these. If someone is expecting something bad to happen and it doesn’t, what emotion do you imagine that person feels? If you said relieved, then you are right. So if someone tells you some kind of information like, “Oh, I thought that the test would be positive,” or some other kind of negative outcome, and they said they found out that it wasn’t. It was negative, you can very easily empathize with that person by saying, “wow, that is a relief,” because that is exactly how they’re going to feel. Empathy is matching our emotion to their emotion, creating that match, creating connection. Simply saying, “I’m glad to hear that,” well of course they are glad too, so it’s going to match a little, but the more closely you can match their exact feeling, the stronger a connection you are going to make. So being able to empathize with the word that fits most of their feeling is going to create the strongest connection. They feel relieved, you say, “that is a relief,” shows not only do you think that it’s a good thing, it shows that you care about them in a similar way that they care about themselves.


How about excitement? We feel excited when something outside of our routine, that we anticipate to be positive, is going to happen. You can add excitement to your spouse’s life by planning something outside of his or her routine that you know your spouse would really like. So if we know the causes of emotions, it also helps us to plan what we can do so that we can help our spouses to feel those emotions and to enjoy their time with us more. There are very many emotions although there’s just a handful of basic emotions. And I would say that unless you’re going to be a therapist, your going to do fine just knowing five or six emotions and their causes and the best ways empathize with them. If you really want to become an expert, you can learn many, many more emotions. There are at least 100 different nuances of emotions, if you really want to get into them. My point here is that the better you become at identifying your spouse’s emotions and their associated causes, the better you are going to be able to empathize with your spouse and then this is going to go a long way in creating emotional connection with your spouse or maintaining that emotional connection with your spouse. Does that mean just your spouse? No.


As I said before, the relationship skills we use with our spouses should be the same relationship skills we’re using with everybody. You can become good empathizing at empathizing with your  children, good at empathizing with your other family members, or friends, or even strangers, and it’s going to help you to be perceived in a more positive way by them. You are going to be more likable, you will be more of a potential candidate for friendship or other types of relationships. I said before that sometimes, or actually often, emotions can occur together. And, I think this is what makes people confused—it’s when their spouse seems to have two different emotions at the same time (and that’s quite possible to feel two very different things). For example, we can love someone but be angry with them at the same time. Another example is that we can feel both sad and relieved when we lose someone important to us if it means their struggle is over. For example, that happened when my mother died because she was suffering for a long time from a severe illness and when she died it was a relief because her struggle was over but it was also sad because I was losing her at the same time. People can feel that way about their relationships. People can feel sad because they are divorcing and relieved because their getting out of a bad situation at the same time.


When I help my clients to reconcile, with a spouse who is wanting to divorce them, very often their spouse will start out being optimistic and positive because they are looking forward to their future without my client. They’ve gotten to the point which is past their anger, past trying to make your spouse change, and to the point where they have accepted their spouse is not going to change, and then are moving forward to what they believe is bigger and better things. When I help my clients to reattract and reconnect with their spouses who are leaving them, then their spouses can feel angry at the same time they are enjoying their time together and that creates kind of a roller coaster type of pattern. One day they’re very angry with my client because they weren’t this way in the past and they want them to stop being that way so they can feel better about getting our the relationship; on the other hand, on another day, they might really just be enjoying the time together and being attractive and so you have an alternation between good and bad days and that often confuses my clients and makes them think actually they are doing poorly. And I have to tell them that no, this is a actually sign you’re doing really well. Your spouse is now having mixed feelings whereas before he or she didn’t have mixed feelings. Your spouse just wanted to get away from you and now part of your spouse wants to be with you. The other part wants to get away. And your spouse experiences both emotions. That’s a transition point from your spouse wanting to be away from you to your spouse wanting to be with you again.


When you get to that middle part they are going to have both feelings—that’s okay. It’s a good thing. Sometimes you might notice with your own feelings that you have conflicting feelings. You might even want to laugh and cry at the same time. We can have reasons to want something and not want it at the same time. So one point to carry with you is that there is no one specific way a person has to feel. And if you are trying to figure out your spouse and you’re confused because your spouse seems to have two different emotions, just accept that they have two or more different emotions. So that’s quite possible. And you might be confusing yourself because you’re trying to figure out which one it is, when actually is more than one. Figuring out your spouse’s feelings not really going to help you to rebuild your relationship. However it can be part of keeping that connection if you are able to empathize well.


In this podcast you learned how understanding the cause of emotions can help you to understand your spouse better and can help you to create a better connection with your spouse through empathy. You have also learned how your spouse could have mixed feelings about your relationship that seem to change from day to day. If you would like to learn more about connecting with your spouse, you are welcome to visit my website coachjackito.com to read an article, download some free help, find a book, or even get coaching. Learning how to connect with people on an emotional level is one of the most satisfying things that you can do for your relationship. And remember this, too—you don’t need to become like a therapist in order to improve your relationship with your spouse. All you generally need to do is do a little bit better than you are doing now.


[Podcast wrap-up]

Announcer: Thank you for listening to Reconciling Marriages with Coach Jack. Visit coachjackito.com to learn more skills for reconnecting with your spouse and restoring your marriage.