For years I've used an illustration in one of my counseling classes. I’d have the students imagine a water cooler set up in the corner of the room. I’d enlist a student to go up to the imaginary water cooler to get a drink of water. I’d approach the water cooler at the same time to also get a drink. When I approached the cooler, the student would engage me in conversation. “Good morning Dr. Cockrell. How are you today?” I would completely ignore the student, barely even looking them in the eyes. I’d get my imaginary drink of water, turn and walk away. The student was left standing there, completely rejected and alone.
I would then have the class take out a sheet of paper. I would instruct them to write one (and only one) feeling word to represent how they felt as a result of what they had seen. We would go around the room and have the students identify their words and explain why they had chosen each one. In most cases, there were at least 12-15 different words represented in the class. I would ask them how it was that all of them didn’t experience the same feeling. After all, they had all watched the same event. How was it that they felt differently from one another? This would begin an hour-long discussion on the topic of feelings and how we experience different feelings from one another, even when observing the same event.
What creates this phenomenon is what I call the “feeling cycle.” We act the way we act because we feel the way we feel. We feel the way we feel because we think the way we think. We think the way we think because we believe the way we believe. And, the cycle just starts over again. Sound confusing? Let’s break it down, and then I’ll give you three short takeaways that’ll instantly help your marriage get better.
Some students felt anger, frustration, irritation, or several other negative emotions toward me. When I asked them what they thought about what they had seen, they all thought of me in the worst possible light. They used words like jerk, arrogant, egotistical, insensitive, and so forth. They thought a certain way about me, therefore they felt a certain way about the event.
Some students felt confusion, pity, sadness, disappointment, and the like. When I asked these students what they thought about the other student, the event, and me, I got a completely different story. Most of the students knew me. They thought the best of me. Because they thought the best of me, they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Again, because they thought a certain way about me, they felt a certain way about the event.
So what does this role-play have to do with your marriage? Here are three brief takeaways that I think can instantly help your marriage.
Takeaway #1: Feelings aren’t facts. Don’t elevate your feelings to the level of factual truth. In fact, feelings are quite fickle. They change from moment to moment and from situation to situation. And, you might be thinking something that isn’t even a reality. Your feelings though real, aren’t necessarily based upon truth. There is a difference between reality and rightness. If I’m walking through my house and I hear my wife say to me from another room, “You are so mean. I can’t believe I can’t depend on you. Why are you so selfish?” I’m going to feel some very real feelings. The problem is, she wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to someone on the phone. But if I thought she was talking to me, I’m going to feel hurt or angry or frustrated. Don’t operate under the tyranny of your emotions where you refuse to believe that your feelings might not be based upon truth.
Takeaway #2: Choose how you think about your spouse. I find the longer spouses are together, the easier it is for them to think negatively about one another. They build up a reservoir of negative events, hurt feelings, and painful experiences. Far too often they draw from this well, instead of from the well of positive events, experiences, and emotions. Every day I can choose to think the very best about my spouse. Sometimes making that choice is a difficult one, but it’s almost always a choice that’ll help the marriage instead of hurt it. I make every couple that comes to see me memorize a simple three-word phrase – “Assume Good Intentions.” They have to choose to assume the best, not the worst. If you can practice this one simple habit, you can reduce unresolved conflict by 50% almost immediately.
Takeaway #3: Verify your assumptions. One of the easiest ways to think the best is to verify assumptions before we jump to conclusions about our spouse and their intentions. Let’s say you’re one of those people who thought I was an absolute “jerk” by ignoring my student at the water cooler. What would happen if you said to me, “Tate, did you realize that your student said good morning and you totally ignored them?” You know you might possibly hear me say, “Oh my goodness! I had no idea. I was in another world because I had so much on my mind. I just got off the phone with a dear friend of mine who is about to die from cancer. I need to go back and apologize to that student because I just didn’t hear them.” So many fights are caused in marriages because we don’t verify our assumptions about how or why our spouses do the things they do. We form an opinion based upon our assumptions, only later to find out we were completely wrong, especially in regard to motives.
Feelings are real and they’re powerful. We can’t ignore them, and we can’t let them run our lives or ruin our marriages. How you CHOOSE to deal with the feelings in your marriage will play a large part in how happy, satisfying, and lasting your marriage will be. Remember you feel the way you feel, because you think the way you think. So……how are you thinking about your spouse and your marriage today?