Identifying the negative feelings behind unresolved conflictWritten by Tom Peters
What's inside this article
Marriage conflict is a lot like taming tigers.
Consider this: A keeper wanted to have a tiger as a pet. At first, the keeper fed the cub, walked him and cared for him, but as the tiger got older, his needs began to change. Since the keeper didn’t know how to properly take care of the growing tiger, the tiger started to overpower him and became a danger to the keeper and others. Out of fear and desperation, the keeper put the tiger in a deep, dark cave where no one could get near. The keeper thought this was the only way to keep everyone safe, but day and night he’d hear the tiger’s roaring, and feel pangs of guilt and loneliness.
Similarly, our relationships often begin with plenty of optimism, enthusiasm and hope. Differences between you and your spouse are eclipsed by the happiness you feel. Irritants are covered in warmth. Time is spent talking together and sharing your inner worlds.
Then the day comes when your relationship changes. Pride is hurt by damaging words. Wounds deepen as your differences create tension that takes on a power of its own. Ill-equipped to deal with the resulting conflict, our inner terror overwhelms us, and we react.
Sometimes we defend ourselves, seeing only how our spouse’s actions are hurting us – and never how our actions hurt them. Sometimes we discredit our spouse to defend ourselves from the pain. When we do this, though, we lock our difficult feelings into a deep, dark cave within our heart, hoping that by ignoring them, we can move on – much like the tiger keeper.
Inevitably, though, the roars from the cave disturb our peace. We start to feel guilt, pain and disillusionment set in. Instead of dealing with those negative feelings, we cover them up and settle for distance in the relationship.
Even with this distance, though, we live on edge. We think that stuffing our negative feelings down into the cave has somehow cured us of conflict. But the intimacy we longed for and felt earlier in the relationship disappears. We feel powerless and too broken to feel whole. Fear fuses us in a reactive stance and we lose hope of the closeness returning.
By ignoring and hiding the negative feelings, we’ve denied ourselves the potential for positive feelings as well – the potential for intimacy, connection and closeness. By avoiding conflict because it seemed too difficult, we’ve essentially kept our relationship from maturing.
It does not need to be this way. Reactions can be stopped. The doors to the cave can be opened. Facing our negative feelings gives us the opportunity to see each other in a different way. It will lead to a new kind of relationship with healthy conflict.
Understanding the root of our feelings
A marriage relationship in a reactive stance is stuck in a place of “compromise and lose” – for both of you. The stalemate of being on guard and defending yourself brings out some of the worst parts of us. There is escalation within us and within our feelings, and it only takes a spark to fan this into flame.
A spark can be the feeling you have when your spouse replies with a certain tone of voice. Your feelings roar up in blinding fear. But slamming the door on the interaction is the reaction. In all of this, especially in the suddenness, we overlook the connection between our feelings and our reactions.
Feelings are an integral part of our moment-by-moment existence. They focus us on our present experience by feeding us with information about what is happening in our body and in our mind. Sitting next to a warm fire or driving through a gorgeous landscape brings up certain feelings.
Additionally, our feelings are solidly connected to the memories we have that activated them – it can be a great source of positivity when we remember a cozy fireplace evening or a stunning drive.
There is inherent power in feeling.
However, the feelings we experience are not only active in positive memories, they are deeply connected to previous negative experiences, leading us to an instant flow of emotion connected to such memories. These emotions are often triggered by conflict with our spouse.
Emotions that sensitize us can make some small actions feel like a very big deal. The intensity of feelings around experiences we dislike are like the keeper slamming the door to the tiger cave – strong, reactive and despairing. We want the feelings to go away, but by trying to ignore them, we give them power. We stay reactive, keeping us in that cycle of feeling triggered, experiencing the negative emotion, shutting it down and reacting to our spouse. This cycle creates an environment where managing those feelings well is very difficult – and at times may feel impossible. Each time we experience that cycle, it adds power to the negative feelings, changing us from caring spouses on the same team to calloused, cynical opposing players.
Listen to how John describes the power of feeling: “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, as the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). The feeling of hatred is equated to blindness.
Or consider what James writes when he exhorts his readers with the connection between passionate feelings and quarrels: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1)
Disarming the negative reactions
Feelings give us a real-time opportunity to change the conflict story. Facing them, like opening the tiger’s cave door, can be a vulnerable and terrifying experience, but staring those negative feelings in the face is the very action that disarms the reaction.
Reactions, while they can feel too intense, can be managed. We are not powerless to them. The feelings that rise up in the midst of conflict, like tigers, may be powerful, even potentially lethal for a marriage. Yet facing them can become a crucial moment to disarm their power by looking them in the eye and learning to live with them. We can disarm them by tending to their character, their connections and their counsel.
By engaging the taming process, we need to name our feelings to identify their character. A list of feeling words may help to prompt your new way of thinking:
Which word describes how the feeling sits, how it influences your heart, how it pulls you to an action? Understanding the association between the word and emotional experience that triggered that feeling will help you be more in control of your feeling, rather than controlled by it.
Our feelings have connections to them. Some connections are many years old and some are incredibly powerful. Examine the connection for the source of its power. Early experiences of childhood when vulnerability is very tender can allow a feeling to be etched deep within us. Traumatic events, even though we have lived with them for years, can pack a punch within a feeling. Take some quiet moments to sift through memories that come from sitting with your feeling. It can be scary – especially if you’ve never given space to process those deep memories you have that are attached to those feelings – but taking the time to face them and understand them will give you power over them.
When you can face the feeling for the counsel it contains, you can take a 180-degree turn from reacting. What does the feeling stand for? What does it protect? What want within me does the feeling pull me toward? Am I turning down the volume of the feeling enough to be able to listen? These are the movements our feelings can take when we let them speak.
By creating space between your feelings and your reactions, you will not only give yourself opportunity to understand your feelings, you can also seek to better understand your spouse.
However, the only way you will be both be able to share those vulnerable memories attached to those feelings is when you feel safe with each other. Intimacy has no chance if either of you are feeling emotionally threatened. That’s why we need to learn to tame our own emotions by understanding our own negative reactions first.
Life with healthy conflict
Avoidance and reactivity imprison us within our marriage. Fear can cripple our energy. Hardened hearts create sinkholes within. It does not need to be this way. Hope has a strategy for another kind of approach to conflict.
When we can identify our feelings – even the negative ones – and deepen our understanding of why we’re feeling it and what that feeling wants to teach us, we don’t need to be afraid of experiencing conflict. A well-managed relational life as a couple is one that has a healthy view of conflict rooted in the well-managed emotional lives as individuals.
Conflict, when handled with emotional maturity and care, can lead us to experience connection with our spouse, instead of feeling distanced and lonely. When we work through the wide range of feelings within our marriage, our intimacy is strengthened. The tiger is tamed. And the marriage reaches new depths of meaning.
If you’re struggling in this process, you’re not alone. Many couples need additional help to give space to their negative feelings and find a path to healthy conflict and deeper understanding. Our in-house counselling team offers a free, one-time phone counselling consultation. We can also refer you to a trusted counsellor in your area or direct you to our Hope Restored marriage intensives. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 to learn more.
Tom Peters has been nurturing his passion for helping others over a 35-year journey. Tom earned his MA in Counselling Psychology and in addition to developing a private practice, Tom is a practicing counselling supervisor and a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. He is currently one of Focus on the Family Canada's Hope Restored marriage therapists. Tom and his wife recently celebrated 29 years of marriage. They are parents to two married daughters and one son, and recently became grandparents.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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