When my mom gifted me a shirt that “goes great with your brown pants,” I was confused. I didn’t own brown pants.
“You mean my green ones?” I responded. It was her turn to look confused.
That was the moment I discovered I’m colorblind. I have a mild red-green deficiency. That’s why no one noticed, including me, until my 20s. I guess most people just chalked it up to my having a “unique” fashion sense.
When it comes to emotional intimacy, I’ve found myself similarly limited, struggling to identify and understand my emotions. When my wife asks, “How are you feeling?” I almost never reply with an actual emotion word. My sentence might start with “I feel” but usually end with “…like taking a nap,” “…like eating Taco Bell,” or “…like punching the wall.” Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride would tell me, “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
We crave intimacy, don’t we? A close connection forged through shared experiences and information. Before I met my wife, I dated in the hopes of finding someone to “unlock the vault” and share my life with—all the spiritual, emotional, and physical depths. I witnessed married couples share a knowing look or crack up with their own private joke, and I wanted that. Yet once I married, my own journey toward emotional intimacy with my wife proved more of a challenge than I imagined.
Understanding emotional intimacy
Emotions serve as signposts pointing to deeper realities within us. Proverbs 20:5 advises, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” I really need to work on that understanding part.
Understanding and communicating the realities beneath my behaviors—that’s the key to cultivating emotional intimacy. But my emotional colorblindness built a barrier, since I seemed to be the last to realize—or at least to admit—I’ve got all the feels.
Like when I’m mad as I wash dishes, muttering about how dirty our kitchen is and clanking plates at earsplitting levels. Sara knows I’m angry (the neighbors must know, too). When she asks, “What are you mad about?” she’s creating an opportunity for emotional intimacy by exploring the reason behind my anger and processing it. Usually, though, I’ll respond with “I’m not angry,” spoken through clenched teeth in my best Clint Eastwood impression.
At some level, I know I’m angry but don’t want to admit it. I’ve got two reasons for dissembling: I want to numb my feelings, or I want to paper over it with some kind of quick fix. Neither reaction works.
Since emotions are signposts, I need to see through my feelings to what caused them and go from there. James 1:20 says, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” It produces quite the opposite, causing stress and turmoil from the kitchen to the bedroom and everywhere in between. Acting on my anger won’t solve anything. Neither will numbing it—once the Novocain wears off the pain comes back.
An emotional equation
Once you’re ready to take the blue pill and wriggle down the rabbit hole of emotions, use the ABCs: Activating event + Belief system = Consequence (emotion).
The consequence, our emotion, is usually the starting point. For example, I find myself weeping during Taken, a movie I’ve seen a thousand times. The activating event—what made me cry? In this case, it was the movie.
Why did this movie make me cry (belief system)? Once I became a dad, I started crying during all three of the Taken movies—a marathon of emotion. A daughter of my own lent a sobering reality to Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” display. I believed something terrible could happen to my daughter, which filled me with dread and sorrow.
Here’s an ABC I’m still dealing with. Like I mentioned, dirty dishes are an activating event that yields a consequence of anger in me. Why, though? It’s not like everyone reacts this way (I’ve asked around). Dirty dishes + (something I believe) = anger.
If I pause to process, dirty dishes accuse me of failure. If you were a better man, their crumbs shout, we’d be clean by now. Why didn’t you wake up earlier, or stay up later, to get these done? A dirty kitchen makes me feel like I don’t measure up, and I’m filled with anger at myself.
The key to emotional intimacy
Examining the belief underneath my anger, especially alongside my wife, has been so helpful. She doesn’t judge me by how quickly our plates are cleaned, and she reminds me God doesn’t either.
I need to figure out why I react this way, but as GI Joe told me when I was a kid, knowing is half the battle. And in the process, I’m able to forge connection with my wife as I allow her to see the deeper issues in my life and give her carte blanche to speak into them.
While we can’t always change A or C, B is the key to both growth and emotional intimacy. Sometimes we can replace the lie we believe with truth through the help of the Holy Spirit and our spouse.
Jesus experienced a full range of emotions: anger, grief, even fear. Our spouse’s emotions should compel us to lean in, dig down, to understand what’s going on.
Most of us dream of deeper emotional intimacy with our spouse but have no idea how to achieve it. Instead, we numb or fix. When I’m confronted with my spouse’s feelings of anger, sadness, or fear, I default to these methods like a bullfighter. I wave my distracting cape around to evade the emotion’s assault, then skewer it as quickly as possible. How often have you heard the phrases, “Don’t worry!” Or “Don’t cry!”? We use these as comforting words, but they’re really intended to do is to cut our feelings off at the source.
Next time you’re confronted with your emotions (or your spouse’s), take a breath before you numb or fix. Emotional intimacy is knocking at your door. The feels are your friend.
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Andy Allan lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and three kids, Ellie, Bodie and Asher. You’ll find him biking Lincoln’s trails or watching the latest Fast and Furious movie. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KazBullet.