“What Should I Do When My Spouse Gets Emotional?” Ted Lowe
Your spouse is emotional. What should you do? What should you say? What if you don't agree? Author Ted Lowe knows changing how you think and respond in moments like this could change your marriage—and he's got ways to do it.
I thought the empathy was just about being with someone during the tough stuff, but it's also being there with them during the fun stuff. It's, rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry. And one study said how you celebrate with your spouse is more predictive of a strong relationship than how you fight. -- Ted Lowe
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Your spouse is emotional. What should you do? Author Ted Lowe knows your responses could change your marriage—and he’s got ways to do it.
“What Should I Do When My Spouse Gets Emotional?” Ted Lowe
FamilyLife Today® National Radio Version (time edited) Transcript
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What Should I Do When My Spouse Gets Emotional?
Guest: Ted Lowe
From the series: Us In Mind: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Marriage
(Day 1 of 3)
Air date: September 4, 2023
Ted: I thought the empathy was just about being with someone during the tough stuff, but it's also being there with them during the fun stuff. It's, rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry. And one study said how you celebrate with your spouse is more predictive of a strong relationship than how you fight.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife—
We were speaking at a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway this one weekend, and as I was speaking, I was talking about how women, like, “We can help our husbands to be better.” And then I asked this question, “Let me ask you this. Do you feel like your husband is happier since he married you?” And I said, “Is your husband better since he married you?” Because we can have a pull on our husband's lives that helps determine where he goes.
Dave: This was Hershey, Pennsylvania, I think.
Dave: And I'm sitting in the back when you're saying that and I'm like, “Yes, this is awesome. I hope every wife's hearing this.” But then the next session—is this the woman that came up?
Ann: This woman comes up to me, she's sobbing, she's crying on my shoulder and I'm patting her. My whole shoulder is drenched. I'm like, “What happened? What's wrong?” And she goes, “I’ve realized something at this weekend.” She said, “I married this man and we divorced. And then now I'm married to another man and our marriage is disintegrating. I've always thought it was my husband's fault, but to be honest, they're worse since they married me.” [Laughter]
She said, “I've seen them and all I do is criticize. I thought my criticizing would motivate them. My first husband ended up becoming an alcoholic and now my second husband is an alcoholic. I wondered does what I say, like could I have an impact? Could that affect him and what he's thinking about himself?”
Of course, we all make our own decisions, and this woman is not to blame for some of the things necessarily, but the question is, can we impact our spouse by what we say to them or think about them?
Dave: And the answer, obviously—well, you know what? I don't know the answer. [Laughter] We’ve got an expert in the studio. Ted Lowe is with us and he's going to answer that question for us, right, Ted. You're going to answer that question?
Ted: Sure, let's go with that. We'll go with yes, okay.
Dave: You’re over there smiling. No, we read your book Us In Mind, and I love the title because you talk a lot about the mind; how changing your thoughts can change your marriage. Ted, I remember I was sitting there, and this woman starts weeping, hugging Ann and I'm like, “What was that about?” And she really was gripped with her thoughts and her words and actions to her husband made him worse, not better. We read your book and you're like, that's the whole mind thing. You've been thinking about this a lot, way before you wrote a book. Help us understand this. Is that true? Is that what happens?
Ted: During Covid, I had a little extra time on my hands, for some reason, but it started really pouring in like, how did—the couples are happy, like, how do they think? Do they think differently than couples that aren't happy? It turns out they just think in a different way. They think in a way that unhappy couples don't.
And then I started seeing all the research on just the power of our thoughts and how that impacts how we think about ourselves and how we think about our spouse, to answer your questions, and how we think about their emotions and how we think about, you know, before we respond and even how we think about what's the purpose of all this. Like, why aren't we even trying here when it comes to marriage?
I found out that just our thoughts are so important because they're not our actions and they're not our attitudes, but they lead to both. And I didn't know not to believe every thought I had. Like, I didn't know that this voice in my head that I call Fred, Fred in my head, I didn't know that Fred was a liar. I mean, I didn't know to not just believe everything that I was thinking and be driven by everything I was thinking.
Scripture is very clear take captive that you test and approve is this God's good pleasing and perfect will here. I was just letting all my thoughts just run on autopilot. I think most people, I don't know if I can say that fairly, but it feels like a lot of people at least think the same way. They never think to question their own thoughts and they're just determining so much of our relationships.
Dave: For decades, you've been the leader of Married People. We used to do some of your date nights and stuff up in Michigan at our church.
Ann: Which were great.
Dave: I mean, it's phenomenal material, but you've been in marriage ministry around couples for decades, so obviously you already knew what makes a good marriage. But as you studied that, how did you end up where you end up with the mind thing?
Ann: Were you surprised?
Ted: I was very surprised, actually. It took me back a little bit because there was one area specifically that I thought, “Oh wow, how have I done this this long? I've been doing marriage ministry for 20 plus years.” And I thought, “How have I missed this?” And it was the power of empathy. And I keep seeing all the research, especially with couples that were happy that they were really good at being empathetic. And then it hit me one day, “Well, the reason you've missed it is because you're so bad at it.”
Ann: [Laughter] Yes.
Ted: “You're so bad at this, actually.”
Dave: And you’re a minister; you're supposed to be good at it.
Ted: I was good at it with lots of people, except I think with my bride. When we first got married, our arguments would go a little bit like this. She would share something going on with her and I would immediately jump into, “Well, here's what you could do.” Like, for instance, she came home, and she had mentioned this same coworker a couple of times, so I say, “Hey, you know it feels like we've talked about this person several times. I know you don't like confrontation, but maybe you should have a tough conversation with her. It's going to make things so much easier long term,” which sounds pretty logical. I get some kind of response like “Blah, blah, blah.” [Laughter] I’m like, “Okay, that's not what she's wanting.”
And then, so it was the same type of conversation, same cycle of conversation, just change the topic. And then one day she says something to me, she says, “I don't want you to fix this. I want you to feel this.” Which as a fixer, I'm like, “Why are we talking about it if we're not wanting to fix it? That doesn't make any sense to me.” But she's also a fixer, so I think we were both not great at this. When the other one was having an emotion that they were struggling with, especially if they're sad or frustrated, we would try to fix each other.
Ann: This is us; totally us. And I do it to my kids. I did it last week to my daughter-in-law. She's telling me this sad thing and then I, you know put Jesus in it like, “Well, here's what Jesus wants you to know.” That's not what she needed. That's true, but that empathy part—
Ted: When someone's emotional, they're functioning out of the emotional part of their brain and the logical part of their brain has gone offline, so you're not knocking on a door that’s closed and you're trying to resonate with them. A lot of times when people are emotional, they're not very logical. They talk in extremes, or they talk in “This is never going to get betters.” What we want to do is we want to rescue them by helping them to see more logical. But the craziest thing—and this happened throughout the research where I’d just have these moments going “You've got to be kidding me.”
The thing that brings people to the logical part of their brain is not logic, it's empathy. When you're sitting across from someone who's empathetic, they look at you and they just acknowledge, “Well, I can tell you're really frustrated with the kids right now.” That's what cools the emotional part of their brain and brings them to the logic part. It's empathy.
Jesus was so good at this. Oh, He was so good at this. You know, we all learned the verse, you know, because we wanted to get stickers in Bible school. You know, “Jesus wept.” I just think, “What a model; in those moments just be with me.” And that's all Nancy was wanting from me in those moments when she's talking about a coworker for me to go, “That's really frustrating.” Empathy is not about seeing things from our point of view. It's about seeing things from our spouse's point of view.
Ann: That’s good.
Ted: One of the phrases we tell couples all the time to use is “If I were you, I'd feel the same way.” If I were you, I'd feel the same way. Empathy is so much easier.
Dave: Is empathy something you can develop?
Ted: Oh, I was terrible at it.
Ann: We are terrible. Both of us are terrible at it.
Dave: Well, thanks for sharing that with the world. [Laughter] You're supposed to say, “If I were you, I'd be terrible at it.”
Ted: Oh, we were, yes, we were so terrible. And the other phrase we’d use, we use now is “That's understandable.”
Ann: That's a good one.
Ted: Because a lot of times I think we'll withhold empathy because we think we're signing off on an emotion we don't agree with.
Ann: See, that's what it is. I was thinking “Why don't we?”
Dave: It's interesting, I spoke at a men's breakfast at this church locally here in Orlando, and there's 400 to 600 men show up every Wednesday at 6:00 AM and I was asked to come and speak. I'm driving up there and I see this line of cars. I'm like “What in the world? Who has all these men show up?”
So I asked several of the guys—they're in tables, and it was this powerful meeting—I go “How did this ministry develop? Why are so many men here?” And they all go “That dude over there who's the leader of the men’s ministry of this church, he is the most empathetic guy I've ever met. This whole ministry is built on that value.” And he's like “That guy walks around his place and you feel loved, you feel seen, you feel heard.” It's just what you said. Can you imagine bringing that into a marriage?
Ted: It just changed our relationship more than anything has in years and years. You know, I've been traveling way too much, and I come in and I'm, you know, the next day I'm just kind of down. I'm kind of depressed. I mean you guys understand. You travel and it takes out of you.
Ann: Yes, you're depleted.
Ted: You are! You’re so depleted and Nancy—
Dave: Emotionally, too. Big time.
Ted: Emotionally, especially emotionally maybe. I'm just out of gas, and so Nancy walks in. She goes, “How are you doing?” “You know what? I'm really tired and to be honest, I'm a little depressed.” And she goes, “That's understandable.” And I was like, “Aw.” That's all I needed to hear because in that moment I was so tired I didn't want to have to do anything.
When we give somebody advice, they feel like, “You know this emotion I'm having, not only is it not okay with them, I need to change what I'm doing in this moment.” Like, so what do I do in that moment had she said, “Well, you should be very excited that you've been traveling, and that you're providing for our family and you're serving the Lord, Ted. How could you be tired?” [Laughter] But instead it was just this moment of going, “Oh, I don’t have to change anything. I don’t have to do anything.” But it is the toughest thing in the world for me to do because I am not wired like that. I am wired to fix.
There's a great book; it's called How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, which every man in America is like “Yes!”
Dave: [Laughter] Yes, I want that book.
Ted: These authors went on tour when they launched this book. It was Oprah, CNN, the whole bit and I thought “I got to read this book.” But one of the things he talks about in the book—it's actually co-authors we’re talking about—is that when a woman and sometimes men are standing in an emotional puddle, what men we want to do is we want to yank them out of the puddle with advice and what they want us to do is step in the puddle.
Now here's the thing for that, for me at least. Why four wet feet is the answer to two wet feet it makes no sense to my brain parts, none. But it makes sense to my heart because when I do this it just blends us. And again, it's just so much more simple than the opposite. I mean, you think of the opposite when someone's needing empathy and you give them the opposite of that. You're giving them logic, they're getting frustrated, then that leaks, right? It leaks onto the rest of day, sometimes longer and so just say it, “I'm so sorry.”
And it's true with our kids too. It's my 17-year-old daughter. When I think about the times that she and I have had interaction that I wasn't proud of myself about, it's just because I lacked empathy, because she has so many emotions. And I'd be like, “Well, you know you're running late because you, you know you haven’t organized, maybe that calendar thing I did this week.” This week, hey, she's stressed out because she's forgotten. “Well, you know we've talked about the calendar.” Yes, that's just what she's wanting right now is a calendar talk in the middle of emotion.
So, you guys, I'm on the journey here, friends, like, it's the constant thing, but it's so fun when you do it right. It's so fun just to say “I'm sorry. It's understandable.” It's again, so much easier.
Ann: This is so convicting to me because I'm a woman—
Dave: I’m glad it’s convicting to you.
Ann: No, I’m a woman so you think I'd be more empathetic, and I can be to other people, but I generally, especially with our kids, I want to fix them because I hate for them to be in pain. And for some reason, I think this little antidote I'm about to share is going to fix everything and they don't need to be fixed, and so I'm still trying to figure out how to do this. Like, where did you start?
Ted: Well, I think for us, just having a couple of phrases. So “That's understandable,” and “If I were you, I'd feel the same way.”
Ann: Those are good.
Ted: Or “That seems really hard.”
Dave: You got to make sure—you tell me what you mean by that—if I were you could feel condescending, because I’m me, I wouldn't feel that way, but because you're so—
Dave: —weak. You're going to feel that way. So you're saying it in a way where if I was in your shoes, “If I was dealing with what you're dealing with.” That's what you mean, right?
Ted: Absolutely. If I were, if I were having to deal with this too, I would feel the same way.
Ann: I have a friend—we walk all the time—and I'll tell her like, “This is my schedule, and this is what's going on.” And here's all she said, “I would be dead if I were you right now. I don't even know how you're doing this.” I cry when she says that. like, “Thank you for understanding what I feel.”
Dave: And I'm over here saying “Pack another bag; we're going. Let's go.” [Laughter] She needs me to be crying with you and adjusting the schedule.
Ted: I think we all understand empathy when we've lost a loved one. Because the people that walk in and give us the platitudes, like, “God's got a plan” and “God needed an angel” and “He always knows what's going on.” “They wouldn't want you to do XYZ.” We know for whatever reason that doesn't work. What we do love in those moments is when somebody comes and goes “I am so sorry. I'm hurting with you.” “I don't know what to do, but I'm going to pray with you.” What if—those are the people were drawn to.
So just bring that down from that dramatic level and it's still the emotional need that we're needing. So you go, “When do you start?” Because I think a lot of people say, “Well, wait a minute. We have wisdom with each other.” I mean, no one knows me like Nancy. No one has more wisdom for me than Nancy, and I think she would say the same thing about me for her. It's not that you don't give them advice, it's all about a time and a place. And when they're emotional, it's not the time and it's not the place.
It's like a kid who's had a tough baseball game and you pick them up and you start talking. You start giving them coaching tips and tricks, right? And they're broke; they're heartbroken. But what you do is you bring it on the back end, they're about to step out of the car and you go, “Hey bud, listen, here's something I think you could work on today that I think if you would,” you know. Instead after every game—someone told us six years ago—is, “Man, I love watching you play.” That never goes wrong.
I think it's the same thing. It's like it's okay for us to give our spouses advice and wisdom when they're ready and to even ask permission. One of the things we'll say is “If I had some thoughts about XYZ, would you want to hear them?” So you're asking for permission. But I think that again, the thing that brings them back to the cooler place into more logical is empathy. And it's even looking at them and mimicking, not mocking, but mimicking the look on their face. Studies show that that's real soothing to them.
You know, we use this little phrase where we'll say, “I see you. I get you, and I got you.” Just now, because our heads are down so much with our phones, there's something so powerful just when your spouse is talking, especially if they’re emotional, just put your phone down and look at them. Just look at and sometimes that's all empathy requires, as you are right here with me and you are hearing this—you know it's, I see you, I get you.
And I get you is like you tell them, “Here's your emotion and here's the topic.” “I can tell you're so frustrated about work.” “I can tell that you are so excited about the kids making better grades.” “I can tell you're still grieving the loss of your mom and you're hurting so bad.” It's just that acknowledgement. Again, it's cleaner and it's simpler and isn't that God's way?
Ted: It's always easier and sometimes it doesn't make sense to us. It's just the way to go. And the other thing I got so excited about empathy was I thought that empathy was just about being with someone during the tough stuff, but it's also being there with them during the fun stuff. It's, rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry. And one study said, “How you celebrate with your spouse is more predictive of a strong relationship than how you fight.”
Ann: I thought that was fascinating.
Ted: How great is that. And how many times do we catch ourselves because their emotions don't make sense to us. We don't understand when they get so excited that college football season is starting [Laughter] and you're like and while we want to just roll our eyes. Instead, it's going “Look at them. They're like a little boy. They get so excited about this,” and when they smile, smile back. People go “Marriage is so complicated.” No, when they smile, you smile back, and you don't roll your eyes at things that are important.
Ann: Okay, so Ted, here's this mom listening that has four kids at home that are under ten and her husband says, “Hey, it's football season” or “It's hunting season” or “It's golf time” and this mom is thinking, “And you're going to be gone all the time.” How do we smile in the midst of that?
Dave: This might be personal, Ted. [Laughter] You never know.
Ted: Yes, well, as someone who married and has a family of four, I remember those days. I think it's when they're in that emotional part of the announcement of “Guess what season it's in?”—that those are the moments that you celebrate going “And you love it so much. I love watching your face. You turn into a little kid. You are adorable doing this.” And then a little bit later you're not responding off it because what you're saying at that point, “This is an inappropriate celebration. This happy emotion that you have is not okay with me.”
And the thing about when we rejoice with somebody's rejoicing, studies show that it amplifies what's going on in their brain chemically. It amplifies already feel-good emotions, right? We want our spouse when they're excited about something to tell us first.
Ann: Oh, that’s good.
Now, to that mom, I will say it is all about approach, whether that's a husband to his wife, wife. It's just saying, “Babe, I love this, and I love that you love this. Can we talk through a little bit, like how we can make this manageable for our family? Because I like you around and I need you around, but can we talk through like that to make it balance?”
People only talk about things when they're frustrated about things. You only talk about the credit card when someone's made a charge that they shouldn't. You only talk about parenting when you think the other ones done it wrong.
Couples can talk about—and you guys know this at retreats, right—and they can talk about some really deep things because they're not in the middle of a of a conflict because your brains in totally the wrong spot. So when they're in that cool spot, talk to them like that. But you, I think you want to be the one who your spouse looks—when they get good news, you don't want them to think of anybody else—to you going “Oh, they're going to get excited to me,” especially if they don't like it.
My wife is so great with finances and so she doesn't shop a lot, but when she does, she takes down the global economy. And so, she walks in the other day with six bags from Old Navy, just stuffed. She goes, “Come with me to the bedroom,” and she does what I call, “sell-abrations,” where she would take each item out one by one to reveal.
Here's what I used to do, because she would reveal all items and then she would go, “Guess how much?” I used to go, “I don't know, just tell me.” I finally have learned she wants me to act like that I am playing a game show with her. Like she wants me to celebrate this moment with her. I mean, I lock in, and I guess that number I'm thinking, “$147,” and she goes, “Nope!”—you know she gets all excited. I mean it's crazy, but I thought, “Why would I not celebrate that with her?”
Ann: Because she's excited.
Ted: She's excited. Why would I take that from her? Why would I be a literal killjoy? Why? Why not just take two minutes and get excited. She manages it, I find it, just so brilliantly. It's just a two-minute thing and we need to celebrate those things, right. Life gets really, really hard. Everybody listening knows that. But when we make these little deposits of celebration, it's so powerful we need to have with each other.
Shelby: We're going to hear more from Ann and Dave here in just a second; but first, deposits of celebration are little, purposeful moments to choose life. Giving life to our spouse instead of taking life, what a joyful way to live.
I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ted Lowe on FamilyLife Today. Ted has written a book called Us In Mind, and this book will help you discover simple ways of rethinking how you see your marriage by utilizing Scripture, research, and neuroscience. To pick up a copy, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on today's resources.
Now obviously, we here at FamilyLife talk often about marriages and how that foundation affects everything else in our lives. Well, one thing we think we all would agree on is that great marriages don't just happen. They're built with intentionality and whether we see it or not, we're either drifting in marriage or intentionally moving together toward each other and toward God.
Here's the great news for our relationship. FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway has events all over the country this fall, and even better, right now through Monday, September 18th, registrations are 50 percent off, so you can jump on this chance to intentionally pull closer to each other and to God. You can get two registrations for the price of one now through September 18th at: WeekendtoRemember.com.
Alright, here's Ann Wilson on celebrating your spouse.
Ann: I can now that our kids are older; I feel like I can celebrate more easily. But I'm thinking of the young mom who can be resentful of her husband being excited about hunting season or— But I wish I would have done that when I was like, “It's football season.” I wish I would have put on the jersey and said to the kids, “It's football season!” Because then Dave wouldn't have felt like, “Oh, I can't celebrate it here because they're all mad about it.”
Dave: I mean, in many ways I feel like you did.
Dave: You were a football mom, a football wife, a chaplain’s wife. I mean that's a whole other thing. But you know what you're saying Ted is so—I think it's the gospel. It's the two shall become one. When you said earlier about the mud puddle or being in a puddle, I think whenever you're in a puddle or whenever you're on a mountain, the DNA of the human soul is we don't want to be there alone. Whether it's the valley and we're struggling or when we're celebrating. Even if you celebrate alone, it's empty. You want to know, “Are we one?” And when my husband or wife shows up and like you said, doesn't throw the towel and say, “Hey, if you grab, I'll pull you out,” but walks in the mud puddle, that's with, that's two becoming one. I love what you said.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: “I see you. I get you. I got you.” Because when you said that, even when I read it, I thought “That's what Jesus does. That's the gospel.”
Ann: —coming to earth.
Dave: “I see you. I get you, and I got you. I went to the cross. I've got it.” And that's what we can live out in our marriage. I don't know, when you said that I was inspired to think, “Man, my wife, my sons, my daughters-in-law, my grandkids felt like I'm a person that sees them, gets them, and has got them, that's Us In Mind.
Ann: I'm going to call our kids and apologize. [Laughter]
Shelby: And tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined again by Ted Lowe as he talks about the importance of being mindful of our thoughts as outlined in Scripture. That's tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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