This may not be your typical blog post, it is more so a pastoral note to marital growth rather than a theological essay. However, I think it could still be beneficial and I hope it can serve you wherever you are in the spectrum of being single to being married. You will also find in this blog post insights drawn from Reformed theology.
Yesterday I just finished talking to my Mom about her arm that she had recently broke. The healing process has been more complicated and much longer than she anticipated. There are various factors involved; one of the factors that contributed the most in this difficult healing process was actually her high level of pain tolerance. Because of this, she has not been able to feel the pain in her arm that most people would have felt. This pain would have indicated that the wound is not healing properly, thus revealing the fact that it still needs to be remedied. Her high pain tolerance succeeded in numbing the hurt, but failed to address the wound.
I feel that this story is a good picture of the cause of so many complications and misunderstandings within marital relationships; this is especially true for my marriage. In these past 4 years there have been countless times where Tatiana and I have both felt disconnected, unheard, misunderstood, uncared for, and at times, hopeless. I would propose that the key issue for us, as is the case of many other marriages, is that we have demonized and ignored certain emotions. Whether you are currently single, dating, engaged or married, my hope is that this blog post will help increase your understanding of emotions and how it can actually serve marital growth; that we may see it as a window to the soul, and help us glorify God in our marriages as we better understand how to obey His command in 1 Peter 3, to approach our spouse in an understanding way.
The importance of emotions is not only revealed in and through cultural realities, but it is also found in Biblical imperatives (commands). It’s weird because when we think of God’s commands in the Bible, we primarily think of the ones that tell us to ‘think’ and ‘do’ but we often don’t think about the ones that command us to ‘feel’. As we delve deeper into Scripture, we can actually see many commands that use emotionally charged language. In fact, in the book of Matthew, the greatest command includes (though is not limited to) an imperative to feel:
“You shall love (ἀγαπάω) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love (ἀγαπάω) your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love here is not merely a command to think or do, it is a word carefully chosen to portray an emotion, a feeling. God is not content with His people simply doing the things He commands, or merely agreeing with the truths He conveys in the Bible, but He wants us to truly emotionally fall in love with Him and others from the depths of our souls in response to His love for us on the cross. On the cross Jesus was not merely obeying a heartless command, nor was His humiliation on the cross merely the result of logical calculations. It was an act driven by a passionate and an emotive zeal for His Father’s glory, and an intense emotional love for His people. Emotions are an important reality of Scripture, and thus an important factor for all of us who desire to submit our lives to Scripture.
Dr. John Frame coined a term that portrays well the way Scripture interacts with God’s people; he would propose that Scripture communicates to us tri-perspectivaly. Dr. Frame’s thesis is that God’s Triune nature also conveys Scripture to His people in such a manner. Many other scholars affirm this approach to Scripture as well, to name a few; Dr. Richard P. Belcher, Dr. Robert J. Cara, and Dr. Richard L. Pratt. They claim that Dr. Frame’s tri-perspectival view of Scripture is a great framework. In simple terms, saying Scripture is tri-perspectival means that Scripture talks of and values these three things: the mind, hand, and the heart. Or in other words the thinking, feeling, and doing. This tri-perspectival approach is portrayed further in the diagram below:
Why is this important? And how does this connect to marriage? It is important because we must understand our tendencies to minimize the existential aspect in Scripture as well as in our lives. This is primarily a blog site aimed to Reformed Christians in Asia. I am both Reformed and Asian (and proud to being both!). However, it will do me good to be willing to acknowledge certain presuppositions I have based on my background. Emotions are not necessarily valued when we think of the cultural realities within various Reformed denominations. For the most part, we tend to put the emphasis on the mind. Nor are feelings valued in most Asian cultures, at least not usually when compared to how much we emphasize the thinking and the doing. Not to generalize too broadly, but if you grew up within in an Asian context or Reformed background, there is a higher chance that you enter into adulthood valuing your IQ (intelligence quota) more than your EQ (emotional quota), and there is more likelihood that you tend to be pragmatic rather than contemplative. Again, this is not a blanket statement, but mere likelihoods caused by generational and cultural transference.
This reality can be dangerous not only in our Biblical hermeneutics, but can also do much damage to our relationships especially in our marriage. When we don’t value feelings, when we set aside emotions such as depression, anger, sadness, and jealousy as weakness and merely sinful we miss an opportunity to peak into the soul. We too quickly deem those emotions as ‘bad’ or as something to be solved and fixed. So what do we do? We quickly throw in a Bible verse such as Romans 8:28 or say clichés such as “this too shall pass.” Now, I am not saying that Bible verses or all cultural proverbs are bad, I am merely saying we often misuse Bible verses and cultural proverbs as a painkiller that numb the pain but does not address the wound.
Remember the story about my mother’s arm in the beginning of this blog post? The reason she was not able to address the wound properly is because she was not able to feel the pain. This reality in physical health can also be used as an analogy in our emotional and spiritual health. See, the pain my mom felt was not what needed fixing, it was the broken bones that needed healing. The pain is not evil; it can be a friend that will help us locate the wound. When we or our spouse feel emotional pain such as anger, sadness, jealousy, insecurity, or anxiety it would be dangerous to ignore it or to think that quoting a Bible verse can fix it. Because it is not primarily the anger that needs fixing, it is the wound causing the anger that needs healing.
A year and a half ago, my wife, Tatiana, and I went to our first couples counseling session at the suggestion of the counselor I was seeing at that time. We came in thinking that we were at a good spot in our marriage and joked about having nothing to talk about. In the session, when the counselor asked about our compatibility, she jokingly started to explain how she is the ‘emotional one’, who wears her emotions on her sleeves: anger, happiness, sadness, joy, etc. and how I was the rational one. I was the one who was steady, not moved, and a ‘foundation’ that was uneasily affected. We felt this was a great dynamic in our relationship because we “balanced each other out”, however after hearing my wife’s explanation our counselor, to our surprise, became very quiet, gently looked into my wife’s eyes and said: “Tatiana, that must be so lonely for you.” Tatiana was silent for a few seconds, then, to my surprise, she burst into tears. She then began to express (rightly so) how, at times, she felt like she was ‘too much’, and also felt unheard, unloved, and uncared for. I, of course, was shocked! “I have done so well putting her in my schedule” I thought, “I have verbally expressed my self more,” I thought. “What more could she possibly want?”
This was when it was revealed to me that I was fearful and unequipped to enter into her emotions. When she shared about feeling sad I would attempt to rationalize her out of it. When she was angry I would attempt to calm her down by thinking the best about the person who upset her. When she was anxious I wondered why she couldn’t just trust God. I underplayed her emotions, especially the ‘negative’ ones. I completely missed their value: that emotions are a window to understanding the soul. How can emotions do this? By helping us see the landscape of our souls. Just as physical pain leads us to understand the landscape of our bodies; emotions can also lead us to understand the landscape of the soul. Where are the landmines located that can trigger our spouse if stepped on? Where are the hidden treasures that need to be found and celebrated over? Where are the areas of the soul that are desolate and need nourishment? Where are the parts of the soul that are fertile and can feed life into our marriage when brought to light? Just as your body will be at risk if you never feel the pain that can lead you to the wound in need of healing, your marriage will also be at risk if you are not willing to enter into your spouse’s emotions, because they can help lead you to the places that need healing.
There are four potential dangers that I will address if we continually neglect the ‘negative’ emotions expressed by our spouse: spousal loneliness, spousal defeat, spousal guilt, and spousal hopelessness. The first, spousal loneliness, is exactly what our counselor called out in my wife. Could your spouse be at risk of loneliness because you cannot connect emotionally? When was the last time you actually felt sad with your spouse instead of trying to talk him/her into feeling happy? When was the last time you shared in your spouses’ anger instead of trying to fix the problem? When was the last time you acknowledged your spouses’ anxiety and attempted to understand it instead of always telling him/her everything will turn out ok? If all you do is always try to cheer up, calm down, and fix your spouses’ problem, at best he/she will not be sad, or angry, or worried, but will be lonely.
The second, spousal defeat; is what I experienced in our marriage after acknowledging my wife’s loneliness. I had put so much effort in providing for our family financially. I tried so hard to schedule date nights, I tried so hard to say the ‘right’ words and do the ‘right’ things, and I tried so hard to lead her spiritually, but none of this seemed to fulfill her longings for connection with me. This was not because she was overly needy, but it was because I did not know how to engage her emotionally, which leads us to our third danger, spousal guilt. This guilt is usually felt by the one who is in need of emotional connection or seen as ‘needy’. At first Tatiana chalked it up to gender differences and found emotional support from close female friends. This helped to suppress the disappointment she felt from the lack of connection and care from me because she had seen my various attempts to fix things. She also started to think that her lack of fulfilled emotional desires came from an idolatrous heart in putting upon me the expectations only Jesus can fulfill. Although in her humility she will probably say there is an ounce of truth to that, it was mostly caused by my disinterest in her emotions.
The final danger is what I call spousal hopelessness. This can happen rather quickly but it usually takes time to get to this point. It is where there is a delusion of already having tried to do “everything” by concluding that ‘things just don’t work’. This is where we start to believe in the illusion of incompatibility, where despite having tried everything ‘we are just not compatible’. I can relate with you if you feel this way, but I also would like to encourage you that there may be a very important realm you have not yet tapped into, namely, the existential/emotional realm.
See, when we pry deeper into our spouses’ pains and ‘negative’ emotions in an attempt to understand them, instead of ignoring or demonizing them, we will see the wounds behind it and be able to live with them in understanding as commanded by the Lord. I want to end this blog post with some examples from real life case studies I have seen in various marriages:
Case Study 1
A wife felt extremely depressed (emotion) by a slightly insensitive comment her boss made at work, the husband was able to dialogue and trace her hurt feeling back to how as she grew up she always felt guilty due to her bad grades and her parents unrealistically high expectations (wound), the bosses’ comment was more fuel thrown into the flame. Her underlining issue was with the lie she believed growing up, that she will never be enough. This was an area where her husband can connect with the hurt from her past wounds and better understand why she would be very hurt by her boss’ insensitive comment about her performance.
Case Study 2
A husband was really angry and unforgiving (emotion) that a man he was discipling dropped the ball in an outreach event they organized for their church. The husband was open to his wife about his anger and they were able to talk about his feelings. They both came to realize that because this event failed he felt shamed in front of his pastor. Coming to learn, the husband was never affirmed as a man by his father (wound). Because their Pastor had a great role in affirming the husband, the wife was able to better understand why the husband would be feeling shame leading to anger towards his disciple and help her husband grieve the past wound placed by his father. She also helped encourage him to not repeat the same message of anger he received from his father to his disciple. The underlying issue was with the husband’s lack of approval from an adult male care giver, not primarily with his disciple.
Case Study 3
A wife is always anxious (emotion) about their savings and causes the husband to feel upset (emotion) because he feels like the wife does not trust him to provide. This is a major argument cycle in their marriage. They expressed each other’s hurts to then discovering that the wife’s father always spent any savings they had growing up, to where she had to go into debt to pay for her college tuition, this created an inability to trust (wound). And the husband went to a period of traumatic bullying by older kids in school, causing him to consistently feel emasculated (wound). The underlying issue the wife had was with her father, and the underlying issue the husband had is with doubting his masculinity. Their savings that brought up anxiety and anger, stem out of those wounds.
Case Study 4
The husband is caught inappropriately lusting (emotion) by watching pornography. He tries to improve by memorizing verses and praying (which are good things) but does not seem to get better, the wife finally leaves him. Through counseling he realizes that he has never received any sort of respect ever since he was a child, he has always been shamed by his father, friends, and now even in his adult life by his boss, his wife, and even his kids (wound). Pornography was a way for him to get respected from women without risking being shamed, because they would listen to his every desire by him simply clicking his mouse. The real issue was that he has never received respect and was in a consistent state of shame, pornography was an outlet for that unmet need.
I hope that through these real life case studies we can learn the value of tracing back emotions to the wound, and how “bad emotions” can actually be used to serve marital growth. I encourage you to not so quickly disqualify ‘bad emotions’ as something to be fixed but rather as something to point you toward a wound in need of healing. My prayer is that through this, we would be able to understand our spouses more, and seek to know and love them as our King sought us out and loved us to the point of taking up His cross. I hope you will not have a ‘high tolerance’ towards emotional pain, that you can live in understanding with your spouse, learn more about them, and let their emotions, even the ‘negative’ ones, be your teacher. My hope is for us to not be like the insensitive prophets and priest in Jeremiah who received a harsh rebuke from the Lord. They were reprimanded for neglecting and minimizing the wounds of God’s people, and to them our God said:
“They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
– Jeremiah 6:14
You may have read those case studies above and wonder how you would ever be able to identify a wound from an emotion, here are some baby steps to consider:
1. Start to understand your own emotions by putting names to how you feel, see the list of emotions from this wheel diagram:
2. The next time your spouse is highly emotional, ask your self: “Am I trying to fix them, or understand them?”
3. Remember that God made your heart to be a channel not a container. It will be beneficial for you to start expressing those feelings you identified from Baby Step 1 to your spouse.
Edited by: Tatiana Putra