Communicating Negative Feelings in The Family

Many families are hurting because they spend too much time in negative, destructive, communication cycles. Harsh, accusatory words from one partner often leads to a defensive, attacking response from the other. Such negative interactions take up so much of our family time because we fail to handle negative emotions in healthy constructive ways.

Certainly we cannot live in the intimacy of the family without getting angry, hurt, frustrated or disappointed at some point. Life together in the best of families is not always roses, ice cream, and chocolate chip cookies.

When the challenges of daily life provoke negative emotions, we need to face them and diffuse them before a painful, negative cycle sets in.

Anger is one emotion, for example, that most of us have trouble with. It is one of the most difficult emotions to understand and control. Some people, when angry, have tantrums and send everyone around them, friend and foe alike, scurrying for cover. Others in the face of their anger maintain a stoic, icy silence not openly letting their feelings be known. They may sulk, pout or simply tighten up their facial muscles, staring with eyes of steel. Both of these extremes of emotional expression are unhealthy: uncontrolled outbursts of anger destroys property, wounds souls, and starts large and small wars. But holding in one’s anger is just as damaging. Seething, bottled up anger leads to ulcers, headaches, heart attacks and if nothing else, nasty dispositions. Unfortunately, many people have not been able to find a happy medium between these extremes.

Healthy productive ways of dealing with anger do exist. If we can learn to handle our own anger properly, our families will have much smoother sailing now and we and our children will have a much happier, healthier lives in the future.

Healthy expression of negative feelings requires three steps:

  • First, we need to claim the feeling.
  • Secondly, we must name the feeling.
  • Third, we must properly aim the feeling.

This simple process allows us to get our feelings out in the open in an honest way. For instance: When the husband comes home late after work, his wife, is tempted to say, “Here you are, late again. Dinner is cold.” The more healthy response would be, “I am angry.” or “I feel frustrated.” because you are late. I wish you had called.” She claims the feeling: “I am angry.” “She names the feeling: “I am angry. . .” The she aims the feeling:I am angry because you are late and I fixed a special meal.” She is honestly verbalizing how she feels. She is not attacking her husband. On the other hand to say, “You are always late and you don’t care how hard I work to make dinner.” puts the husband on the defensive and will likely lead to a negative response on his part.

Too often we are angry at one thing or person, but aim it at someone, or something else. For instance, the husband is angry at his boss for giving him extra responsibilities. He comes home and shouts at his wife. Bewildered and frustrated, she, in turn, snaps back at her daughter. The daughter walks out the door and kicks the dog lying peacefully on the step. Everyone ends up cross and frustrated. When negative emotions such as anger, frustration and impatience build up, we should seek to vent these at the proper target, not at the innocent victims who happen to be in our path.

How could dad have handled this situation a little more reasonably?

Maybe he could have said to the boss, “I think this assignment is unfair. I have more than my share of work. But if you give it to me, I will do my best.” For most men this takes more nerve than yelling at his wife. But it possibly could open up some productive dialogue between him and his boss.

If he feels he cannot be this honest with the boss, he could say to his wife as he drags through the front door, “Watch out, honey. I’m very mad at the boss and I may explode any minute.” Such openness could very well diffuse the situation and, at least, help his wife understand his dark mood. Everyone down to the poor dog on the doorstep will appreciate this more honest approach.

This kind of honesty in which we own our feelings will tend to defuse the heat of the moment and allow for more productive, problem solving dialogue in the future.