Don’t Be a Jerk! Assess your emotional intelligence and improve your marriage…

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

How frequently do you hear from your partner that you aren’t understanding them, or that you’re missing the point in your conversations? Are you (secretly) thinking that you really don’t know what is going on with your partner or why they’re so upset? Maybe you’re even a little confused as to why you and your partner are ok as long as you’re not talking about anything too heavy… If this sounds familiar, one of the problems in your marriage could be you!

Most people have come across the term emotional intelligence (EI), and may even have an idea of what it means. EI is a set of essential relationship skills that allow us to engage in rewarding, intimate relationships for the long-haul. EI is not related to IQ. Most of us have met people who are brilliant, but who are lacking in needed relationship skills: they are typically poor leaders and do not function very well in intimate relationships. The good news about EI is that you can become more emotionally intelligent with some work. Read on to assess your own EI skill level and learn how you can work on improving your emotional quotient!

First - are you understanding and managing what you’re feeling?

The first EI skill is the ability to be aware of what you are feeling in the midst of interactions with your partner. This sounds relatively simple - right? Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as it sounds. Imagine that you are having one of your go-to arguments with your partner… you know, the one about money, or parenting, or sex, or your mother-in-law. Now, as you’re stepping back into the last time you had this argument, try to answer this question: Are you aware of what you are feeling? For example, are you feeling anxious, agitated, defensive, hurt, etc.?

If you are unaware of what you are feeling, you can easily escalate any interaction, which means there is no longer an opportunity for a productive conversation. If you’re thinking, “Simple - it’s not hard for me to tell when I’m getting angry!” - it gets a little harder. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to know what you are feeling, but you must also be able to regulate what you are feeling in the midst of an interaction. It is important to know you are feeling defensive, for example. Self-regulation is then the ability to say to your partner - “I’m feeling defensive right now, and struggling to listen. Can we take a break, and come back to this in a little bit?”

Second - are you tuning into and understanding your partner?

The second EI skill is the ability to tune into what your partner is feeling, and empathically understand their subjective experience. Ok - we admit… that’s a mouthful and, honestly, it’s easier said than done. In most intense interactions we are so focused on what we are feeling, and our own frustrations, that we cannot tune into or listen to our partner very well. The ability to hear your partner even when you’re having your own strong feelings takes incredible discipline, and connects to our first point, which is the ability to self-regulate. So, again, think about your last argument and try to answer this question: How well did you keep what you were feeling from directing how you acted, and how well did you step into your partner’s shoes to understand their feelings even though you were having your own strong feelings?

This skill, by the way, does not mean that you have to agree with what your partner is saying, or surrender your position. Instead, it means simply understanding their perspective and communicating that you understand what they are feeling while holding on to your own perspective.

Third - are you taking a bird’s eye view?

The third and final EI skill is, perhaps, the most difficult. In the midst of an interaction with your partner, this skill is the ability to observe the interaction between the two of you as if you were watching it on tape, and then, based on what you’re seeing, recalibrate where the interaction is going. For one final time, come back to your last argument and try to answer this question: Are you able to understand the impact that you are having on your partner with the way you are engaging in the argument? Vice versa: are you able to understand the impact that your partner is having on you with the way they are engaging? Can you see opportunities to do something different than you usually do to slow the conversation down and take the intensity down?

Remember, you can only shift your part of the interaction. For example, you may notice that your interaction with your partner is getting heated, and that you are not listening to your partner anymore, but rather thinking of what you will say next. As you observe the direction the interaction is going, you may be able to do something different, and slow things down. Rather than adding emotional fuel to the argument, you might slow it down by checking in with your partner and saying, “I really want to understand what you are saying right now…” By shifting focus, you will shift where the interaction is going.

Now you know the essential skills for EI, but how do you work on them?

These three dimensions of EI are essential to all healthy relationships with peers, coworkers, children, and certainly with your partner. After you assess where you are, and get feedback from your partner, you may find that you have some work to do. Unfortunately, this is not an intellectual exercise, and involves training the limbic system in order to improve. This means that you can’t simply read a book and become emotionally intelligent - you need to practice these skills within interactions in all of your relationships, but especially with your partner.

The next time you and your partner get into an interaction that is beginning to heat up, check in with yourself to make sure you are:

  1. Aware of what you are feeling and keeping those feelings from changing your behavior.
  2. Seeking to understand what your partner is feeling, by trying to put yourself in their shoes without forgetting what your own shoes feel like.
  3. Tracking how your partner is reacting to you and how you are reacting to them… then looking for opportunities to do something different than you usually do, like asking your partner to help you understand their position better.

If this sounds overwhelming (or maybe impossible) don’t hesitate to make an appointment with one of our relationship coaches for more help. Having a third person in the room as a guide and a coach can be immensely helpful in improving your EI skills… and your relationship!