Written by The Relate Institute
Have you ever been mad at someone and thought, “Why am I so mad at them? They didn’t do it on purpose!” ? When you’re mad about something, it’s easier to shut off your brain and just brood, than to really think about the above question. Unfortunately, when you do this, it leaves you clueless as to why exactly you’re upset. Before you come back with the retort, “I’m just mad because I’m mad!” hear us out. Anger is what we call a secondary emotion. It’s the top of the iceberg of emotions. This means there are primary emotions beneath it. Because primary emotions leave us feeling more vulnerable, they quickly get covered up with some form of anger, causing us to react poorly when we feel wronged in our relationships.
For example, a wife might be mad at her husband for forgetting his phone one day because she couldn’t get ahold of him. But a closer examination of what’s going on with her could reveal a fear of something bad happening and not being able to find him. Or maybe she’s afraid he doesn’t care about her enough to remember the things she asks him to do–like bring his phone with him. She doesn’t hold on to her fear very long because fear is a vulnerable and scary emotion. Which of these emotions seems softer, though – Anger or Fear? Her husband will likely react a lot more kindly and apologetically if she shows him her fear for his safety rather than her anger at his forgetfulness when he gets home.
Primary Emotions: Fear, Hurt, Shame, Disgust, Loss, Sadness, Pain
Secondary Emotions: Anger, Frustration, Anxiety, Jealousy
Primary emotions are usually immediate reactions that we feel the moment something happens. We don’t even usually know they’re there. Our primary emotions quickly turn into secondary emotions which we’re more familiar and comfortable with. After all, if your spouse reacts poorly to your anger, there is less risk of being hurt than if he/she reacts poorly to your sincere expression of a fear and hurt. In this regard, it’s easier to be angry at a spouse, than to let him/her know you are hurting and really need him/her; anger serves as a personal protection and a way to keep from feeling dependent on others.
Unfortunately, primary emotions hang around longer than secondary emotions do because until we get to the primary emotion causing the secondary emotional reaction, we can’t resolve the source of the anger. Anger also leads to defensiveness in a partner, leaving you both feeling upset, misunderstood, and resentful. Being able to talk to your partner about your primary emotions allows him/her to address the core of the issue and offer you the comfort and reassurance you actually need.
It’s a lot easier to feel secondary emotions because they feel vague, familiar, and less intimidating. But once you start paying attention to why you feel the secondary emotions, you’ll get to the root of what is going on and be able to resolve it much more quickly. So next time you want to snap at your spouse, take a moment to really think about what your emotional reaction is about. Are you just “mad because you’re mad!” or is there something deeper going on?
"What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility."
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