Linda: Sherry and Scott found themselves arguing a lot. One of the main causes of their fights revolved around Scott coming home later than he said he would. When he would arrive late, he would be met with blame from Sherry saying, “You make me feel so angry! You are so inconsiderate. I can’t count on you. You make me so mad!” Any good will that Scott had driving home from work, looking forward to reuniting with Sherry, evaporated in the face of such a greeting. He reacted to her harsh judgment, justifying his lateness saying with an angry tone of voice, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this? The way you shout, you’d think I was an ax murderer!”
Sherry had no awareness of her part in their bitter arguments. She believed she was merely sharing her honest feelings, and actually believed that her strong emotions were caused by the external event of Scott’s tardiness. She had no insight that she was ascribing her own meaning to the event of Scott’s lateness.
These two cycled through many bouts of extreme discomfort around his lateness and several other disagreements around his “laid-backness” due to basic personality differences. Scott’s orientation was more relaxed and Sherry’s strict. Sherry saw herself as a highly responsible person and felt duty bound to report her distress to correct Scott.
When Scott and Sherry came to couples’ counseling, it was revolutionary thought for Sherry to realize that it wasn’t Scott’s behaviors that were causing her distress. His behavior was only a trigger for her feelings and her strong reaction had more to do with the meaning and significance that she was attaching to the event. Sherry realized that she was interpreting his behavior as a lack of caring and respect that both hurt and frightened her.
It was a pivotal moment when Sherry saw that she was making HERSELF feel what she was feeling because of all the secondary messages she was telling herself about his behavior. Even after her realization, it took a large number of repetitions to break the old blaming habit that invited Scott’s reactivity when he felt accused of being a bad husband. Sherry made a firm commitment to communicate her feelings of sadness when he was late because she had been looking forward to seeing him. She was able to become vulnerable more of the time to share her fears that he didn’t value her strong preferences around keeping agreements.
When Sherry became more responsible in her expression of her emotions, owning her own feelings rather than blaming, Scott felt much more safety and warmth in their partnership. He kept closer track of the time to arrive when he said he would. His response was not due to fear of getting into trouble, but because he wanted to gift Sherry with showing his care for her. Out of her understanding of how much more skillful it is to share her own tender feelings rather than her judgments Sherry was able to completely delete “You make me feel” from her vocabulary.