Most of us grew up believing feelings choose us. And that certainly is the message we get from our culture. But letting feelings run the show leads to all kinds of bad stuff.
Highly happy married couples choose to lead their feelings, not the other way around. These couples quickly replace unhappy or angry thoughts with positive ones. The more couples choose to stop focusing on their annoyances, the happier they will be with their spouses and marriages.
This doesn’t mean real issues of concern or damaging problems don’t need to be addressed. But it does mean we’ve got to be careful to address them in ways that add to—rather than hurt—our feelings of goodwill toward our spouse.
Who’s the Boss?
So who’s the boss—you, or your feelings? How you answer that simple question has pretty big consequences. As King Solomon put it in Proverbs 23:7: “For as [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he.”
Sarah, a stay-at-home mom with four young children, described how she sometimes stops negative thoughts about her construction-worker husband when he comes home from work and tells her he needs to take an hour to drop by a friend’s place to watch the end of the game. Sarah says, “Sometimes I start to think, Hey! You’re out of the house all day and don’t have to take care of the children! And now I find out you want to visit someone? Seriously? I start to think, So when do I get to go out?
“Then I think, Yeah, but wait. He’s been at work all day in the hot sun! If I were at work on site all day, I would want to have a break to do something else too. So I see how much he needs it, and I want him to get it.”
See how that works? Sarah put her thoughts and actions, not her feelings, in the driver’s seat—and as a result, changed them. Although happy couples do sometimes need to address perceived imbalances with their spouses, they simply don’t let themselves start the I’m doing more or It’s not fair! train of thought. They understand that kind of thinking can tear a relationship apart.
You Have the Power
Not only does our thinking lead our feelings, but our feelings often follow our actions. We can choose to take positive action—after stopping or redirecting a negative train of thought—and speak positively, even if we don’t feel like it. Basically we can act as if. . . . That’s when we discover we do have the power to change our feelings.
You don’t really trust your husband’s ability to keep the household together while you go on a trip? Act as if you do . . . and you’ll not only see your trust level rising, you’ll discover that the kids didn’t actually fall apart while you were away.
You find yourself incredibly irritated at something your mate just did? Act as if you aren’t, find something you can say “thank you” for instead . . . and you’ll find the irritation really isn’t as big of a deal after all.
Of course this applies in reverse as well. If you’re incredibly irritated and you tell your spouse so, and you mention it to your mom, and your complain to your friend at work, you’ll find the irritation becoming an even bigger deal in your mind.
You find yourself incredibly irritated at something your mate just did? Act as if you aren’t, find something you can say “thank you” for instead . . . and you’ll find the irritation really isn’t as big of a deal after all.<
Proverbs 11:27 has a great summary of both sides: “Whoever seeks good finds favor, but evil comes to one who searches for it.” Ultimately, our actions often end up determining how we feel.
If bossing your self-talk around sounds like something from a self-help book, consider what the apostle Paul wrote when he was chained to a prison wall: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
How can we follow this admonition in a difficult marriage or when we’re simply having a bad day? The answer comes just a few verses later: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. . . . And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
No waiting around for the mood to strike here! Paul’s strong counsel is to decide to feel and think differently than you might otherwise. That’s where change beings.
We can’t buy into the lie that we are powerless over our feelings. We’re not. We can choose to be glad instead of allowing ourselves to be constantly dissatisfied. We can choose to focus on whatever is lovely and not on whatever is driving us crazy. As one wife explained, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we know what will lead to a pity party. If I start thinking, Why can’t I have that kind of house? it’s a bad trend, always. Yes, something might cross my path to make me jealous, but at that point I can choose to redirect my thoughts in a good way.”
And when we do redirect our thoughts, we’ll start to see the wonderful outcome one husband described: “We think we’ll have to drum up all this willpower and bite the bullet and put on nice face forever, with no end in sight. But then something changes. I have found that acting it, even though I don’t feel it, makes me feel it. And suddenly, it’s not acting anymore.”
Reprinted from by The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages by Shaunti Feldhahn Copyright © 2013 by Shaunti Feldhahn. Published by Multnomah Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.