The marriage counselor told us that we each had stuff to deal with as individuals before we could even begin to deal with our marriage stuff. One of the huge lessons I had to learn in my individual sessions was this:
It's okay to get angry.
I don't know where I got the idea that it is not okay to express heavy emotions. That's what my counselor called them, "heavy." I called them "negative" but she said "there are no negative emotions."
Emotions are a gift from God who is the giver of all good gifts, she explained. They help us understand what is going on inside of us and help us address issues and make necessary changes. But unexpressed emotions are like a cancer to the soul. I'm proof of that. Unexpressed emotions almost killed me. And our marriage.
Or love me.
If I had a difficult time saying "I'm angry," I had an especially difficult time adding "because of something you did." That was way too confrontational. I would rather pretend it didn't happen and hope that time would heal my wounds. Coming from stoic stock as I did, that's just how you handled conflict. I kept my heavy feelings inside and eventually I either exploded or imploded.
When our marriage nearly imploded, I realized I can't have a healthy marriage if I don't share my heart. I need to express the good as well as the bad. It goes beyond my marriage, though, to any relationship. I can't know or be known by anyone unless I am honest with them about myself. To be honest about myself, I need to be honest with myself. That's something I am learning to do. It doesn't always feel comfortable because I have avoided it for so long. But it feels good to finally be congruent.
As I consider my children, I want to make sure they learn how to be congruent and express their emotions. I want them to know it's okay to express even their heavy emotions. I want to provide a safe environment where they can fail and succeed so that when they are out of our home and interacting with others, they can avoid the specific pain I've experienced from surpressing my heavy emotions.
When we were new parents, we took a parenting class on how to grow kids the right way. It messed me up for a very long time. It got me focused on their behavior (interupt the right way, look adults in the eye, sit still, be quiet). I became very conflicted as I parented because I knew in my heart that their hearts were more important than their behavior.
Once, when my son was in pre-school, he was throwing a fit about something that I don't remember now. He was probably upset because there were no more olives in the house. Or because he lost at Candyland. In any case, my parents were visiting and I was feeling very uncomfortable about his display of heavy emotions in front of them. As a pre-schooler his display of heavy emotions looked a lot like a temper tantrum. I thought it looked like a poor reflection on my parenting.
So I told him to go to the other room and he could join us again when he gained self control. That was something I'd learned from the class on how to grow kids the right way. I desperately wanted to grow my kids the right way.
After a few minutes he came back into the room and quietly said that he had gained self control. My parents were impressed at his ability to gain self control and at my ability to teach him how to be self controlled. I think what I really taught him was how to surpress his emotions.
Honestly. How does a four year old go and gain self control in a matter of minutes? It's hard enough for a 40 year old. I imagine that while he was in the other room all by his four year old self, he realized that we wanted him to stop crying over whatever it was, so he decided that being self controlled is being quiet. Which is a mistake I think many people make.
According to Strong's Concordance, the greek word Paul uses for self control as he describes the fruit of the spirit means "the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites." Our son didn't master his desires and passions that day; he mastered his behavior and surpressed his emotions.
Fast forward ten years. We've had our marriage crisis and I discovered it's okay to have heavy emotions. Our son, now a teenager who keeps everything inside of himself, yelled at us in anger somewhat inappropriately.
I thought, "okay, we need to address how he said that, but HOORAY! He told us how he felt! He expressed a difficult emotion!" I felt like jumping up and down with joy at his expressed anger because at least he was communicating something. And we can work with something.
That is why it is so important to communicate how you feel. If you don't communicate your feelings, the other person doesn't have anything to work with. They can't respond to the thing that makes you happy or sad. By sharing your feelings, you're helping the other person know you, and you're helping your relationship with them. But by not expressing your emotions, you are not being honest. And that hurts any relationship.
So my first parenting takeaway from marriage counselling is:
Let my kids express their emotions.
The point is not to get my kids to feel no anger or sadness, and it's not even to get them to not express it. The point is to get them to express their emotions, and express them well.