Fishing was fun but what happened next, I’ll never forget.
One warm summer day my dad, mom, younger sister and I went fishing at nearby MacKay reservoir. Usually we found a spot along the bank but this time we fished off the dam. I can’t remember much about the fishing, I suppose it was a lot of my dad baiting the hook with night crawlers and me casting them into the greenish water.
Not long after we started fishing a group of people came to play at the dam. They carried inner tubes and started swimming in the cool water not far from where we were fishing. I remember watching as each guy curled up inside an inner tube and rolled down the slope of the dam splashing into the water. It looked like fun and the entire group was laughing and having a great time. I’m not sure how long we attempted to fish while they splashed nearby; mostly I remember what happened next.
One of the guys didn’t come up.
The laughing quickly turned to concern then to frantic searching in the murky water.
The next part of my memory consists mostly of the flashing red lights of the ambulance. I learned later my dad drove our truck to a nearby house to call 9-1-1. Emergency workers had difficulty finding the missing swimmer due to poor visibility. They eventually found him but he didn’t make it.
Experiences matter. Highly emotional experiences tend to hold enormous meaning throughout our lifetime. They shape us to the core and provide the backstory of our life.
To this day I’m wary of water sports. It took me a long time to realize how my experience at MacKay Reservoir affected me. I can’t even name the emotion related to the experience but my reaction has been caution. I get nervous around water and tend to be extra vigilant to ensure everyone is safe. That’s not exactly a bad thing and it didn’t really matter until my wife suggested we go white water rafting with friends.
My reaction didn’t go over very well.
My fear came out as disinterest. Ok, my reaction was probably stronger like disdain for her idea. Pro tip: never treat your spouse with disdain, it’s not healthy for connection.
The ensuing discussion was tense, my reaction was surprisingly blunt and raw. I was afraid but it was hard to describe in that moment.
My wife Hollie has a different emotional response to water sports. She had an amazing experience white water rafting in Africa. In the summer after her freshman year in college Hollie visited the country of Zambia for a two week long mission trip. During the trip her group went on a rafting trip of a lifetime on the Zambezi river near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe Africa. They put the raft in at the base of the falls excited to experience the class five rapids. The first rapid was called the boiling pot where the river makes a sharp turn. They had only been in the boat a few minutes when the raft crashed into rocks and turned over. Everyone fell out and rushed to get back in the raft to avoid the crocodiles. Even when she retells the story she can feel the adrenaline rush. Hollie loves a thrill and she remembers her trip as one of the most awesome experiences of her life. Whenever she thinks of whitewater rafting she recalls the wonderful emotion of adventure on the Zambezi.
Our experiences and our reactions to them are vastly different. A simple conversation about the idea of going rafting touched on emotions from our unique experiences. Because our experiences and emotions were so different our communication regarding the possibility of a rafting trip missed each other. I was overly annoyed at her giddiness and rather than share my fear, I was irritable.
Writing about the drowning and my reaction to it nearly 30 years later makes it seem easy. Like I’m super aware of every emotion from every back story of my entire life. I’m not. It took me a while to unpack my reservations to sign up for the rafting trip. Slowly over many conversations with my wife and years of self reflection, I was able to see how my experiences and reactions were related to emotion.
All communication contains emotion to some degree, especially in marriage. Emotions provide meaning to the words we say. The emotions you feel and communicate come from your past experiences and how you react to them.
To communicate better with your spouse:
Identify your emotions.
The simple (but not easy) step of labeling how you feel will help you unpack your reactions and how you communicate with your spouse.
Identify the source of your emotional reaction.
It may not be clear where your emotions are coming from but often there was some type of event or situation behind your emotion. It could be as simple as having an exhausting day which fuels your curt responses to your spouse.
Many couples go off track here and miss-identify their spouse is the reason for their uncomfortable emotions. It’s often a result of lazy introspection. HINT: The source of your negative emotion is likely not your spouse. If I had incorrectly labeled Hollie as the source of my emotion, that it was her fault I felt afraid, our communication and marriage would struggle. Viewing negative emotions as external to your marriage will help you come together against the threat. Viewing negative emotions as internal to your marriage will fuel conflict and disconnection.
If interactions with your spouse have caused serious emotional pain, please get professional help to provide a safe place to heal your marriage.
Share your experience with your spouse.
Communicating about your past experiences will help to explain your current feelings and behaviors. Identifying a situation or combination of circumstances will help your spouse be more supportive and less defensive.
Engage in new experiences.
Be open to trying new experiences and new emotions. Your fear may be valid but don’t let fear paralyze you and limit your life. I’ll try whitewater rafting, it will be scary and I’ll probably never be as comfortable with it as my wife. But when I do I’ll experience new positive emotions and my fear will diminish some.
What is your white water rafting? What scares you but seems silly to your spouse? Share your experience with your spouse. Your communication and connection in marriage will thrive when you take the risk to share vulnerable emotions. When your spouse shares their experiences and fears respond with understanding and gentle encouragement rather than judgment and shame; it will make some wonderful in your marriage.
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