As with most things in life, romantic relationships are, for many of us, a double-edged sword: while most find it wonderful to love and be loved, developing intimate emotional ties to someone makes us emotionally vulnerable—vulnerable not only to being hurt by our partner’s opinions of and feelings toward us, but also vulnerable to being affected by our partner’s bad moods. If a colleague or a friend gets depressed, we’re often able to offer a comforting word or two without ourselves being drawn into his or her emotional maelstrom. When our partner becomes depressed or sad or angry or jealous or anxious, however, our own emotions are often triggered in unpleasant ways. Just what can we do to manage our own bad moods that arise as a result of our partner’s?
1. Identify and understand your typical reactions to your partner’s bad moods. In medical school, students are taught that if they find themselves feeling depressed when interviewing a patient it’s often because the patient is depressed. Moods are contagious. Often—but certainly not always—your reaction to your partner’s mood will be to mimic it (i.e., he’s down so you become down; she’s angry so you become angry, and so on). For example, when my wife gets irritated at someone, I often become irritated at her. Why? Because I don’t like having to deal with angry people (it’s not rational, I know, but emotional reactions often aren’t).
2. Take responsibility for your own mood, not your partner’s. Your own emotional reaction to your partner’s bad mood, if indulged and expressed, will often make a bad situation worse. When I get angry at my wife for getting angry, that only makes her angry at me. If you get angry at your partner for being anxious (anxiety often makes people annoying, for instance) that won’t just fail to help your partner manage his or her anxiety; it will often make his or her anxiety worse, as well as create conflict between you even though the issue raising his or her anxiety in the first place may have nothing to do with you or your relationship at all. Keep this mantra at the front of your mind at all times: you cannot control your partner’s mood. You can influence it, meaning with a strategic response you can increase the likelihood that it will improve, but that won’t happen if your strategy is simply to indulge your own emotional reaction.
3. But you’re not even responsible for your mood. In a previous post, How to pull good things out of others, I wrote (to paraphrase): “Who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we’re with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers and boss? Those around us exert far more of an influence on who we are than we perhaps realize—not by their conscious intention, but by being who they are themselves. (How often, for example, do you want to be loving and kind toward your spouse only to be left feeling cold and bitter by his lack of gratitude? Or fun-loving and silly with your children only to be left irritated and mean-spirited by their temper tantrums?)” This is to say that we’re not really in control of what we feel, either. We can, however, exert a restraining influence over the likelihood that we’ll blindly act on our feelings. Far better, when it comes to relationships, to remain critical of our own emotional reactions to our partner’s moods and to make consistent attempts to rationally decide how we want to react.
4. Develop a strategy ahead of time. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out that when my wife is angry about something, she wants me to become angry with her. That’s the best way, I’ve discovered, that I can validate what she’s feeling, which is what most of us want most of the time when we’re feeling something strongly. When she’s in a bad mood, on the other hand, she wants my understanding but not my help. I often presume I can help, of course, forgetting that how I might want to fix a problem is often quite different from how she does. For me, the key to learning to resist trying to help was realizing that my desire to help her was driven more by my desire to help myself—that is, I was really trying to resolve her bad mood only to resolve mine. Realizing this freed me to act on my understanding that sometimes, as difficult as it is, the best thing I can do is simply leave her alone. To accomplish this, I now need only remind myself that her bad mood isn’t my fault (it’s amazing how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing we have in some way caused our partner’s bad mood even when we haven’t).
5. This too shall pass. All moods are temporary (of course, some people spend more time in a bad mood than we’d like, but that’s another issue entirely). The key is to find a place of equanimity while your partner is in a bad mood. You may feel bad for your partner, as well as bad yourself. Ideally, you’d like to become a person who, when your partner is in a bad mood, remains not only perfectly supportive, but also internally intact. That may mean you need to take some emotional—or even physical—distance from them (the challenge there, of course, is how to do so without seeming to abandon your partner emotionally). It may mean you need to engage in an inner dialogue to find within yourself amid all the negative emotions your partner’s negative emotions may trigger in you your most compassionate self. But in the end, that’s what a bad mood in someone else represents: an opportunity to exercise your compassion. I find, for example, when I finally am able to remember that point that my own personal reaction to my wife’s bad moods recedes, and I’m able to be the person I want to be with her: not just compassionate but wise. This, in fact, is the only thing I’ve ever discovered that prevents my mood from being pulled down by hers: establishing just enough emotional distance from her in my mind that I’m able to view her apart from the function she plays in my life and more as a human being in her own right.
These strategies work for me, I should note, because my partner’s bad moods are rare. Though I imagine they would also work for someone with a partner whose bad moods are frequent, over time continuously having to manage one’s own bad mood in response to a partner’s will become exhausting. Knowing just when to call for professional help can be tricky, however. You don’t want to overreact, but at the same time you don’t want your own happiness continually contaminated by someone else’s consistent unhappiness.
In my view, just as people often attempt to care for a loved one with dementia far longer than they should (often out of a sense of loyalty, love, and desire to avoid putting them in a nursing home), so too do people allow their own reactive unhappiness to continue too long, often deciding to do something drastic (like leaving the relationship) after reaching a dramatic breaking point. A better approach, however, would entail consciously recognizing that things are going badly early, before such a breaking point occurs. So perhaps a simple rule of thumb might be this: if you ever find yourself realizing that you’re no longer yourself—that is, you’re unhappier in a relationship than you were when single—specifically as a result of being in the orbit of a partner whose bad moods are too contagious for you to resist, that’s when it’s time to call for help—for both of you.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.