Looking at the Roots of Your Emotions

At its worst, my ADD marriage was filled with swirling, extreme emotions – hope, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration.  These were overwhelming and make me feel hopeless until I started addressing these emotions at their most basic roots.  Perhaps, with a few of the ideas I put down here, you’ll be able to start sorting out – and improving – some of the most troubling emotions you feel in your own relationship.

When I worked in advertising we did a very interesting type of consumer research that tried to get at the underlying reasons why people behave as they do.  This was based on in-depth interviews of specific groups – for example buyers of vitamins or sugar substitutes.  The researcher would dig deeper and deeper into why a person acted as they did.  The reason for doing the research was to be able to motivate people to purchase products based upon their most deep-seated emotions by having the advertising express those emotions (or the solutions to the problems these emotions created).  On the cynical side of things, you run into this in every woman’s magazine in the form of “want to be loved?  Be thin!” and the men’s version “want to be loved?  Be buff (or rich)”.  More seriously, finding the roots of emotional issues is what therapy (and advertising) is all about.  You want to get at the root of your own emotions so that you can be the one who figures out solutions that address your real, deepest emotions.

I’m going to call the underlying tangle of emotions you’re trying to get at “rootballs” here (I like the visual imagery of that!) and hope that if you and your spouse can find and compare rootballs on thorny issues you may be able to approach some of dissention in your relationship from new, more insightful, angles.

Here’s a simple example of finding a rootball:  you feel resentful because your spouse never does chores around the house.  If you dig deeper one level, you might find that part of your resentment is that he used to do chores when you were just living together but stopped after you got married and that feels unfair…(no, that’s not really it…dig deeper)…you don’t like the uncertainty of his saying he’ll do them, then never doing them, (true, but it’s not the most basic issue...dig deeper)…you don’t like that it makes you feel like his mother to constantly follow up after him…(closer…dig deeper)…when you remind him, he retreats and that makes you feel like he doesn’t like being with you…(closer…dig deeper)…you feel intense pressure from the logistics of running a household alone because he isn’t helping…(also true…dig deeper)…you feel alone…(yes – can you go deeper?)…you feel that his unwillingness to help out and leaves you alone is a sign that he doesn’t love you.

And there it is – the gnarly, messy rootball…the simple problem is that the chores don’t get done.  The hidden issue is that you fear it means that your spouse doesn’t love you (for if he did, he would take on his share of the responsibilities…or so the logic goes.  The reality is most likely much different!)

This same example could have had a different rootball…for example, one that ended up with the concept that your spouse’s not doing chores around the house makes you afraid that you will have more responsibility than you can handle because your spouse is reliably unreliable…and you’re afraid that you won’t be able to take on that much (i.e. that you are unsure of your abilities and/or feeling insecure).

So what do you do with a rootball once you’ve dug it up?

  1. Ask yourself – is this REAL?  Is it true that my husband doesn’t love me or that I can’t handle the responsibility?  Chances are that your fears are outsized.  And just recognizing your deeper feelings helps you deal with them.
  2. Figure out – what am I going to do to make the tree growing out of this rootball healthy?  In my case, I went to my husband and told him that his lack of responsibility around the house seemed symbolic that he didn’t love me.  He insisted that he did, which helped, but I insisted that it was important for him to find a chore that was absolutely, positively and symbolically his – preferably one I hated.  After some lengthy conversations about whether "symbolic mattered", he chose doing the dishes and unloading the dishwasher.  Symbols really do matter much of the time, else we wouldn't make such a big deal out of wedding rings.  Sometimes they really do illustrate something.  For me, a ring was great, but the dishes were at least as good - better really -because it was an every day action that showed he respected and loved me – over and over again.  (There was more to this rootball which I won’t go into here, which had to do with not spending enough time together also suggesting to me that he didn’t love me…which we also eventually addressed by both of us modifying our behavior and expectations.)
  3. Don’t let yourself fall back into old patterns.  Once George had agreed to do the dishes, it was HIS.  When the dishes didn’t get done, I left them there.  (Now that the pattern is fully established I do, sometimes, do the dishes for him as a favor.)

Rootballs are also important in conversations.  Next time I’ll write about using them as the basis for positive conversations and about the work that William Ury (Co-author of “Getting to Yes”) has done with his ideas around “The Power of a Positive No”.