How Emotional Intelligence Can Strengthen Your Marriage (and the Secret to Learning It)

This one secret can increase your emotional intelligence, and you’ll be surprised how simple it is.
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This one secret can increase your emotional intelligence, and you’ll be surprised how simple it is.

A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

My wife fell in love with me the night we met. We both worked for the same organization in different parts of the region, and we met at an all-staff conference. She was an outgoing, effervescent beacon of light who worked the room with charm and grace. I was the brooding loner who sat in the corner hoping to avoid as many conversations as possible. Somehow we ended up hanging out one evening. We swapped stories, listened to music, and even went for a long romantic walk under the moonlight.

She went home that night and wrote in her journal that she wished I would become her husband. (I have proof. She gave me a framed copy of the journal entry as a wedding gift. It now hangs on our bedroom wall.) I went home and called my girlfriend—a totally different girl—to tell her about this neat new friend I’d made.

I was, to put it mildly, absolutely clueless about the impact I’d had on my future wife. And, if I’m totally honest, I was pretty clueless about the impact she’d had on me as well. At 22 years old, I simply didn’t have very much emotional intelligence.

I’d like to think that’s changed in the past two decades—but not without some intentionality.

The phrase emotional intelligence became popular about twenty years ago, when it was coined by author and psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman. Dr. Goleman argued that emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient, otherwise known as “EQ”) was as, if not more, important than intellectual or academic intelligence. The notion of what EQ actually is has been hotly debated over the past two decades. The current leaders in the field are Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, coauthors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

Bradberry and Greaves describe EQ as a combination of four skills: self-awareness and self-management (skills that are more about you) and social awareness and relationship management (skills that are more about others). In short, EQ is a measure of how aware you are about yourself and your relationships. Most of the EQ research has been directed at the workplace, but the idea of emotional intelligence has profound implications on an intentional marriage.

The world’s leading researcher in making marriage work, Dr. John Gottman, states: “Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.”

A happy marriage is an emotionally intelligent marriage. It includes two partners who are committed to both self- and other-awareness. And each of those partners also have a capacity and inclination to manage their own emotional state and their impact on the other. Dr. Gottman continues:

“In the strongest marriages, husband and wife share a deep sense of meaning. They don’t just ‘get along’—they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together. The more emotionally intelligent a couple, the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other in this manner.”

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? A relationship where you are better able to understand, honor, and respect one another? I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of relationship I want. It does, however, raise a ton of questions for me. Specifically: Can I, can we, learn to be more emotionally intelligent? What if I, we, have never been very good at emotional stuff? Is there a secret? How exactly do I become more emotionally intelligent?

The good news is that you can indeed learn to raise your EQ. This is the basic thesis of Bradberry and Greaves’ book; I can also vouch from personal experience. For most of my life I was not comfortable with emotions and emotional expression. Somehow, this is exactly what made my wife fall in love with me. She is, by the way, extremely emotionally aware, so we’re kind of an odd couple. But over time, I started to get it. I started to become more attuned to myself and my environment, and my relationships (with myself and others) began to improve. I’m living proof that EQ can be learned.

Growing your emotional intelligence begins, without question, with an intentionality around awareness. It’s hard work, paying attention to the cues and clues that your heart and your mind and even your body give you. That said, I actually do believe that there’s a secret. Or at least there’s a way to start raising awareness. The secret is so simple that it’s almost silly. Ready . . .?

The secret is Building Your Emotional Vocabulary.

I think one of the biggest obstacles to an awareness of our feelings and emotions is a limited vocabulary. That was definitely my problem the night I met my wife. I only had access to easily described feelings such as happy, sad, and angry. I’ve worked hard to learn how to describe those feelings more fully. Here’s an example: Imagine feeling sad. Now imagine feeling depressed, nostalgic, melancholy, ill, grief-stricken. All of those are different, deeper. More emotionally intelligent.

Do you remember learning about parts of speech in the third grade? Just in case, adjectives are words that modify a noun. That means they describe a person, place, or thing. Adverbs modify verbs. They describe an action. Now, let’s assume that in this case, the noun is a thing called an emotion, and the action verb is feel.

In an intentional relationship, you have to do the work of getting past the first feeling and describing it more fully. The first emotion you feel is often the most powerful but the least true. When your impulse is anger, you need to do the work of describing it more accurately so that you can move to a more useful emotion. I may actually be feeling jealous, embarrassed, worried, anxious, hurt, or ashamed. Each of those carries a different weight and will better inform the way I relate to my partner. I dare say, it will help you better understand, honor, and respect one another.

For the record, if you want to start building your emotional vocabulary, you could do worse than to check out The Sedona Method by Hale Dwoskin. There are a ton of good insights in the book, but it also has a killer list of emotion words that can help you build your vocabulary and ultimately raise your EQ.

As always, I’m happy to connect with you around your ideas for an intentional relationship. Don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at zach@zachbrittle.com, or find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook.

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography