When we take a moment to notice how we manage our day-to-day, moment-to-moment moods within our relationships, it’s interesting to see that the first communication of a bad mood is usually already too late to prevent conflict. How often does your partner snap at you (or vice versa), with that moment being the first realization that he or she is in a bad mood?
I do occasionally come into contact with couples where one announces to the other, “Don’t talk to me right now, I’m in a bad mood.” A little warning up front can go a long way towards preventing unnecessary conflict. The warning is important for several reasons:
First, it announces that right now isn’t a time for touchy or confrontational issues to be brought up. For some, it may mean that all topics are not welcome.
Secondly, a warning announces to a partner that something is going on and that it’s not personal (unless your partner has specified that it is). With the close proximity that occurs between two partners in a relationship, bad moods can easily be interpreted by the rejection-sensitive partner as a personal rejection. Though this would be an issue for that partner to work on, giving the partner a sense of reassurance is helpful and appropriate: “I’m in a bad mood right now. It’s not you, but leave me alone for a while.” The idea is to reduce chances of misunderstanding and conflict, as opposed to saying, “I’m in a bad mood, if you’re going to take it personally, that’s not my problem.” Even if your partner has a personalizing issue to work on, soothing your partner can be a good step towards preventing conflict.
A mood alert lets your partner know that you need them to play a certain role at the moment. For example, some people want to be left alone when in a bad mood; or, some want their partners to be there to listen and be supportive in a certain way (e.g. a hug, a glass of water, undivided attention, etc.). Whatever role you and your partner understand to want from the other during a bad mood, the mood alert announces the time for this.
When there’s no warning, it’s easier for a partner to personalize a bad mood, or to feel attacked, or surprised by a sudden aggression or hostility. This is an emotionally confusing environment that sets the stage for defensiveness, reactions, and arguments.
The Mood Alert
There are several ways to insert an effective mood alert into your relationship.
1) Announcement. Just as in the situations above. Inform your partner that you’re in an angry, or frustrated, or otherwise bad mood. If you have the capacity to elaborate, let your partner know what you need.
2) Paper or Dry Erase Board. Some people keep a dry erase board or a pad of paper handy. When experiencing a significant mood shift, this is noted on the board or paper (whether a good, bad, or neutral mood). It may take some practice, both to remember to write the mood, and to remember to check for updates. Some partners will have a cue for updates — some use a red or blue piece of paper, putting it down next to the partner as a way of saying, “Check the board,” if the partner is unable to speak about the issue in the moment.
3) Color Magnets. Usually done on the refrigerator, some couples will assign colors for moods. When moods shift, a magnet of the color representing their current mood is placed in a designated spot on the refrigerator.
4) Formal Mood Alert. This can be effective both in communication between parters and as a personal relief for bad moods. The formal alert involves writing the emotion associated with the mood (angry, frustrated, sad, annoyed, etc.), and then writing a paragraph about what the issue is. This both informs your partner of what’s going on, and also helps externalize the issue, rather than keeping it inside and ruminating on it.
A word of caution: Understand that your partner may not be perfect at filling the role you need in the moment. You may want your partner to listen and talk with you to help you calm down. But from experience together, your partner may know that he or she gets pulled into the mood too easily and joins in, which actually brings conflict to the situation. Rather than stay and talk to you in those moments, your partner may opt to leave the room in order to keep things under control. This can be recognized as a positive relationship move, even if it means being unable to fulfill the ideal role in that moment.
Generally, the toughest part of the adding the mood alert is remembering to update the alert regularly, especially when in a dysregulated mood. But with practice it can become second-nature, and hopefully remove unnecessary conflict from your relationship.
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