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Are You Claiming “Self-Defense!” When You React Poorly to Your Spouse?

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There are similar stories of self-defense all the time. Someone is wounded, bruised, shot, sometimes even killed, but the one who inflicted the pain was only doing so out of legal self-defense. The culprit had initiated the violence by threatening them or someone nearby, and in response they were justifiably taken down in self-defense by someone with the power and will to nullify the threat. Oftentimes the one who ends the threat is hailed publicly as a hero.

The “Self-Defense” Fallacy in Marriage

“Self-defense” does not work the same in a marriage, however. I am not talking about self-defense in a physically abusive relationship. In these situations I always plead with the wife to take the kids and leave. Get out of harm’s way and enlist third parties to help in the necessary way. Instead, by “self-defense,” I am referring to the ways we react—in our minds, justifiably—to our spouse’s unloving or disrespectful words or actions, and then place the blame for our own unloving or disrespectful actions fully on them. Like a child in the schoolyard getting in trouble for fighting a classmate, claiming, “He started it!,” we feel our reactions are fully justified and merely out of self-defense and that we should be fully exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Unraveling the Self-Defense Argument

“You are disrespectful!” a husband accuses his wife when he feels he needs to explain away his extremely unloving comment to her when she begins questioning his commitment to family over work.

“You are unloving!” a wife screams at her husband in order to rationalize her blowing up at him when he disapproves of the amount she spent at the grocery store that day.

Like the jogger who shoots his gun-toting mugger in the groin as self-defense, he feels his unloving reaction is fully justified by her disrespectful actions “that started it.” She believes her disrespectful words are completely without fault because she had no choice but to defend herself when he came at her with his unloving actions.

​​Taking Responsibility for Our Reactions

First, the self-defense argument begins to unravel when we admit that unlike the mugger who was actually attacking the jogger with malicious intent, our spouse is not ambushing us in the same offensive way. This is not an attack but only the appearance of an attack. Most often they are reacting defensively to us.

But second, is the spouse claiming “Self-defense!” completely innocent in their response? Did they really have no choice but to defend themselves with their unloving or disrespectful actions? Is their spouse responsible not only for his or her own actions but for their reactions as well? Because that is what we are saying when we say, “He started it!” or “She started it!” We are telling them, “You are not only to blame for your clearly unloving words, but I also fully blame you for my disrespectful reactions that I had no choice but to take!”

Embracing the Principle of Responsibility

We would all be wise to remember Ephesians 4:29, which says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I have taught for years the principle “My response is my responsibility.” Basically, what this means is that your spouse did not cause you to be angry; instead, their actions revealed the anger already inside of you. Think of a speck of sand. If the sand gets in the human eye, it causes irritation, then infection, and if not cared for, eventually loss of vision. But put that same speck of sand in an oyster. It causes irritation, then secretion, and eventually the oyster forms a pearl. In both the eye and the oyster, the sand became an agent that revealed the inner properties of the eye and the oyster.

A Shift in Perspective

Your spouse is an “irritant.” Your spouse puts pressure on you, has expectations of you, puts heat on you, can be extremely unloving or disrespectful at times with you. But in these situations, you always have a choice: to react in a godly way or in a sinful way. “Self-defense” is not an acceptable excuse. Ephesians 4:29 makes that clear.

When we react poorly and sinfully to our spouse because of something they said or did and then place the blame for our reaction on our spouse’s shortcomings and failures, we get no closer to resolving the situation and bringing healing to the relationship. Instead, we are only adding more fuel to the fire. 

Owning Our Actions

A husband must not excuse his unloving behavior by making his disrespectful wife his scapegoat and persuading himself that she is at fault for his reactions. Just the same, a wife must not excuse her disrespectful reactions by claiming her husband is a huge disappointment and the reason why she had no choice but to react so negatively.

When we remember that “my response is my responsibility,” we place our blame, disappointment, and poor reactions squarely on our own shoulders and not on our spouse’s shortcomings and failures to meet expectations.

Acknowledging Personal Growth

One husband realizing this wrote: “I also understand that I am often reading her reactions and actions incorrectly. I am not getting offended when she doesn’t respond like I think she should. I am better at translating her feedback. We are arguing much less.”

Another husband shared with me, “This was really good. It was helpful for me to see how I blame.” These men were finally recognizing their roles in the blame games and shame games they had been playing with their wives. They were learning that self-defense does not work in marital conflict, and it certainly never helped anyone get off of the Crazy Cycle.

Making Better Choices

When in conflict with our spouse, we always have an opportunity to make a better choice, whether it’s to respond with kind words that “build others up according to their needs,” or to respectfully share your disappointment but that you are committed to resolving this issue without adding more spins to the Crazy Cycle, or even if it’s to simply walk away for a time until cooler heads can more lovingly work things out. But we cannot react poorly and then make our spouses the scapegoat for our unloving or disrespectful response. 

Accountability for Our Words

Jesus Himself made it clear that we cannot claim, “Self-defense!” for our unloving or disrespectful words. Instead, He said, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36).

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. When was a time that you felt your unloving or disrespectful reaction to an offense was justified, at least initially? What made you feel differently about your response later?
  2. How could you have responded better in this time? Have you had an opportunity since to respond better in a similar situation? How did that go?
  3. Emerson has reminded people for years, “My response is my responsibility.” Why do we so often, though, claim “Self-defense!” and place the blame for our poor reactions on another?
  4. What is most challenging to you concerning Ephesians 4:29 and Scripture’s command for us to speak only that which “builds others up”?