How Can a Wife Best Tell Her Husband That He Has Emotionally Hurt Her?
“Please help! My husband hurt me and when I try to tell him, he gets defensive and refuses to apologize. He hurts me even more.”
If there is one dominant theme I hear from women who have been hurt emotionally by their husbands, it is that when a wife tries to express to her husband how she has been hurt by something he did or said, he becomes defensive and hurts her even more.
“What can I do?” they ask me. To many, their only options when hurt by their husband seem to be: 1) keep your hurts to yourself and don’t let him know how you feel; 2) learn to harden your heart so you stop getting hurt so much; or 3) brace yourself for the Crazy Cycle, because he’s not going to like hearing how you’re truly feeling.
But clearly, none of those are healthy options for anyone, including the husband. Therefore, what can be done? Is there a better way a wife can talk to her husband about feeling hurt by him?
The Way to a Man’s Heart
It has been jokingly said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It’s true, there are few things we wouldn’t do for a great meal! But all kidding aside, the way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach but through respect.
In my book Love & Respect, I discuss the six ways a wife spells respect to her husband. Two of them specifically, I believe, apply well to the wife frustrated with her husband getting defensive and even angrier whenever she confronts him about how he has hurt her.
First, show how you appreciate his desire to protect and provide for you.
Though it may be difficult to see at times, God built into your husband a desire to protect and provide for his family. Included in this desire of his is a good willed spirit that does not intend to hurt you (though he clearly does at times).
Yes, you have every reason to be upset at how he responded to your inquiry about why he had to work so much later tonight, even missing the start of your son’s baseball game. Or when he stormed out of the room in anger, instead of having a more calm, mature discussion about whether it’s time to consider private school, his stonewalling and withdrawal crushed your spirit, and you are not wrong to feel hurt. But if you believe you married a good willed man who desires to protect and provide for you, you can also believe that he did not intend to hurt you in the way he just did.
In fact, his believing that he has unintentionally hurt the woman he has vowed to love and protect for the rest of his life, and would even die for if given the chance, hurts his own spirit as well. I believe that in the moment he may actually be angrier at himself than even you are! With that in mind, you can reach his heart in a language he understands—respect—by beginning the conversation with, “I know you never intend to hurt me and you certainly didn’t mean to hurt me just now, but when you say to me what you just did, it makes me feel . . .” Or even better, “I know you are an honorable man who never intends to hurt me, but . . .”
Either way, by beginning the conversation this way, you are setting a tone that says you recognize his love for you and that you respect his desire to protect you, not hurt you. Certainly this cannot guarantee any type of response from him. He is his own sinful person who will have to make his own decisions about how he will react to your respectful plea. As I say often, “My response is my responsibility.” But when you speak toward the spirit of who he is as a man, from the beginning, you increase your chances dramatically of having the loving, respectful, and healing conversation with your husband you are attempting to have.
Second, show how you appreciate his desire to analyze and counsel.
Guys are problem solvers. Of course, that doesn’t always mean they are always good problem solvers, but at least in their minds they believe they are. In fact, I predict there have been times in your marriage when you were sharing your frustrations or worries with your husband (but not about your husband) for the purpose of venting, of wanting him to just listen and understand you. Basically, you were giving the report to build the rapport. But he tried fixing the problem, didn’t he? And that wasn’t what you were looking for right then.
Well, this time you can present him with a problem that he can help you fix. While the first message you communicate to him after he has hurt you is along the lines of “I know you are an honorable man who did not intend to hurt me . . . ,” the next message you should send is a plea for help: “Can you help me with my feelings? As a woman, my hurts linger but when you acknowledge them, you bring healing. God hardwired me to respond to your love and understanding.”
Not only did your good willed husband not intend to hurt you, but he also wants to help you! Yes, exposing your vulnerability to having your feelings hurt by his words or actions you deemed to be insensitive can be tough, and many in culture today would scream at you, “No! Do not reveal yourself in this way! Be stronger than that.” But in fact, it takes even greater strength to reveal your vulnerabilities in this way. And by doing so, you are once again reaching the heart of who your husband is—a man who seeks to analyze and counsel, and who desires to be respected for doing so.
What 1 Peter 3:7 and “Weaker Vessel” Really Mean
I quote 1 Peter 3:7 often in my appeals to men, specifically the beginning: “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way.” Wives love that scripture because of its appeal to men to try to better understand their wives. But I also tell men that they, too, should love that verse because Peter’s wording implies that we cannot ever totally “understand” our wives; the key is to come across as wanting to live with them in an “understanding way.” Make the effort, Peter is saying, but don’t worry when you don’t understand her completely. Because you can’t!
But it’s the second part of the verse that causes controversy for some: “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman.” The King James Version even uses the phrase “the weaker vessel” to describe the wife. Not surprisingly, feminists bristle at this and claim, “The man is not the stronger sex. We’re equal!”
What we must remember, though, is that Peter is making a comparative statement, not a qualitative statement. He’s not saying that women are weak, but that women are “the weaker vessel” because of her vulnerability to her husband within the marriage relationship. Peter is addressing the exact situation we are discussing here. The husband needs to do better at living with his wife in an understanding way, being aware of how his gruffness is hurting her and not sending her the message of love that she needs to feel from him. In essence, she is more fragile than he is, and he needs to treat her as such. She is not one of his buddies that he can call Bozo or worse and both laugh.
One way to look at the phrase “weaker vessel” is by imagining two bowls—one made of porcelain and another made of copper. The husband is copper; the wife is porcelain. The porcelain wife is not of less value—in fact, a porcelain bowl can oftentimes have greater value than a copper bowl. But if your preschool-aged kid is running through an antique shop and runs into a shelf holding a copper bowl and a porcelain bowl, which one are you having to buy because it’s now shattered all over the floor? The porcelain bowl, of course!
You are porcelain. You are more delicate. And when your husband isn’t careful with his words, you can be cracked. If you believe this, would you try explaining this to him? When he reacts in an unloving way toward you—maybe he stonewalls and withdraws from a conflict or he uses the same rough words and tone with you that he communicates to his hunting buddies which never seem to bother them—would you: 1) begin by affirming in him that you know he is an honorable man who never intends to hurt you, but 2) you need his help in a problem that you know he can fix? Then dare to expose your vulnerabilities to him as his wife. You are not his “copper” college roommates but his porcelain, delicate wife. And when he says or does whatever it is that has just hurt you, it crushes your spirit as a woman, as his wife.
Again, there are no guarantees when it comes to things like this. We are all sinful people who have the free will to make our own decisions. This husband could flippantly retort, “That’s right. I never intended to hurt you, so get over it. That’s the solution.” But I believe that you married a good-willed person and that you believe that as well, and if he spouts that out, he knows he is out of line and just violated the honor code among men! Don’t engage him on what he flippantly mouthed off. Let him stew in his acidic juices. I predict he’ll do something later to tell you that he was an idiot for saying that. He may not verbally apologize but typically there is a loving gesture.
For now, stay focused on affirming in him his desire to never hurt you and appealing for his help and counsel in helping to better understand your heart. In time, you will reach the heart of who he is as a man, in the language of respect that he understands and desires to hear from his wife. I love your chances in having him finally understand you as you are seeking! Though this initial exchange isn’t fair to you, I have found that in short-order things begin to change for the better.
Your husband is different from your sister or girlfriend
One thing is for sure, if you vent as you might do with your sister or girlfriend, who instinctively know why you do this, but also use the moment to fire back at you, you both will soon enough say, “Oh, I am so sorry, I should not have said what I said, will you forgive me? I feel horrible.” Each of you understands and empathizes with the other. Though you attack each other, you recognize this is your way of releasing the frustration in order to talk through the hurts. After a good heart to heart, you feel wonderful. Both of you are laughing and enjoying each other. However, approach your husband this way and he’ll eventually withdraw and stonewall. You can say all day long that he doesn’t “get it.” Sure enough; that’s why you must apply what I say here in order for him to hear your heart. Your husband is different from your sister or girlfriend. Justifying your venting with him the way you do with them, because you are just being yourself, only works with your sister or girlfriend. They “get you.” Your husband, though, personalizes it in a way they do not, so I believe this is the better way of helping him “get it.”
Questions to Consider
- Can you relate to the wife who says that when she tries telling her husband he has hurt her, he ends up hurting her even more? Has this affected the way you share these kinds of things with him? How so?
- How has your husband shown to you his desire to protect and provide for you? Do you believe that he intends to hurt you?
- Does your husband like to solve problems? Do you think an honest appeal to him to “help you” concerning how he has unintentionally hurt you will achieve what you are desiring? Why or why not?
- What do you think of Emerson’s explanation of Peter’s use of the phrase “the weaker vessel”? Do you agree or disagree that a woman is more fragile? Why?