How Should I Deal With My Wife’s Negative, Disrespectful Reactions?

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A husband wrote, “My wife and I have been married for almost two years. . . . Our disagreements are centered on her emotional outbursts and my lack of emotion. I love my wife . . . and consider myself emotional about (her), however I try to not allow emotion to control me. I believe love is expressed with actions and not with reaction. Emotion and reaction are closely related as are self-control and action. . . . I do love the emotion my wife has and I know God has us together to love and respect each other as we seek to glorify him, but I struggle when my wife justifies some behavior as her uncontrollable emotional reaction.

I am not looking for something to condemn her with, instead I would like your viewpoint on how one best handles this type of ongoing disagreement.

The remainder of this article shares how I replied to him:

Thank you for the honest and humble assessment of what you are feeling. You need to attend the Love and Respect Conference because there I address this issue of “reaction” as a major component.

Nonetheless, let me share some concepts and principles with you based on Ephesians 5:33, which states, "Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respect her husband."

The Need

The husband is commanded to love and the wife is commanded to respect. This reveals that her deepest need is for his love (why else does God command this?) and his deepest need is for her respect (why else does God command this?). Thus, she naturally expects to be loved and he naturally expects to be respected.

The Reaction

But here is where things get interesting.

Of course, a wife thinks about being unloved during conflict; she does not think about being disrespectful. A husband thinks about being disrespected during heated fellowship; he does not think about how he appears unloving. This results in what I call the Crazy Cycle. Without love she reacts without respect, and without respect he reacts without love.

Without love she reacts defensively, but that reaction “offends” the husband as disrespectful. Without respect he reacts defensively, but that reaction “offends” the wife as unloving. Talk about things getting insane in three minutes over some upsetting issue that will soon be forgotten, like "Why didn't you pick up the clothes at the cleaners like I asked?"

Women Among Women

So, why doesn't your wife see her negative reaction as disrespectful? Most often she is feeling unloved but moves toward you motivated by love to resolve the conflict. However, she delivers her message in complaining and critical ways.

She does this with her girlfriend when they are upset with each other over something as innocuous as wearing the same outfit at a formal dinner. Both feel that venting their feelings is normal and natural. Though verbally combative, neither personalizes the other's venting. They do not interpret the other as out of line or out of control. This is in accordance with the rules of the game. No harm, no foul.

So, each conveys in no uncertain terms the hurt they feel, but they confront to be understood and always with the intent to understand the other as well. Ultimately, they confront in order to connect and reestablish the friendship.

They are not trying to hurt the other but help the other understand their hurt. They feel comfortable in this ocean of emotion. They never feel they are drowning or overwhelmed by all the feelings breaking over them like a wave.

Both instinctively know this will lead to a resolution and reconciliation, which is the goal. They both know that after talking it all out, they'll say, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Peace comes and one says something funny and they start laughing. They are best of friends again. Interestingly, when measured physiologically, their heart beats during the heated exchange are normal.

For the Husband

For the husband, this doesn't seem right, especially since during such exchanges with our wives our heart beats can get to 99 beats per minute, which is warrior mode. We feel provoked and need to exit the argument to de-escalate what could turn ugly. It feels like she is picking a fight.

But here's the key: She isn't picking a fight. She is trying to deal with the conflict according to the rules she plays by as a woman.

Make sense?

Football

An analogy might help you. Men enjoying playing tackle football, while 99.999% of women do not. The nature of the game is to hit your opponent, even knocking them down, if not knocking them out. When the crowd hears the pads collide way up in the stands, they cheer. The harder the hit, the better! Hitting like this is within the rules of the game. No harm, no foul.

Though combative, neither player takes it personally. Often the guy helps his opponent get back up. Hitting is not inappropriate or uncontrolled. But someone watching football for the first time might conclude the men are cruel and out of control.

After all, if one tackled a neighbor this way, one would be arrested for assault and battery. But in the proper setting, running full speed and creaming somebody on the football field is to be applauded. It is the way things are done.

By the way, my dad played football. His mother never attended a game until the last one where dad hit a guy so hard they had to carry the fellow off the field. It was a clean hit. His mom stood up, left the stadium, and went home. She couldn't believe he'd do such a thing!

Marital Football!

Now back to your wife. Many women see the expressing of negative emotion in a marital clash as the way things are done during marital contention. This is in accordance with the rules of the game. This is why when a husband tells her to "drop it" and then he goes silent and walks out of the room, it feels to her like a quarterback on first down and goal walking off the field and heading to the locker room to shower. "Why would anybody who cares and is passionate about scoring do such a thing? This makes no sense! What's going on here?"

To her the exchange needs to go four quarters, so to speak. One does not quit until feeling connected again.

Let me add, the analogy breaks down in that she does not see this as a winner and loser scenario. She yearns for both of you to feel like winners afterward. Also, even though she can commit some verbal fouls by using words of contempt, she really doesn't mean it. As most wives confess, "He should know that I didn't mean it.” A husband should not personalize the hit anymore than the guy my dad hit should personalize it. It’s the nature of the dynamic, whether in football or marriage!

Application

So absorb the hit. This is part of the female football game. Don't take it personally. Though her methods seem negative, her goal is positive. Though she seems out of control, she is not. She expresses herself this way to get a message through. So stay cool, calm, and collected.

When she oversteps the boundary and uses contempt, later on tell her of the marital rules: “I will not be harsh and unloving but you must not be rude and disrespectful. That’s out of bounds."  

When you are honorable and loving, you have a right to address her disrespect.

But most other emotion from her is fair game. Don't walk off the field. Stay in there. Soon you'll hear her say, "I am sorry. I should not have reacted that way. Will you forgive me?"

Discussion Questions

  1. FOR THE MEN: Can you relate with the man who wrote Emerson who is concerned with how to handle his wife’s emotional outbursts? How have you dealt with similar issues? FOR THE WOMEN: Can you relate with the wife of the man, who did not deal well with her husband’s lack of emotion when in an argument? How have you dealt with similar issues?

  2. Why do you think two women can be verbally combative with each other but make up so quickly? Why is it different when the argument is between a woman and her husband?

  3. FOR THE MEN: Why do you feel that leaving the fight is the best option for you at times? FOR THE WOMEN: How do you feel when your husband walks away from an argument? Why do you not feel that is the best option at the time?

  4. Emerson wrote that, outside of verbal contempt, “most other emotion from her is fair game.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain.

-Dr. E