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Is Selective Exposure Determining How You Judge Your Spouse?

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Have you ever been considering buying a specific new car, and every time you are out in public it seems every other car you pass is the exact one you’ve been thinking about getting? Or maybe you’ve been considering moving to a different neighborhood closer to work and half your mail seems to be from realtors telling you how amazing the market is, and as you drive to work, more For Sale signs and banners for new neighborhoods pop up on every block. 

The fact of the matter is, most likely there are no more Toyota Camrys on the road today than there were yesterday. The same goes with new neighborhoods and houses for sale. But as a new car or new house has been on our mind, our brain starts pointing all these things out to us. There’s actually a fancy scientific term that relates to all of this: reticular activating system (RAS). This nifty little filter each of us is equipped with determines what events, situations, or content gets our attention. And if you’ve been thinking about new luxury vehicles recently, your RAS is going to help you begin noticing a whole bunch of luxury vehicles you may not have noticed before.

Unfortunately, our RAS doesn’t only help us shop for cars and houses. It can also be detrimental in our relationships. Because when we make a specific judgment on our spouse—say, we deem him a slob who leaves his clothes and dishes behind wherever he goes—all we’re going to notice from them on are the socks he accidently leaves by his bedside or the empty coffee mug still on the counter.

And the even bigger problem with judging is that the action we are judging becomes not only all that we begin to see and all that we keep looking for, but it also keeps us from seeing all that is good. When our RAS has us looking for new silver sedans, we don’t take notice of all the red pick-up trucks around us. And when we label our spouse as lazy and unhelpful, we don’t notice that he unloaded the dishwasher first thing this morning.

A wife shared the following about her current, and second, husband: "I do not love him nor respect him. He is the laziest, most self-centered man I have ever known. My son, from a previous marriage, feels absolutely nothing for him and does not want him around. My husband quit attempting to be a part of his life about three years into our marriage except demanding that my son call him ‘Dad’ even though my son has a loving father who is actively involved in his life."

This wife has made the following judgments concerning her husband:

  • He is lazy.
  • He is self-centered.
  • He wants nothing to do with her son.

And now every action he takes, every word that he says, falls under these condemnations, because her RAS is helping her to take notice of every decision of his that she deems as lazy, self-centered, and against her son.

So to help this wife get past her selective judgment of her husband, I would love to ask her: 1) Is this how Jesus Christ views her second husband? 2) Is she aware that children easily persuade mothers, and when they whine about a stepdad, these mothers tend to take up offense on behalf of the child? 3) Is it so bad that the stepdad wished to be called Dad? 4) If the boy's real dad is so loving, why did she divorce him, and why did she leave her son without his real, loving dad who is actively involved? 5) Would it be safe to conclude that she once felt about the real dad the way she thinks about the stepdad since she divorced him? What changed—his behavior or her opinion?

The hard truth is, people who judge—as this wife has done—do so based on selective exposure. They see what they want to see. Inevitably, all they see is the negative stuff. Furthermore, in the case of this wife and stepdad, which came first—the chicken or the egg? If she expressed that she did not respect him, did he then shut down on her? If she told him she did not love him, did he then pull away from her? Is that why he appears lazy and self-centered? After all, who wishes to serve a hostile and disrespectful person? 

For sure, he may have had some of these tendencies to be lazy and self-centered. Still, she brought into the marriage a failed earlier marriage, as well as a judgmental spirit, so is she not also guilty in God's eyes? Additionally, if on the heels of his shortcomings, she began confessing that she was not feeling much love and respect for him, could this wife not imagine that her admissions exacerbated the problem? Can she see that she fueled his minor shortcomings into major shortcomings since he may have reacted to her so as to spite her?

Can a husband do the same toward his wife? Yes. He can say, "All she does is spend money shopping." Or, "She spends all of her time with her friends." Or, "She will always favor the kids against me." Or, "Nobody could understand and love this woman."

Once he has labeled her in such dogmatic and drastic terms, he will only see her in this light. All that she says or does will be viewed under his condemning judgment of her. In fact, when she acts contrary to his image, he either will dismiss it as an anomaly or won't see it at all. Because we see what we look for. Furthermore, once he titles her as a person “no one could understand or love,” then he will no longer try to understand and love her. In fact, he will keep looking for evidence and confirmation that no one could ever understand or love her.

We need to remember Romans 14:10: "But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God."

When we damn a spouse, we had better be sure we are seeing our spouse as God does, as an evil person who rejects Jesus Christ. If, though, our spouse is simply failing to be perfect or what we want in a spouse, but nothing immoral has happened, then we need to back off of our contemptuous judgment since we will be judged for our erroneous and contemptuous judgment. 

And we must be aware if we have allowed selective judgments of our spouse to tint our overall view of him or her. He may have had a lazy Saturday, but is he lazy in all things? She may have overspent the grocery budget this month, but is she careless with all money? We must be careful to not allow our RAS to show us only our spouse’s negatives and completely skip over all of his or her wonderful positives that, in truth, are not exceptions like we may tell ourselves, but are actually quite representative of who they are.

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

Questions to Consider

  1. Have you noticed your RAS working in some way in your own life, filtering the things you see? In what ways has it affected the way you view your spouse?
  2. Is it fair to deem someone “lazy” or “forgetful” based on a single instance? When we do, how does that judgment then filter the way we view them?
  3. Emerson wrote, “We see what we look for.” Has this been true in your life—whether you are the one with the selective viewpoint of another or someone else has had a selective view of you? How can we guard against this?
  4. What do you think it means when Scripture says that we will all stand before the judgment seat of God? How should this affect the way we make judgments concerning others?