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Why Is Our Initial Reaction to Our Spouse Hurting Us Usually Defensive?

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Why do we defensively react to our spouse in times when we do not feel very loved or respected by them? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we all do so at times.

Think about some of those moments.

Our spouse is upset with us for forgetting to pick up a package at the post office. Their demeanor in that moment displays disgust toward us, as though this innocent mistake is about far more than forgetting a package. This is about us—in their eyes, in that moment—being an unacceptable human.

They then say something like, “This is what you always do. You never remember things important to me!”

Hurt at what we perceive as their disgust toward us, we translate their accusation to mean, “You are pathetic, uncaring, and self-centered.”

If we are struggling with their love or respect for us, since this kind of episode happens frequently, we deflate emotionally. But instead of addressing our hurt or even trying to explain our honest mistake, we negatively react and become equal partners in taking a spin on the Crazy Cycle. We opt to defend ourselves against this attack. “There you go again saying I always or I never. That’s not true.” Their accusation of us results in us making an accusation of them, which results in further accusation from them . . . and so on and so on.

Though our further accusations toward them may seem to give us a tough demeanor, inwardly we feel vulnerable. We read into their anger that we are not good enough for them, and everything we do or say in response to that interpreted message is just a way of attempting to cover up how much they hurt us.

Which may seem odd to some, because most of us get hurt regularly in much worse ways by others in our lives—our bosses, coworkers, neighbors, friends at the gym. And we rarely negatively react toward them anything like the way we do with our spouse. But with our spouse, there’s a vulnerability there when in a moment we interpret them saying that we disgust them or are not good enough for them. We love them so much—how can they look at us in that way or say such things?

Though we may be a brain surgeon, when our spouse gives us a look that appears condescending and speaks in a tone that sounds disdainful, we can react like a junior higher. Regardless of our intelligence, income, and illustriousness, we turn moody and feel sorry for ourselves that evening. We grumble and pout while reading Harvard Medical Journal.

No person at their core is indifferent to what appears to be a character assassination, especially when it comes from someone we love as much as we do our spouse. It is this extreme hurt, confusion, and anger that fuels our negative reactions to them in those moments. When all we truly want to do is seek reconciliation with them and make sure our bond is stronger than ever, we instead opt to jump on the Crazy Cycle and add more fuel to the fire.

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

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you agree? Why or why not? How are you learning to deal with these situations that trigger your insecurities?
  2. Do you react differently to accusations and hurt feelings from your spouse than you do from others in your life? Why is that? Why are you more okay with someone else feeling some way or saying something ugly but not your spouse?
  3. Has reacting negatively ever helped a conflict with your spouse? In the above example, how could someone have better reacted to the spouse who was upset about a package not being picked up?
  4. Most likely, your spouse is not trying to ever communicate to you that he or she finds you to be an unacceptable human. How can keeping in mind you are still married to a goodwilled person help you in times when you so badly want to negatively react to an unjust accusation?