So, your spouse just blew it.
How can you move from the place of being offended – and maybe feeling like a victim – to feeling like you’ve moved the dial on your marriage in a positive direction?
We’ve all been in that situation where we’ve been offended by our spouse – when what we heard hurt us. But, what is it that we hear and feel that hurts? Once you understand what’s coming at you, you can learn how to respond accurately.
Some messages that we get from our spouse hurt more than others. Why do some hurtful messages have a greater impact?
The Difference Between Intentional and Unintentional Offensive Statements
This research will seem pretty obvious to you, I’m sure, but I think it needs to be stated too, just so we can see what is actually happening.
In 2000, researchers concluded that intentionally hurtful statements were more impactful than unintentional statements. Specifically:
- Intentionally hurtful statements have more of a distancing effect on the relationship
- Intentionally hurtful statements make the recipient feel less satisfied with the relationship
- When these statements are ongoing, that also has the effect of distancing
- Feeling disregarded added to the effect of distancing and created more hurt feelings.[i]
We’ve had clients in counseling say to us, “Yeah, I know I was just saying that to be mean or to hurt him.”
Think about that for a moment. We are mean for a number of different reasons, but often we just want to be heard or acknowledged or understood. We fire a barb in there so that we can actually hook into our spouse. Unfortunately, the effect of that is distancing even though the very thing we’re wanting is closeness.
It just doesn’t work.
There is another lesson here when you’re on the receiving end, and that is to ask: was this intentionally hurtful or unintentionally hurtful?
I know I’ve said things to Caleb that were never intended to hurt but they did. Either it was completely innocent (at best) or just not thoughtful (at worst) – albeit I didn’t start out determined to hurt him.
Other times, yeah, couples do get mean with each other. And that’s wrong.
So, if you’re issuing these hurtful statements we have two challenges for you. The first is to download the worksheet (see box below).
The second challenge is more difficult. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” The challenge here is that this verse doesn’t just apply during the potluck supper at church. This needs to be true for all of your conversations – including the conversations in your marriage.
This is what we call a ‘project verse’ because we’re working on implementing this ALWAYS and without exception. But where do we make the most exceptions for this? With our family! This command from Scripture doesn’t list any exceptions though. So we want to challenge you specifically to start obeying this command in your marriage today!
It’s a challenge to have zero corrupting talks and 100% what is good and builds up and gives grace to your spouse.
Types of Offensive Statements
So, how else do we get offended?
What we’re hoping here is that by labelling and describing these things you’ll be able to take ownership of your own unhelpful behaviours and that your spouse will be willing to do the same. Here are some types of statements that offend us:
- Relationship Denigration – making it sound like the relationship is not important or valuable.
- Humiliation – making your spouse feel shame
- Verbal/Nonverbal Aggression – speaking in a mean way, forcefully or hostilely
- Intrinsic Flaw – making your spouse feel like something is wrong with their character
- Shock – saying things for impact, or saying surprising things
- Ill-Conceived Humor – being malicious, involves teasing that isn’t funny
- Mistaken Intent – reflecting that you have been misunderstood or mischaracterized
- Discouragement – denigrating your spouse’s efforts or hopes.[ii]
Mistaken Intent is one to watch for. Sometimes we miss each other and we react to our own perception rather than the intent of what our spouse was trying to say. We get offensive back. Often the initiating spouse has the “Whoa, where did that come from?” moment which is a signal their intent may have been mistaken and a signal that you need to clarify and try again, letting the negative reaction go.
How People Typically Respond to Offensive Statements
We’ve seen how we can get offended – sometimes through the bad behaviour of our spouse, and sometimes through our misperception of what was said. How do we typically respond to offensive statements?
Most responses fall into one of the following categories:
- Confrontive Coping: aggressive efforts to alter the situation
- Distancing: detaching oneself from the event.
- Self-Control: regulating one’s feelings and actions
- Seeking Social Support: acquiring informational, emotional, or tangible assistance from others
- Accepting Responsibility: acknowledging one’s own culpability (fault) in the situation
- Escape-Avoidance: behavioral efforts to escape or avoid one’s feelings
- Planful Problem-Solving: deliberate efforts to improve the situation.
- Positive Reappraisal: finding positive meaning and personal growth from the encounter.[iii]
So there are a lot of ways that we respond: many are unhelpful, some are helpful.
What the researchers did with these types of offensive statements and typical responses was really interesting – they looked at how the offenses and responses got matched up in real life.
Before we list them out for you, remember, when you need to deliver a sensitive message, bear in mind the different ways in which your delivery of that message is likely to be perceived, think about the likely reactions, and then, adjust your delivery accordingly!
So, here are some examples from the research of offenses and reactions:
- If you say something that makes someone feel as if you do not value your relationship with him, you might expect him to react confrontationally or complain to a third party.
- If you make a comment that humiliates your wife, you might expect her to avoid you, yet take responsibility upon herself for the behavior or trait you identified and plan how to resolve it.
- If you point out some intrinsic flaw that your husband has, or seem to be trying to hurt him intentionally, it is perhaps not surprising that he would simply avoid you.
- If you hurt your wife in a way that makes her think you are just trying to shock her, she may deflect any responsibility for the issue and would simply try to control herself during the interaction.
- Likewise, if you hurt your husband with what he perceives to be ill-conceived humor, he may show self-control in the moment, and distance himself from you without accepting responsibility for it.
- The more we make hurtful comments to an individual, the more likely s/he may be to confront us.[iv]
It just goes to show that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: understand how your words are impacting your spouse, or how your spouse’s words are impacting you.
You Can Fix This
If you need to repair any hurt you’ve done to your spouse, you need to download this worksheet and thoughtfully complete it. Then go make amends!
What To Do When Your Spouse Offends You
Finally, we can get to the nitty-gritty!
But first, a caveat: If you are in an abusive relationship, the following information does not apply to you. If that is your situation, you need to get out and then work towards fixing your marriage from the outside and with a support network around you. Safety first! Then start working towards a better outcome from that place of safety. The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans may be a help to you.
In this episode, we’re dealing with bad behavior, not abusive behavior.
So. What to do when it’s just bad behavior.
- Be Generous
By that I mean, is there any way you can give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Stay calm. Be curious. As couples, we escalate so quickly and yet if we could just stay calm for two minutes longer and be curious about the reaction we want to say, or the offense that was just directed at us, it would save a lot of fighting and conflict. A lot of the time, a misinterpretation or misunderstanding is all that has happened.
To do this, you really have to own the challenge that I gave earlier of not saying anything unkind. That is hardest when you’ve been spoken to unkindly. But respond with grace – that’s being generous.
Not just because it is the right to do, but since it is right, it will actually serve you better. This works!
- Be Non-Defensive
Typically, our first reaction is to defend ourselves – and we feel justified in doing so because it feels unjust when our spouse says something offensive. Something to remember though is that the need to justify yourself is almost impossible to deliver without coming off as if you totally deny everything your spouse has just said. That causes your spouse to push harder, be blunter and more direct.
You see, defensiveness always looks like a wall. The bigger and stronger you make the wall; the more artillery you are inviting. While it is hard to do so, a complimentary act to being generous is to be non-defensive, which eradicates the wall entirely.
Go for understanding instead – try to understand how or why your spouse has come out of the gate like this. I know it’s difficult, but you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Being non-defensive and extending understanding is something you can try that is very different.
- Ask for a Change in Behavior
This one needs to be done very carefully, and only after you’ve got things sorted out. Don’t try this in the heat of the moment as it will come across as extremely condescending and your apology will not sound genuine. This will work best if you’ve made a sincere effort of owning your part without saying “but” or justifying or defending yourself.
This is tricky because you have the right to be treated respectfully. However, if you deliver your request for respect in an “I’m sorry, but…” fashion, it’s going to be hard for your spouse to take. You really have to think through your working here.
In fact, it’s best to keep those two parts separate. After you’ve extended an apology and it’s been accepted, then your spouse is probably going to be in a softer place where they can receive this. This may come later too – even the next day if needs be.
Then you can something like, “I understand that you were frustrated with me but I won’t accept being spoken to that way. If you need me to do something differently, you can tell me what I did that offended you or bothered you and ask me to act differently – but you may not call me names.” (You can tone it down if it wasn’t that bad!)
Once you’ve extended grace on your side, it is reasonable to turn around and ask for something different. Then back off and let them decide if they’re going to step up to the challenge or not.
[i] Anita L. Vangelisti and Stacy L. Young, “When Words Hurt: The Effects of Perceived Intentionality on Interpersonal Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 17, no. 3 (June 1, 2000): 393–424, doi:10.1177/0265407500173005.
[ii] Amy M. Bippus and Stacy L. Young, “Using Appraisal Theory to Predict Emotional and Coping Responses to Hurtful Messages,” Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships 6, no. 2 (December 19, 2012): 176–90, doi:10.5964/ijpr.v6i2.99.