Join us as we post from our book Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage over the next several months, and take away some tools to help you navigate conflict and get on the path to healing hurt in your marriage.
Surprised by Offenses
Most people launch into matrimony with an idealistic view of marital harmony. Have you ever talked to engaged couples? Have you seen that glazed-over gleam in their eyes? Have you heard them say about each other, “I’m marrying a perfect gentleman” or “My wife-to-be is my dream come true”? They are so overcome with feelings of love and visions of a fairytale marriage that they are numb to the inevitability of conflicts and offenses. That’s fairly typical of most couples, and it’s probably how you and your spouse began your marital journey.
Barb and I often meet these husbands and wives after the Novacain of naivete wears off. The flow of the honeymoon and first year of marriage has begun to fade. They come face-to-face with the reality that their spouse isn’t a perfect angel. He or she has weaknesses and character flaws. He or she makes mistakes and acts selfishly. And as misunderstandings arise and shortcomings begin to surface in a variety of ways, each partner feels the sting of being offended.
Things like adultery are marital offenses in the first degree. But there are a myriad of less serious ways we wrong our spouses. Perhaps you recognize some of the following examples from your own marriage.
· You forget your anniversary or another date important to your spouse.
· Your spouse makes a critical comment about your appearance.
· You promise to be home at a certain time but arrive an hour late.
· You rarely compliment your spouse on his or her appearance.
· Your spouse acts unappreciative of you and all you do for him or her.
· You withhold information from your spouse.
· Your spouse refuses to discipline the children when you are away.
· You spurn your spouse’s approach to you sexually.
The list could go on, of course. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive catalog of marital offenses, merely a reminder that a wide variety of conflicts open loops of offense and hurt in every marriage, perhaps more frequently than we care to admit. Barb and I are not implying a fatalistic view of marital conflicts—they are going to happen anyway, so why try to prevent them. Rather, you should continue to work just as diligently to avoid unnecessary conflicts in your marriage as you do to resolve the conflicts and heal the hurts that occasionally happen.
Throughout this series, we are going to be looking at a diagram we created that shows the loop of conflict that is opened when an offense occurs. We’ll be talking about what can make the offense worse, and how to make it better. We all have a choice when it comes to conflict—whether we will let it continue and fester, or take the steps to end it. We hope this diagram will give you the tools to close the loop of conflict when it arises and make your marriage stronger.
The Chain Reaction of Hurt and Anger
During a fitful night of sleep several years ago, I awoke and rolled over to find the light on in the hallway outside our bedroom. Barb wasn’t lying next to me, so I knew something was wrong—and I had a good idea I was the cause of it. Earlier that evening we had an unexpected conflict. While trying to resolve our problem, we argued. As I scrambled to defend my ego, I pulled out a subtle verbal zinger and shot it her way, something that fell out of my mouth before I thought through it. I knew it offended her, but she gamely carried on the discussion. I hoped she would quickly forget about my unkind remark.
The cool sheets on Barb’s side of the bed alerted me that she hadn’t forgotten. I slipped out of bed and went looking for her. I found her in the guest bedroom—alone, wounded, and tearful. It had been a long, painful night for the one I had promised to love, honor, and cherish. My thoughtless, defensive zinger had hit its mark. This was not one of the high points in a good marriage that is growing into a great marriage. I had opened a loop by offending Barb with my words. It was one of the many times Dr. Rosberg, the marriage counselor, had to take some of his own medicine by closing the loop and healing the hurt I had caused.
When you offend your spouse or your spouse offends you, it hurts. The pain is not so much physical as emotional and relational, although unhealed inner hurts can affect how you feel physically. Barb will give you a closer look at the dynamic of hurt in the open loop of marriage conflict and introduce where it can lead.
Unresolved Offenses Cause Hurt
When Gary “zinged” me that evening with an unkind remark, it hurt. But I didn’t want him to see how much pain I felt, so I tried to ignore it. And when Gary didn’t step in and close the loop right away, I felt even worse. Inside I was heartsick. I couldn’t sleep that night. Slipping away to the guest bedroom, I cried from the inner pain I felt.
Now, in case this sounds one-sided, let me assure you that I am just as guilty of offending and hurting my husband from time to time. We have a good marriage that is growing better every day. But we still hurt each other, just like you do. Our marriage continues to grow stronger because, when the offenses and hurts happen, we try hard to close the loop as soon as possible. It’s one of the ways we are protecting our marriage.
If an offense between you and your spouse is dealt with immediately, the hurt is fleeting and without lasting consequences. For example, wives, let’s say that, while on a trip together, you let slip a critical remark about your husband’s driving. Suddenly you feel a moment of chilly silence between you. Realizing your offense, you say with sincerity, “I’m sorry, honey. That was unkind and unfair of me, and I didn’t mean to hurt you. Will you forgive me?” Your husband warms to your apology and forgives you—and the hurt is virtually negated by closing the loop so quickly.
Sadly, however, most marital offenses are not dealt with so efficiently. Sometimes you don’t realize that what you said or did offended your spouse, so you are oblivious to the hurt you caused. More often, as in Gary’s personal example above, you know what you did was hurtful, but you are too hardheaded or embarrassed to own up to the offense. So you let it slide, giving time for your spouse to stew over what happened while the pain intensifies. It’s as if your offense opened a flesh wound and your reluctance to resolve it right away allowed infection to set in.
Another reason emotional pain is sometimes overlooked is because, when you are offended, you may not recognize the hurt right away. Let’s face it: There’s no blood, no broken or dislocated limbs, and no discernable physical pain. Something your spouse said or did left you feeling a little down. On the surface, it may not have seemed like such a big deal. Why am I feeling so off center? you ask yourself. Maybe I’m coming down with the flu. It doesn’t hurt like other pain we know, so we fail to classify it as pain.
Then again, you may recognize the inner hurt right away but try to hide it, just as I did that night when Gary zinged me. You don’t want your spouse to know he or she has hurt you. You don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. So you tough it out and act as if nothing happened. In the meantime, the inner wound only gets worse.
Whether you are aware of it or not, when you or your spouse opens a loop by wronging each other in some way, it triggers hurt, the primary emotion in a conflict. And if you delay closing the loop, that simmering inner hurt can boil over into anger.
Unhealed Hurt Triggers Anger
Anger is the next step in the open loop of conflict. We have learned that anger is a secondary emotion, typically following hurt, disappointment, or fear. It’s what grows out of the offense and the hurt when they are not dealt with quickly. Unleashed anger only makes things worse in a conflict and becomes another hindrance to resolving it peacefully.
Anger is an emotion that Christians often try to deny. In public, we keep it in check. But in the privacy of our homes, we tend to let our defenses down and allow anger to build up and explode, often with grim consequences in the relationship.
In our conferences, when Gary and I talk about anger in a marriage relationship, we share what we call the “baked-potato syndrome.” Picture a big, brown russet potato in the oven. You turn on the heat and the potato begins to warm. Given sufficient time, it bakes to a fluffy white inside, ready for butter, sour cream, chives, and bacon bits. But if you forget about the potato and let it bake too long, it could explode and make a mess in your oven. This illustrates what can happen when offenses, hurts, and anger are allowed to heat up through lack of loving action. The result can be a disaster.
Many counselors today say it is healthy to express our anger. Yes, it’s good to express our feelings if we do it in a constructive way. We all know that when we are on the receiving end of uncontrolled anger, it gets ugly real fast. And if we are on the giving end, the guilt that follows is a reminder of just how messy a lack of self-control can become. The apostle Paul admonishes, “’Don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a mighty foothold to the Devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Too often, however, we unleash anger as a weapon to retaliate for an unhealed hurt. When you release your anger with hostility and the intent to harm, it causes more problems than it solves.
In our next post in this series, we’ll talk about the different types of anger, where we learn to resolve conflict and what our conflict-resolution style is. Thinking through each of these helps give an idea of how we can become better at resolving issues in our marriages.