Question: I can’t tell you how often my spouse has hurt my feelings with careless and cutting remarks. When I protest, he laughs and says he’s only teasing or tells me I’m too sensitive. Unfortunately, it’s no joke to me. What can I do to resolve this problem?


Sadly, many couples suffer from a perpetual case of individual or mutual heartlessness. Even more tragically, a good number of them seem to regard this state of affairs as "business as usual." This is a huge problem, especially for husbands and wives who claim to be believers in Jesus Christ. The Bible repeatedly instructs us to treat each other with kindness, honour and respect. These commands were designed to be applied to any relationship, but they’re especially important in the marital context. Marriage is sacred to God, and we can be sure that it displeases Him to see spouses haphazardly wounding each other’s spirits with potshots like, "Can’t you do anything right?" or "You always make dumb choices like this!" or "You act just like your mother!"

That said, we should point out that ongoing patterns of hurt feelings in marriage can stem from two possible sources: a hypersensitive spouse or an insensitive one.

Signs of a hypersensitive spouse

Being overly sensitive can be just as destructive as its opposite. If you take offense at every perceived slight, your spouse probably will walk around on eggshells, trying not to upset you. People who live with hypersensitive mates often respond by withdrawing, becoming resentful or being terrified to say or do anything. We’d suggest that you approach this problem by examining yourself, seriously and honestly, to see whether you might fall into the hypersensitive category.

Hypersensitivity is common in people who allow what they feel to become the primary factor in determining how they see themselves and others, and how they respond to criticism and perceived threats. It can be a precursor to deeper, more destructive emotional and relational problems. It can also be a symptom of Avoidant Personality Disorder, a condition marked by timidity, low self-esteem and excessive sensitivity to rejection. If you or your spouse fits the criteria for this disorder, professional intervention is needed.

Signs of an insensitive spouse

The opposite of being too sensitive is insensitivity, which can be just as debilitating. An insensitive person "throws" his thoughts, words and behaviours out there and lets the chips fall where they may. Insensitive people are habitual violators of the command to "be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). Insensitivity sometimes indicates a serious personality disorder called narcissism. People with this problem are excessively self-centered, lacking concern or empathy for others. Often they’re unable to recognize when they’ve hurt another’s feelings. If you believe your spouse can be described as narcissistic, we suggest that you urge them to seek professional help. Without it, they won’t be able to control their hurtful behaviour.

Apart from personality disorders, if you or your mate has allowed insensitivity or hypersensitivity to set up camp in your marriage, you should be aware that it can destroy your relationship if left unattended. There’s just one way to avoid this negative outcome: by making changes in attitude, behaviour and spiritual direction, including genuine remorse and repentance.

Educate yourself on the problem

Start by educating yourself about the problem, whether it’s yours or your spouse’s. Knowledge often leads to understanding, which in turn can facilitate resolution. Once you feel clear on the causes behind the problem you’re facing, make your concerns known to your spouse in a non-threatening way. Don’t use accusatory language. Instead, for example, describe how you feel when your mate uses hurtful words and how these hurt feelings may influence you to respond inappropriately – perhaps by withdrawing or becoming resentful. Be as honest and transparent as you can about your own sensitivity or insensitivity.

Throughout this process remember that God will judge us according to the way we treat others. As Jesus said, "I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matthew 12:36). If the problem is chronic, or if you feel that insensitivity has actually escalated into verbal abuse, locate a Christian psychologist or psychiatrist who can assess and treat personality disorders. Even if your spouse doesn’t want to participate, a professional therapist can often offer direction on how to live with someone who has verbally abusive tendencies and how to manage the situation.

If you need referrals to counsellors who are qualified to assist you in this area, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department can provide you with a list of professionals in your area who specialize in communication issues. Our staff would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2006, Focus on the Family.

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