When you feel squelched by your forceful spouseWritten by Catherine Wilson
When a passionate and determined wife – or husband – is married to an equally determined partner, it’s usually clear when one spouse is feeling trampled over. They will rise up and fight back.
If you’re a gentle-natured person married to a more domineering spouse, however, that’s a more difficult dynamic. It’s harder for you to push back when your spouse is overbearing. For you, it seems a lot easier to simply give in – to let your spouse have the last word or have things their way.
You almost always watch the movie your spouse wants to see.
Your spouse tells you what you'll be doing in the weekend.
Your spouse talks over you, dismissing what you're saying before you even finish saying it.
Your spouse decides how one of the kids should be disciplined, but you have to carry it out.
All in all, planning together feels like you're simply being filled in on decisions your spouse has already made.
Oftentimes, voicing a strong opinion of your own just seems to offend your spouse. They’ll point out – firmly – why your idea is ill considered. So you carefully pick your battles; most issues just aren’t worth the grief.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not hurting. No one wants to always feel pushed aside or walked over, to be treated like their feelings don’t matter. Or worse, to feel outmatched in every disagreement by their spouse’s emotional intensity and harsh words – to feel so browbeaten or personally attacked, there’s no choice but to acquiesce.
Perhaps you’re just waiting – and have been waiting so long – for your spouse to finally dial back their selfish, self-centred behaviour.
Perhaps, too, you’re perplexed by your spouse’s spiritual insensitivity. Why can’t they see that loving the Lord means showing you the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience that Colossians 3:12 commands?
But you keep on resolutely doing what you believe is right. Since you love your spouse, and the Lord too, you try not to escalate the conflict every time a serious disagreement comes up. Instead you try to act reasonably or honourably: you stuff down your hurt feelings, try to stay in control (with variable success) and retreat as quickly as you can, leaving your spouse to stew in their own steam till they’ve come off the boil.
Your spouse is obviously out of line, and you’re the one who’s acting right – isn’t that so?
The truth is, you’re not acting right at all. Neither of you are.
We wrong our spouse by not speaking up
Understandably, you’re trying to protect yourself and your relationship by avoiding conflict. But a habit of withdrawing, shutting down emotionally or simply not protesting when your spouse bulldozes over your feelings can be very destructive in the long term.
In her book How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, Christian counsellor Leslie Vernick writes, “These more passive reactions may look better than blowing up, but when used as a regular way of dealing with marital problems, they can be just as injurious to a marriage as exploding with reckless words. One kills like a bomb, the other like a slow cancer. Both are equally deadly; one just takes a little longer than the other.”
When we don’t speak up about how it feels to be dissed, dismissed or never have our desires enter the equation, we can wrong our spouse (and harm our marriage) in a number of ways:
- We mislead our spouse, giving our spouse the false idea that their behaviour, and our relationship, is just fine.
- We show a lack of faith in our spouse – and possibly a lack of faith in God’s power – by assuming our spouse isn’t interested in truth that would help them grow in humility and self-control.
- We can become self-righteous and judgmental, seeing ourself as the innocent victim of a selfish spouse, rather than realizing we’re complicit. We’re a co-sinner who is sinning in ways that are less obvious but still very harmful: we’re withholding the truth, withholding our deepest self and refusing to confront wrong.
- We give our spouse no chance to help us heal our hurt before it grows into bitterness and resentment, which always destroys closeness.
- We isolate from our spouse, leaving them feeling lonely and unloved. (Yes, under that fierce persona, they are lonely!) Their nagging and criticizing may be misguided attempts to pursue us, to win us back.
Why your spouse might not self-correct without your help
If you’ve been wondering why your spouse never seems to get victory over their self-oriented way of operating, the most likely explanation is that they’re simply unaware of how hurtful and self-centred their behaviour really is. In reality, people are much less self-aware than you might think.
Take, for example, recent research by secular psychologist Tasha Eurich. Her team’s large-scale study of self-awareness and its implications in corporate settings found that though 95 per cent of people believe they are self-aware, only 10 to 15 per cent of people are truly self-aware. Most of us can’t accurately assess how we come across to others.1
That’s good news for your situation. Despite how it may feel at times, your spouse is likely not deliberately trying to aggravate you. And there’s more good news: it’s likely you’ll see positive change once you start to speak up.
In their foundational book Boundaries in Marriage, Henry Cloud and John Townsend write, “Many times what appears to be selfishness is actually ignorance. The spouse may simply not know that her behaviour is hurtful or irritating to the other. And in those ‘ignorance defense’ cases, the spouse will often respond positively when she hears the truth. In fact, she will sometimes feel deep remorse for causing her spouse’s pain and will change her behaviour or attitude quickly out of love for the other.”
Of course, when you decide to speak up, everything depends on how you present your case. You must present the truth in love, humility, gentleness and patience (Ephesians 4:2, 15), and recognizing that there are likely many ways that your spouse would love you to change too (Matthew 7:1-5). It’s imperative to clearly communicate that your intent is not to chastise or hurt your spouse, but to remove an obstacle so you can feel more deeply connected to them.
Please note: This article is intended for couples who want to take a healthy marriage from good to great, and for spouses who are willing to grow and change for each other's mutual benefit. Spouses in an abusive marriage who feel they need to confront their spouse should seek alternative information. See our recommendations at the end of this article.
Why your spouse may resist you
If your spouse is a mature person, they will be horrified to hear of your hurt. Most likely, they will respond with an apology and a plea: Please, help me to stop doing this! Let me know next time you feel dismissed! Maybe – joy of joys – they’ll even watch for times when you seem to be shutting down and preemptively ask if they’ve hurt you!
One powerful way you can help your contrite spouse – if they’re in agreement – is to gently put your hand on theirs when you feel swept aside and say something like, Can I tell you what I think?
On the other hand, old habits die hard. So when you talk to your spouse about your hurt, you may not get the response you’re hoping for initially. Instead, he or she may say something like:
You're overreacting. I never mean to hurt your feelings. Don't be so sensitive.
Ironically, a response like this shows that, once again, your spouse is dismissing your feelings. You’ll need to patiently but persistently open their eyes to how it feels to be you. You can lovingly respond with something like:
I know you don't mean to hurt my feelings, but that doesn't prevent me from being hurt. When you don't listen to my opinion or consult me, I feel distanced from you.
It’s possible that when you first talk to your spouse about this matter, he or she may not say much at all. They may need time to process what you’ve said before they’re ready to talk more. It’s hard to hear about one’s faults.
If it seems your spouse is non-responsive, tread carefully. Though he or she may be tight-lipped at first, the revelation that their domineering behaviour has hurt you may be causing them pain you’d never guess at.
Self-centred people, for example, can have a hard time admitting their faults because they live with a strong inner desire to be perfect or special. To be less than perfect – or to not feel special – brings intense feelings of shame or inadequacy that they need to work through. This type of spouse, say Cloud and Townsend, needs to “Say no to the urge to be ‘good,’ and learn the skills of forgiveness and grief.”
Judgmental people, who can be so critical of others, live with a very harsh and condemning judge themselves. They’re routinely chastised by their own conscience. This type of spouse, say Cloud and Townsend, needs to learn to receive compassion and forgiveness from God and others for their failings, and develop compassion for the faults of others.
- Controlling people, underneath that tough exterior, are often trying to manage high levels of anxiety or avoid a sense of helplessness; it will cause them more anxiety to know things aren’t right between you.
Want a bonus tip for your marriage? You can powerfully help these kinds of mates by addressing their insecurity; let them know that admitting their faults makes them more human and more lovable to you, not less lovable.
Waiting for change
A great maxim for marriage is, Be the change you want to see. Much like a parent does, make sure you’re modelling habits of showing respect. Hopefully your spouse will adopt these habits too once you make unfamiliar manners more natural for him or her. Let your spouse know you’re serious about growing in godliness yourself. Make it typical for you to check in with your spouse in a quiet moment by asking, Is there anything I do that bothers you – anything that you'd really like me to change?
Change that starts in the heart – out of love for our Father and appreciation for the spouse He blessed us with – is always the best kind of change to hope for. But it can take time; it may be one step forward, two steps back for a while.
What if, however, your spouse does not change their self-oriented behaviour? They may not believe change is possible for them. Or your distress may not distress them enough to motivate them to change. If the issue is serious enough, you may need to establish consequences for continued selfishness and disrespect. It’s important, however, that you understand how to do this well, and that you are sure you are working in step with God’s purposes and not for your own selfish motives. For help with establishing consequences, see Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries in Marriage or Leslie Vernick’s How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong.
Please note: This article is not intended for spouses in an abusive marriage. Spouses in this situation need detailed, expert advice before confronting their partner, such as the advice in Leslie Vernick's book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. If you would like to discuss your situation with our professional counsellors, please call 1.800.661.9800 to arrange a free, one-time consultation.
- Tasha Eurich, “What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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