My spouse is in a unique position to hurt me more deeply and more often than anyone else, simply by being in an intimate (not just physically) relationship with me. She knows how to push my buttons better and harder than anyone else, and I also expect her to know about my vulnerable areas and not only respect them, but protect them. So, when she hits one of these, it hurts doubly so, not only from the direct pain she’s inflicting, but the indirect feeling of betrayal.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that my wife is a horrible person for doing this. I do it to her too. I believe every spouse does. It’s the nature of marriage. We have the ability to cause each other the most pleasure, and the most pain. That’s the trade-off of intimacy. That’s why people are afraid to be vulnerable.
However, what’s also true is that most of the time, my wife is not intending to hurt me. Furthermore, even when she is intentionally trying to hurt me, it’s generally coming from a place where she’s hurt as well and is just lashing out, because she’s trying to protect herself. I don’t believe she ever simply just decides she wants to hurt me. Or at least, very rarely.
But it’s the times when our spouse hurts us for some reason that I want to focus on today. And I want to make that clear. I’m not discussing abuse in this post. I’m not talking about the times when your spouse simply wants to make you feel pain for the sake of exhibiting control. This post is about when, in normal, healthy relationships, we end up hurting each other.
So, with that caveat in mind, let’s discuss how we respond when we feel hurt. Is it beneficial to reciprocate? Do we need to feel hurt? Is there a choice? What could we do instead that would be more productive?
1. Hurt people hurt people
I don’t know who coined this phrase, but I heard it a long time ago. Hurt people hurt people. It doesn’t quite work as well in text, because you can’t hear the intonation. What it means is that when people are hurt, they generally hurt others. It’s our default response. Why? I think it’s because of vulnerability.
As you may have guessed by the name of the blog, and nearly everything I wrote, I’m a big fan of true and healthy intimacy, in all forms. As mentioned, that intimacy comes with risk: vulnerability. You can’t have intimacy without vulnerability, and vulnerability leads to intimacy. What this means is that the more intimate you are with someone, the more vulnerable you become. So, when someone we’re intimate with, be it a co-worker, who we share little intimacy with, and so little vulnerability, or our spouse, who we share lots of intimacy with (hopefully), and so have lots of vulnerability with (again, hopefully), hurts us we tend to react by shutting down that intimacy in an attempt to limit our vulnerability.
It’s like if you’re in a fight and someone punches you in the face, the first reaction is to get them away by whatever means necessary. Step back, push them back, punch them back, whatever.
We do this in relationships too. When someone hits a soft spot of our psyche, we tend to either run away (physically or emotionally retreat), push them away, or counter-attack.
It’s often not even a conscious decision. We do this by instinct. For example, if you just had a fight, most wives will not want to have sex. They will be in that protective mode of pushing their husband away physically to help themselves feel safe emotionally. Husbands, on the other hand, tend to compartmentalize. They’ll separate the physical act of sex from the emotional act as a way of shielding their vulnerable emotional self. Neither one is better than the other, it’s just how they react when they feel hurt. It also doesn’t mean either one is a good reaction. In fact, neither one is good. They are both taking the damage to the relationship and amplifying it by adding distance.
Now, each spouse can in turn feel hurt by these mechanisms. Most husbands will take the pulling back from intimacy as a counter-attack, sort of a “you hurt me, now I’m going to hurt you”. Most wives will take the desire to still have sex as an insult. They’ll interpret it as “well, I don’t really care about our relationship, I just want to use your body”. And, generally, they’re both wrong. But this kicks off a spiral that can continue to escalate if you’re not careful.
This is how sexless marriages sometimes get started that can last years, decades, or the rest of the marriage, often leading to divorce, affairs, or porn addictions. It’s a serious thing.
We’ll get to how best to react below, hold on.
2. It’s probably not about you
The majority of the time when Christina (my wife) hurts me, it has nothing to do with me. I’d say most of the time, she doesn’t even know she’s hurt me. I probably don’t know many of the times I hurt her. Though, we’re getting better at telling each other when we feel hurt.
A dynamic that happens a lot in my own marriage looks like this:
Twice a week I go into work, about a 2 hour commute each way, and on my commute home I tend to do blog-related things. Whether it’s writing a post, answering emails, reading a book or articles, listening to podcasts, etc.. I’ve spent the last 2 hours reading, writing, listening or otherwise thinking about intimacy with thoughts about sex high on my list. Not only that, I haven’t seen my wife since the previous day as I wake up many hours before she does on those days. It’s not that answering emails or anything gets me aroused, it’s that the last leg of my trip is a 30 minute drive, where I am more focused on thinking about my wife, and am already thinking about intimacy, and naturally the two parts to my return trip home fuse into expectations of intimacy with my wife.
She, on the other hand, has been dealing with our 5 children all day either homeschooling, going on field trips, playdates, or just keeping the house. Plus, even if she had the transition time I did, there’s no way her responsive-drive mind is going to think about intimacy on its own. It just doesn’t happen without me leading her down that path.
So, I get home, and we’re in completely different head spaces. I’m looking for a nice big kiss and full body hug that says she missed me, and she’s looking to finish dinner because our kids are all complaining that they’re “starving” and we have to eat, because there’s some sort of meeting, appointment or event happening that night.
It’s a perfect opportunity for me to feel hurt because she doesn’t seem as excited to see me as I am to see her. It’s also a perfect opportunity for her to be hurt because “all I think about is sex” or because she feels guilty that she can’t meet my desires, or because she feels it’s another obligation she needs to meet.
Now, I could feel hurt, but why? It’s not because she doesn’t desire me. It’s because her situation, her context and her headspace are completely different than mine. Also, she doesn’t experience spontaneous desire. Like I said, there’s no way she’s going to randomly feel that way and that’s not her fault. She can’t help how her brain is configured.
In short, it has nothing to do with me. She didn’t hurt me – I allowed myself to become hurt. Generally that’s the case. People don’t usually hurt us, we tend to allow ourselves to get hurt since we can’t separate and shut down intimacy with ourselves, we look somewhere else where we can. And guess who’s generally closest, yep, our spouse.
This may also happen when your spouse has had a bad day or someone else hurts them, but they either don’t feel comfortable dealing with the conflict, or perhaps didn’t have an opportunity to. So, they become angry and frustrated, and desperately want to feel safe again. There you are, symbolizing a lot of vulnerability in their life. So, either one of two things happen:
- They will vent it all to you (which often feels like at you)
- They will damage your intimacy so they can feel less vulnerable
Either way, it can hurt if you don’t know what’s going on. You’ve done nothing wrong, but here they are, raging at you.
I don’t know how many times I’ve asked my wife “why are you angry with me?” and she responds “I’m not angry with YOU, I’m just angry!” It took us a lot of years to tell the difference.
Once you understand that, you can choose to be hurt or not. After all, it has nothing to do with you. So, your spouse isn’t hurting you,you’re deciding to hurt yourself. I’m not going to say it’s easy to decide not to be hurt, just that it’s possible. It takes practice.
3. Decide how to respond
As I said earlier, for most people, their default reaction to being hurt is to hurt others. People do this to us, and we do it to them. In marriages, we tend to do this more frequently, and harder, and since we’re around each other all the time, it can often turn into a cycle of exchanging hurts, sort of like exchanging an infection. If the hurt isn’t resolved, if the damage isn’t fixed, if the relationship isn’t repaired, you’ll just keep passing the hurt back and forth again.
See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 1 Thessalonians 5:15
But, what if you could stop the cycle? What if you could reverse it?
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone Respect what is right in the sight of all men. – Romans 12:17
While our default reaction is to strike back when we’re hurt, there is a better way.
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5:39
People see verses like this and think “I don’t want to be a pushover!” But, I don’t think that’s what they’re about. I think God is trying to tell us that instead of running from intimacy when we feel vulnerable, we should lean in instead. Rather than shutting down the relationship, we should step forward to strengthen it.
When a spouse snaps at you because they’re frustrated, instead of retaliating or walking away, step in and give them a hug. Ask them what’s going on. Yes, we risk another attack, we risk them pulling away. We basically “turn the other cheek” giving them an opportunity to strike. Hoping they’ll kiss it instead.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – Matthew 5:44
And if they do strike us again, even if you have to retreat momentarily, take the time to pray for them instead. Ask God for wisdom in how to respond. Ask God to open their heart, and yours. Ask God to give you the strength to keep pursuing intimacy.
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. – Luke 6:28
Repeatedly, the Bible counsels us not to avoid conflict, but to meet it head on. In doing so, we send a message to our spouse that we will continue to love and pursue a relationship with them, regardless of what’s going on in their life, that we accept them for who they are, and want nothing but the best for them. We sent them an invitation to something better than pain and suffering. We offer them peace and joy in a relationship with us that is intimate and vulnerable in all the right ways. A place of safety.
Respond in love, even if your spouse is attacking
We can decide to be hurt, to accept and amplify the damage being done to our relationship, or we can decide to understand their perspective. To love them unconditionally. To step forward when they step back. If they put up a wall, you put in a door and walk right through it. Invite them into reconciliation, without shame, without repayment. A free gift, just as God gives us in His Son.
It’s not in our nature to do this, but that’s how you build a relationship that is, frankly, supernatural.