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Couples who acknowledge and engage each other tend to have greater couple satisfaction and are more likely to stay together. That's what relationship research* has found. It has also found that one of the greatest predictors of relationship success is a couple's ability to, and habit of, turning toward each other rather than away from each other. The intimacy bond can be improved tremendously when one spouse makes an effort to connect by reaching out and the other spouse accepts the effort and responds accordingly. It's what I call acknowledging and engaging.
Acknowledging and engaging can include a simple gesture such as a brief verbal response, or it can involve a spouse "moving to action." Here are a few examples:
Those are all examples of a spouse acknowledging and engaging. So simple. Yet the opposite can easily become a habit in marriage. Spouses can begin to ignore their spouses' attempts to connect. They begin to overlook opportunities to deepen intimacy through the simple gesture of acknowledging and engaging.
A research* study conducted with newlyweds found that six years after the wedding, the couples who had stayed together were the ones who had turned toward each other 86% of the time. If you were to take an inventory of your responses to your spouse, what percentage of the time would you say you acknowledge and engage?
There's no time like the present to begin!
*Findings based on forty years of research conducted by Dr. John Gottman.
(IMPORTANT CONTEXT: This article is not addressing belligerent or abusive behavior, including cursing, physical aggression, or emotional manipulation. This article is addressing a question I receive from time to time from husbands who are frustrated and perplexed that during certain types of discussions and/or arguments, their wives exhibit what these husbands characterize as disrespectful behavior in 3 specific ways: "hostile" facial expressions, "harsh" tones of voice, and the tendency to follow them out of the room if they need to get away and have space from the heated discussion. These actions are bewildering to some husbands and they have a hard time understanding how a wife does not see these actions as disrespectful.)
So let's address the question in fairly general terms. While men tend to naturally think in terms of respect, wives tend to think in terms of security and nurture. For example, when a man leaves a room because he is frustrated in a conversation with a male friend, his male friend will probably not follow him because, to men, that would (generally speaking) be seen as confrontational and disrespectful. For a wife, however, following her frustrated husband out of a room can be driven by concern and/or a longing to reconnect. Women tend to want to bridge the gap, to move toward, and to give and gain the reassurance that "we are still ok as a couple even though we are angry right now." So right there we see how a woman's attempt to nurture, to reassure, and/or to gain reassurance might be interpreted very differently from the male perspective.
The above example is obviously a generalization (as not every woman or every man fits the example), but the point is to understand that women in general often move toward reconnection. And sometimes those efforts appear as confrontational and disrespectful to a male because, to him, the natural thing to do in a moment like that is to give space. Men give each other space while women desire to close the gap. This is helpful for a husband to keep in mind so that he becomes better at recognizing his wife's heart and appreciating that some of what he may experience as disrespect is really an attempt to express care and to reconnect.
"But what about if my wife's actions, tone, and words are clearly disrespectful, regardless of whether the legitimate need for security and reassurance is at the root?" We'll address that shortly. But first, let's address the initial question (which is the reason for this post to begin with).
So, is your wife being disrespectful? To accurately answer that, a new perspective into your wife's actions might be needed. Let's consider 3 points.
1. Firstly, your wife likely longs for security - and she is is not alone in this longing. Many wives deeply desire emotional, physical, relational, and financial security. This does not mean she expects you to be perfect. Nor does she (or should she) expect that all of her security will come from you. Furthermore, it does not mean you need to have the biggest bank account or understand her emotional needs with detailed perfection. But if you are unaware of or indifferent to her need for security, she unfortunately might respond with actions that baffle you. It is therefore helpful to move toward her with care and understanding. This does not mean that you cannot tell her that you feel disrespected by certain actions, but to simplify pigeonhole her behavior as disrespectful will not be helpful in turning the tide in a positive direction.
2. Secondly, when you tell your wife she is being disrespectful, what you mean might not resonate with her. This is because many women do not understand what men really mean when they speak of respect. This is especially the case if a wife did not see respect for a husband being modeled as she grew up. So be specific and detailed about her actions. Rather than saying, "You're being disrespectful," you might want to try something more specific, like: "When I'm compared to other men and criticized for how I do things, I feel disrespected. I really would like the comparisons and criticisms to stop."
3. Thirdly, remember that you might have blindspots regarding her needs. For example, she might not be receiving the affirmation from you that she craves, just like you are not receiving the respect you desire. This is not to suggest that disrespect from her is your fault or is justified. It is a reminder to be objective about your own imperfections, to consider where you might be missing the mark, and to extend the same grace you would like to receive. This is an opportunity to endeavor to be patient with her, while also sharing your need for respect. (And like I mentioned above, share those needs in specific and detailed ways.) Also, even as you share your needs with her, give equal priority to asking what she needs from you and give priority to meeting those needs as best you can.
It might be helpful and necessary to reach out to a counselor or a mature and capable mentor/friend for help with this. Be sure that the person you reach out to has an understanding of both your need for respect and your wife's need for security.
As promised, let's touch on this issue: "But what about if my wife's actions, tone, and words are clearly disrespectful, regardless of whether the legitimate need for security and reassurance is at the root?" Disrespectful behavior should not be excused and needs to be addressed. It does not do us, our spouses, or the marriage any good to gloss over unhealthy patterns of behavior. Since it is counterproductive, and typically explosive, to fight fire with fire, someone needs to be the mature person and appropriately address the issue. If you are unable to reason with your wife regarding unhealthy patterns of behavior, then find someone who can mediate the conversation. That might be a counselor or coach, a mature mentor or friend with excellent communication skills, or a spiritual leader.
Your Questions Answered: "What Do I Do Since My Spouse Is Not Invested in the Spiritual Growth of our Children?"
"I am further along in my walk with God than my spouse is. I am trying to teach our children to walk with the Lord, but there is no support from my spouse. What do I do since my spouse is not invested in the spiritual growth of our children?"
It is challenging when a spouse is not invested in his/her own spiritual growth or the spiritual growth of the children. Yet, if that spouse is not trying to prevent you from nurturing the children in their spiritual growth, rejoice! It would be much more difficult if your spouse were actively resisting. As it stands, if you have the freedom to train your children according to God's Word and nurture them in their relationship with Christ, do it with joy and thankfulness.
Yes, it would be wonderful if you and your spouse were both active in leading your children spiritually. But as it stands, you still have the opportunity to help them develop their own relationship with the Lord without the added dynamic of a spouse actively resisting you.
Continue to nurture your children in their relationship with the Lord. And be sure to pray for your spouse and your children, and of course for yourself. God is able to change dynamics and transform lives.
"Is it okay to voice a difference of opinion? If I voice a different opinion from my husband's opinion am I being disrespectful?"
Yes, it is ok to voice a difference of opinion. A difference of opinion does not automatically mean you are being disrespectful. It is to be expected that in marriage there will be differences of opinion. But how, when, where and why that difference of opinion is voiced matters.
How are you voicing the difference of opinion? Are your tone of voice, your body language, and the words you choose reflecting a godly posture? Are they constructive and helpful? Are you speaking the truth in love?
When are you voicing the difference of opinion? Are you being wise and selective in your timing? Are you patiently waiting to broach the subject at an appropriate time, instead of being reactive, impulsive, and/or impatient. Timing is a significant key in issue resolution.
Where are you raising the difference of opinion? Location. Location. Location. Are you in an environment where you and your spouse can openly share and discuss the issue? And is that location somewhere where you really want to bring up the issue? For example, the romantic restaurant may not be the place to wax eloquent on a difference of opinion. Enjoy your candle lit dinner.
Why are you raising the difference of opinion? Motives matter. Sometimes we are so close to the issue we fail to be objective regarding our true motives. Are you seeking a win-win with your spouse? Are you seeking to build your union and partnership? Not every difference needs to be expressed, and if your motives are not pure, that might be a good time to do some soul searching before mentioning your opinion.
Finally, who you are married to matters in how you approach voicing your difference of opinion. Husbands are not all the same. Some husbands are mature enough to value the thoughts and perspectives of their wives. Some husbands, however, are more defensive or argumentative. Sharing a difference of opinion in even the gentlest of ways can stir up anger and resentment in such husbands. Prayerfully try to know and understand where your husband is so that you can be wise in how you approach differences.
If we assume that this past issue is something which occurred during your marriage and has damaged the relationship, there are a few key considerations:
When you are compassionately, humbly, and deliberately taking steps that encompass the above considerations, you are helping to create a healing environment for your wife and your marriage. It is important to remember that breaches can take time to repair. Sometimes the offending spouse wants the injured spouse to "hurry up" and get over it so that he (the offending spouse, which in some cases is a she) does not have to be inconvenienced by the pain he has caused his spouse. Do not let that be the case with you. Just as you played the main role in causing the hurt, you now have the opportunity to play a main role in expressing the love, care, and compassion that will help to bring healing.
"My question is about communication. How do I get my husband to say what he means and mean what he says so that we are on the same page, and so that we understand what we have agreed on? There is too much verbal confusion and he does not stick to what we have agreed."
What you are experiencing in your relationship with your husband may be more than a communication issue. One possibility is that you may be dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse. Though the term passive-aggressive is quite commonly used, it is often misunderstood. So let's first have a look at some of the characteristics your husband would likely exhibit if he has passive-aggressive tendencies. (You will notice that communication issues are threaded throughout the listed characteristics.)
So what do you do? First, let me assure you that you are not "crazy". Living with a passive-aggressive spouse can be extremely disorienting. And the more you try to get him to "say what he means and mean what he says" the more you will be caught in the vortex of confusion.
A first step is to understand that his confusing communication did not begin with you and is not about you. It is an issue that likely runs deep. For change to occur, he will need to acknowledge and work through the issues.
A second step is for you to carefully choose how you will respond to him. Being reactive and engaging in power struggles will propel you into that confusing vortex. Control yourself; do not try to control him (how he thinks, how he sees the issue, how he communicates.)
A third step is to keep life simple. That might seem too ... simplistic. But it can be very powerful. The passive-aggressive person tends to be resentful and can have unspoken hostilities. The more balls you have in the air requiring his help, the more likely it is for that reservoir of resentment to be stirred and for his tendency to sabotage to be fueled. So keep decision making simple. Keep agreements simple. Think in terms of bite size pieces.
A fourth step is to actively move toward connection. It can be tiresome in that crazy vortex, and you might feel drained, empty and unenthusiastic about connecting with your spouse. But this is where you need to cast your burden on the Lord and allow Him to revive you and your marriage. This is where you must first truly connect with the Lord, before you can fully connect with your husband. Let this difficult dynamic in your marriage allow you to seek God and His precious will in new and fresh ways.
There can be several reasons your wife has a negative attitude. One possible reason is that your spouse more naturally leans toward pessimism than optimism, so she sees problems before seeing opportunities. Tied to this is the possibility that your wife is a "detail oriented" person and tends to see what needs fixing (which can be an important strength) without seeing what there is to celebrate (which can be a problem.) Another consideration is whether your wife has had positive reinforcement in her life. Perhaps she grew up hearing a great deal of criticism or being molded by people who themselves were complainers and blamers.
Whatever the case, being transformed in one's attitude takes time and deliberate effort. If your wife were asking the question about herself I would give her some effective ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order for her mind to be renewed. However, as your question is how you can help her, here are a few keys:
But what if your wife's negative attitude is aimed at you? From her perspective you never seem to handle a situation correctly. You are not praised, but consistently criticized. This is where your maturity as a believer will show forth. Instead of lashing out or withdrawing, are you able to move toward your wife and speak the truth in love to her? Let her know how her attitude is affecting you, while also being mindful to offer hope and to validate the areas where she may be right, even if her attitude is wrong.
Also, praise her often. Her cup may have endured a lifetime of emptiness, depending on her background, and you can be the one who helps to fill and revive her. This also means being honest with yourself about the ways in which you might be draining your wife. While your shortfalls are not an excuse for her negative attitude, her negative attitude is not an excuse for your shortfalls to remain unchecked. This does not mean that you are to be perfect. It means that you are to be actively growing and using even this difficult area in your marriage to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in how He wants to transform you.
Since our minds are transformed by being renewed (Romans 12:2), initiate daily devotional time with your wife where you read the Word together. Elector and I have a friend who is 90 years old. He and his wife have been married for decades, and one of the things he has practiced everyday for their entire married life is to, as he puts it, "wash her with the Word" daily. Everyday he reads the Word to his wife as just one of the ways he covers her and cares for her. It's a precious act of love and devotion on his part. Perhaps you are willing to do the same and see how your wife blossoms. And remember, it's not a matter of her blossoming for your benefit first and foremost. It's a matter of her blossoming for the glory of God, from which you will benefit.
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.