Can You Give Your Spouse as Much Love as They Don’t Deserve?
When your partner is getting on your nerves, here are 10 things to think about.
Posted August 7, 2014
“Love me when I least deserve it because that is when I really need it.” ~ Swedish Proverb
So when does your partner’s behavior least warrant your affection and caring?
Maybe when, under the circumstances, their anger seems completely unjustified? when it’s exaggerated, ill-mannered—or experienced as just plain mean. Or maybe when you can’t help but regard them as being totally unreasonable: rigid; stubborn; dense; surly; testy; disrespectful; condescending; passive-aggressive; or, frankly, obnoxious. Or, for that matter, might the term “ornery” best characterize them when they’re absolutely no fun to be around and you’re at the point of losing all patience with them?
Unquestionably, there are times (and no matter how much you care about them) that you may find your partner difficult, to almost impossible, to deal with. In such instances—coming from your highest, noblest, most compassionate self—what would your best response to them look like? And, more importantly, what would enable you to achieve such a benevolent response?
In this post, I’ll suggest that if you’re willing to make the effort both to understand and sympathize with why your partner is so out of sorts, or so flagrantly overreacting to you, you’ll be far more likely to respond to them in a manner they’ll be thankful for—whether, in the moment, they’re able to acknowledge this or not. And you’ll also likely avoid the heated conflict almost certain to ensue if, righteously, you take the liberty to criticize their peevish or cantankerous behavior.
At times, it’s almost inevitable that your partner will say or do something that really upsets you. But if you can just hold your tongue and reflect on why they may have been driven to behave so irrationally—or ill-naturedly—you can probably discern their disagreeableness in a much more benign way. It’s almost a cliché now to affirm that how you think about something determines how you'll feel about it. But it can’t be overemphasized that if you can recognize the underlying psychological dynamic of their prickliness, you may be able to (1) significantly reduce your irritation with them, and (2) respond to them in a way that offers them the reassurance and support that, at bottom (and probably without even realizing it), they deeply crave from you.
Further, your being able to grasp—with understanding, empathy, and compassion—the self-protective motives of their testiness will help you forgive them for what you probably experienced as an indefensible “assault” on you, or your integrity. And that’s the only way you can approach them lovingly when their behavior itself can hardly be viewed as “deserving” any kind of sympathetic response.
Finally, when you can accurately—and caringly—communicate what you suspect might be going on with them (for the most part, which of their childhood buttons you inadvertently just hammered), there’s a good possibility you can bring them back to their normal, more “lovable,” adult self. Moreover, if you’re able to re-appraise their adverse behavior in kinder, gentler terms, their unexpected display of temper, animosity, or alienation doesn’t have to temporarily obliterate your heartfelt attachment to them,
I hope you realize that what I’m describing could easily be the subject of a book (which, as far as I know, has yet to be written). So in the modest space I have available here, the most, realistically, I can offer are a few suggestions as to what your partner’s distressing behavior could (beneath the surface) signify, so that you might respond to it less critically. And—a point that I can’t stress enough—not take their words, or deeds, so personally.
In what follows, I’ll briefly enumerate a whole host of unloving moods, attitudes, and behaviors on your mate’s part that, till now, may have left you exasperated. And for each of these I’ll suggest how you might appreciate such unwanted, and seemingly unwarranted, behavior differently, so that you’re not prompted, in turn, to withdraw your love from them: A love they might need you to show them more than ever.
Potentially, once you can fathom just why they couldn’t help but react so negatively to you—that is, because of much earlier, self-defensive “programming”—you can find more beneficial ways of responding to them. In such troubling situations, your increased ability to do this will empower you to re-introduce some desperately needed harmony back into the relationship. In which case, such an emotional crisis actually—and paradoxically—will offer the two of you the opportunity to strengthen your attachment, to make your bond more secure than possibly it’s ever been before.
But before itemizing a variety of off-putting behaviors on your spouse’s part, I’d ask that you entertain one simple premise: That almost all the behaviors that make you upset with them derive from defensive or resistant mechanisms they originally adopted to protect themselves from perceived threats. In fact, anything they came to associate with endangering their safety or autonomy—whether physical, mental, or emotional—obliged them to react in ways that, in the present day, are not simply inappropriate but, well, downright aggravating.
Also, keep in mind that some defenses, like anger and aggression, don’t look defensive. Clearly, they manifest as just the opposite—offensive. Yet once their derivations are properly understood, such belligerent reactions are best seen as protecting the self from what is immediately experienced as threatening their basic feelings of security—if only to their sense of self, otherwise plagued by nagging doubts and anxieties.
So when, however accidentally, you’ve “triggered” your mate such that their overblown reaction feels completely unfair to you, consider that their regressive behavior may not in the moment be within their conscious, adult control. When their buttons are pushed, their impulsive, child part emerges—now, regrettably, in “executive control” of their being. And the only way to get the adult back in them may be through first resisting your own inner child’s immediate impulse to react combatively, or withdrawingly, in return.
So, consider these spousal reactions—and my suggestions about their possible source:
- They’re rationalizing, equivocating, denying, or minimizing. Were they feeling criticized or demeaned by you? Might they have great difficulty dealing with even mild forms of unfavorable evaluation because in their family of origin they were constantly put down, picked on, or found fault with, so that—negatively “sensitized” to such distressing experiences—they learned to fend them off in any defensive way they could think of?
- They’re not listening to you: deflecting, evading, stonewalling, withdrawing, or shutting down. It’s probably safe to assume that here, too, they’re desperately needing to tune you out because whatever you’re saying feels critical, or rejecting, of them. Their feeling acceptable, or “good enough,” put at risk by your words (however innocent or harmless you may have deemed them to be), they feel desperate to escape the, to them, disconcerting situation. If not physically, then at least mentally or emotionally.
- They’re overly critical of you: judging, scrutinizing, contradicting, interrogating, etc. Are they, however secretly, insecure about their own competence or intellect? Again, what messages might they have received from their family about being “good enough”? If they’re gratuitously putting you down, does their child self need to do this in order to assure themselves of their own adequacy (something like affirming that they’re okay by declaring that you’re not)?
- They’re being antagonistic, sarcastic, argumentative, or hostile; actually, glaring or scowling at you. Did you say or do something that reminded them of a hated parent, for whom they may still have a tremendous amount of unreleased anger? If when they’re raging at you, they happen to say, condemningly: “You’re just like my father!” that could certainly be a tip-off that they’re having what psychoanalysts would call a transference reaction.Which is an additional reason that, when they’re blatantly overreacting to you, you should make every effort not to take them personally. A contrasting possibility here is that their antagonism is a reaction to feeling hurt by your showing caring toward, or warmly attending to, the needs of another. For in your doing so you’ve awakened old, dormant feelings of relational insecurity,and their (now jealous) inner child feels as though they’re not a sufficient priority to you.
- They’re rebellious, defiant, oppositional, attacking. Likely, this too signifies unresolved anger from the past. How might the present-day situation unconsciously have taken them back to a time when their defensive anger (“sourced” by intolerable feelings of hurt or disappointment) became so overwhelming that, regardless of the consequences, they just couldn’t resist acting it out.
- They’re seeming (infuriatingly!) passive-aggressive: selectively forgetting something crucial to you; arriving late to an important function; sabotaging painstakingly-made plans; etc. Yet again, might you have done something that triggered unresolved hurt or anger from their past? And back then did they have to carefully disguise their anger to safely “enact” it? For expressing their irritation directly might have regularly led to “cruel and unusual” parental punishment. (In this respect, please check out an earlier post of mine, “Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior”.)
- They’re lying; being manipulative; acting “phony”; purposely misleading or deceiving you. When they were growing up, could they get what they needed or wanted by straightforwardly requesting it? Or did they have to “maneuver” in various—and maybe quite devious—ways to get their parents to respond favorably to what wasn’t okay to ask for directly? If the latter, you can begin to understand their possible manipulativeness in a far more charitable way. (And take the opportunity to tell them that you want to know their desires and, if practical, you’ll be happy to grant them.)
- They’re unreasonably demanding, threatening, coercive. Same thing to consider here: When they were children, did such disagreeable behavior maybe optimize their chances of getting what they wanted (not unlike throwing a temper tantrum by way of bribing your parents to submit to your demands just to get you to stop being so obnoxious)?
- They’re disrespectful, dismissive, condescending. Did they feel disrespected, disregarded, or looked down upon by their parents? Might this all be a projection on their part to avoid having to feel that way with you (subconsciously, their present-day mother or father)? Might they be trying to preempt you from “preempting” them? Or might their behavior be a defensive mechanism to make up for their own parent-or-peer induced narcissistic wounds (i.e., by projecting their gravest self-doubts and insecurities onto you)?
- They’re confused by something that seems perfectly clear to you, appearing almost embarrassingly obtuse. Again, ask yourself whether your words may inadvertently have put them in self-protective mode—as is probably the case in virtually all their inappropriate reactions. Might they lack the emotional resources to deal with whatever they thought you said (regardless of whether it had anything to do with what you meant to say)? When their miscomprehension seems totally unrelated to their innate intelligence, might you explore how their likely negative interpretation of your intent may have “required” them to misunderstand you?
I realize that much of the above may sound simplistic, or raise more questions than it suggests answers. And doubtless, some of the issues your spouse’s behavior poses for you may require professional assistance—not just your understanding—to be genuinely resolved. Moreover, if you’ve pushed many of their buttons in response to your own buttons being pushed, you may—first and foremost—need to confront your own reactions. Might you perhaps be guilty of projecting some of your unresolved issues onto them?!
As should be obvious, this whole matter can get quite complicated (not to say, convoluted). So this self-help post is necessarily limited in what, practically, it can offer you. Still, it may be invaluable to reassess enduring problems in your relationship in the way I’ve suggested. That is, to approach them from a more compassionate—and “enlightened”—perspective.
Note 1: If this post “spoke” to you and you believe it might to others as well, please consider sending them its link.
Note 2: To review some other posts on relationships that I’ve written for Psychology Today, you might want to check out these links:
- Is Your Marriage Fair?
- One Marriage = Two Realities
- Giving to Get vs. Griping to Get
- How Rational Are ‘Rational’ Marriages?
- Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!
- 4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict
- Couples Agreeing to Disagree: What’s It Really About?
- How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise
- Stop Criticizing Your Mate—Re-Learning What You Once Knew
- Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands Down? (in two parts)
- In Families, Blood May Be Thicker . . . But Skin is Thinner (Part 3 of “Why Criticism is So Hard to Take”)
Note 3: If you’d like to explore my writings for Psychology Today generally, click here.
© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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