“If I had heard this a few years ago, I wouldn’t be divorced today.”
I can’t tell you how often I have heard that phrase. At my speaking engagements I frequently have people tell me how much they wish they hadn’t had to learn some key relationship lessons the hard way—through the pain and loss of a break-up or by struggling in an unhappy marriage.
My passion (in case you haven’t noticed!) is to share my research findings and insights so that these key relationship lessons can be learned “in time,” to help prevent broken and unhappy marriages. And beyond that, to help people not just survive but thrive in their relationships!
Some of these relationship lessons are simple yet powerful. Here’s one particularly deadly but easily-missed trap that could be present in your marriage right now:
Never think your husband shouldn’t be hurt by something that wouldn’t hurt you.
That sounds so mundane. But it’s one of the most common, sneaky reasons marriages fail.
So how can you recognize this trap? What might it look like in the everyday life of your marriage?
What We Do Or Say Seems Innocent To Us
Just about all of us have thought something like this about our spouse:
All I did was point out where he wasn’t connecting the TV cables correctly. I mean, he’d been working on that new setup for an hour and he obviously needed help. It is ridiculous for that to make him mad.
I don’t know why he’s so sensitive about me telling him how to put the kids to bed. He clearly doesn’t know the routine and I’m only trying to help!
Here’s why these thoughts are so dangerous: they make us blow off the fact that we are legitimately hurting the other person.
Our Differences Make Us Vulnerable
We tend to forget that we are different from our spouses. To be more specific, men and women are different. In some ways, in fact, our brains are wired to be the opposite of each other! I heard one neurologist say that when he reads MRI scans of male and female brains it is sometimes like looking at two different species. And although there are always exceptions, our emotional needs, insecurities, and hurts diverge as well.
So the things that hurt men’s feelings—what they are vulnerable to—are different than the things that hurt women’s feelings. As a result, the way a man responds internally to certain comments or actions will differ significantly from the way a woman would. While we cannot see what is going on inside our spouse, we can grow in our understanding of what makes them tick and use that information to strengthen our relationship. To gain some insight into how men are wired and what hurts their feelings, let’s look more closely at one of our examples.
What He’s Thinking
Most guys have a deep, hidden worry that just isn’t as big of a deal for most women. Men desperately want to be good at what they do, to make their wives happy, to feel adequate and competent. But deep inside, he’ll constantly worry that he isn’t adequate. That he’s one step away from being found out as an imposter. Here are the internal, underlying feelings of a man:
Do I measure up? I love my wife so much. She’s amazing and deserves my very best, but I’m not sure I know how to be the husband she needs. I adore my kids and want to be a great dad to them. I don’t want to mess up. I want to provide for our family. I want to give them everything they need, do everything they need, protect them in the way they need… but am I up to the task? My buddies Gary and Bill seem to have it all together; I wish I was a fix-it guy like Gary and a great dad like Bill. I don’t want to let my family down.
Why It Hurts
So when your man is trying to put together the complicated new TV system and it isn’t going well, he’s already feeling like a failure at what he’s trying to do—as if he doesn’t measure up to others. It’s painful for him. And when you come along and point out what he didn’t do correctly in connecting that cable (just trying to help, of course!) you have, without realizing it, just overtly pointed out: yes, you are indeed a failure. Gary would have done better. Or when you give step-by-step instructions on exactly how to tuck your kids in at bedtime, you are, without realizing it, telling your husband he’s not a competent parent. Bill probably knows the routine better than him.
We women don’t think of it that way, of course. We think our man is being super-over-sensitive. In other words: We think he shouldn’t be hurt by that. Because it wouldn’t hurt us. But we’re wrong!
Hurt Feelings Create A Cycle
When we hurt our man’s feelings, we compound the hurt by communicating to him that he shouldn’t have been upset by what we said or did. So he gets mad. Or he withdraws. And then we get hurt by that. Or we huff and get mad because he’s mad and we don’t think he should be. All because we don’t see his hurt, his wiring, his needs. Or we don’t see them as legitimate. So we miss the deep truth. We roll our eyes at his “ego” and never realize: he doesn’t have an ego. He has a deep well of self-doubt.
Because we missed the fact that our actions legitimately caused him pain, because we miss the deep truth underneath it, we do those things again. We hurt him again. He gets mad and withdraws again. Then we get hurt again. And pretty soon our marriage is hurting. All because of a sneaky trap we never saw.
To avoid this dangerous relationship trap and prevent the cycle of hurting, there’s really just one answer: watch for the things that hurt your spouse, recognize that they are usually legitimate, and make a real effort to avoid them. It might seem simple, but it’s not always easy. For starters, try putting yourself in their shoes. Consider the unique vulnerabilities that differ from yours. Then treat your husband—and those vulnerabilities—with tender loving care.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.