Imagine this… you’re at your local hospital being prepared for a major surgical operation. The anesthesiologist activates the drug stream that will send you off to la-la land, as she asks you to count backwards from 100. You float away on a pink cloud, and the operation begins.
An hour later, you wake up mid-procedure. You’re in intense pain and you expect the surgeon to do something about it… right now. You scream at him to do something.
Oblivious, and holding your spleen in his hands, he responds: “Gee, I don’t think you’re really awake.”
It’s on now. Before, you were surprised and in pain. Now you’re mad. You start yelling things at the doctor that you wouldn’t want your kids or your pastor to hear. You begin insinuating the doctor’s medical degree is bogus and that his mom is overweight. One way or the other, you’re going to get that doctor to respond—whatever you have to say, whatever you have to do.
Then the doctor matter-of-factly says to you: “My therapist told me not to respond to people who talk to me in anger, and your tone of voice is a little out of control right now. I need you to take it down a level or two or I’m not going to dignify anything you said with a response. And in any case, I think I’m a fine surgeon and you’re simply a problem patient.”
How would you respond?
What I’ve just described for you is the average marital fight in a nutshell. It starts when our spouse experiences personal pain or fear. Oh, sure, we call it annoyance, frustration, or aggravation most of the time, but there’s pain or fear at the root.
Our spouse expresses that pain to us, but when they do, they don’t express it perfectly. This, of course, is normal. Ask a doctor, a dentist, a midwife… people in pain are not usually diplomatic.
Unfortunately, their less than gracious way of expressing themselves often creates in us a reaction of defensiveness (“You’re not really awake”) or righteous indignation (“My therapist told me not to respond to angry outbursts”). And in the end, it inspires our spouse to believe we won’t be there for them.
You probably know what that feels like because you’ve likely spent a little time on the operating table yourself.
The bottom line is this: If you must agree with, understand, or personally feel the validity of your spouse’s fears or pain before you respond, you’ll always respond too late.
The key to building trust is responding to pain you don’t personally feel. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
Like the patient on the operating table, your spouse needs you now. They need you even if they can’t quite tell you what they’re feeling in the kindest or most gracious way. They need you even if you aren’t completely sure their position is justifiable. They need you even if they’re acting like they’re mad at you.
But to be fair, let’s ask the question: why you? Why is it always you who has to hear or see your spouse be frustrated, aggravated, or upset? And why is it you who has to do something about it?
The answer: For the same reason the surgeon is the first person you yell at when you wake up in the middle of the procedure. Because he’s the one you trust. Believe it or not, your spouse is not out to dump the burden of their life’s difficulties on you. They trust you because if anyone can help them cope with life’s struggles it’s you. What a huge compliment. Think of it this way… out of all the people your spouse could reach out to when in pain, they reach for you. That’s actually very cool.
Next time you have a fight with your spouse, remember the patient on the operating table. And use that conflict as an opportunity to build trust. You can do this. It’ll change your world.