How Should I Deal With My Wife’s Negative, Disrespectful Reactions?

A husband wrote, “My wife and I have been married for almost two years. . . . Our disagreements are centered on her emotional outbursts and my lack of emotion. I love my wife . . . and consider myself emotional about (her), however I try to not allow emotion to control me. I believe love is expressed with actions and not with reaction. Emotion and reaction are closely related as are self-control and action. . . .

I do love the emotion my wife has and I know God has us together to love and respect each other as we seek to glorify him, but I struggle when my wife justifies some behavior as her uncontrollable emotional reaction.

I am not looking for something to condemn her with, instead I would like your viewpoint on how one best handles this type of ongoing disagreement.

How Should I Deal With My Wife’s Negative, Disrespectful Reactions?

The remainder of this article shares how I replied to him:

Thank you for the honest and humble assessment of what you are feeling. You need to attend the Love and Respect Conference because there I address this issue of “reaction” as a major component.

Nonetheless, let me share some concepts and principles with you based on Ephesians 5:33, which states, “Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respect her husband.”

The Need

The husband is commanded to love and the wife is commanded to respect. This reveals that her deepest need is for his love (why else does God command this?) and his deepest need is for her respect (why else does God command this?). Thus, she naturally expects to be loved and he naturally expects to be respected.

The Reaction

But here is where things get interesting.

Of course, a wife thinks about being unloved during conflict; she does not think about being disrespectful. A husband thinks about being disrespected during heated fellowship; he does not think about how he appears unloving. This results in what I call the Crazy Cycle. Without love she reacts without respect, and without respect he reacts without love.

Without love she reacts defensively, but that reaction “offends” the husband as disrespectful. Without respect he reacts defensively, but that reaction “offends” the wife as unloving. Talk about things getting insane in three minutes over some upsetting issue that will soon be forgotten, like “Why didn’t you pick up the clothes at the cleaners like I asked?”

Women Among Women

So, why doesn’t your wife see her negative reaction as disrespectful? Most often she is feeling unloved but moves toward you motivated by love to resolve the conflict. However, she delivers her message in complaining and critical ways.

She does this with her girlfriend when they are upset with each other over something as innocuous as wearing the same outfit at a formal dinner. Both feel that venting their feelings is normal and natural. Though verbally combative, neither personalizes the other’s venting. They do not interpret the other as out of line or out of control. This is in accordance with the rules of the game. No harm, no foul.

So, each conveys in no uncertain terms the hurt they feel, but they confront to be understood and always with the intent to understand the other as well. Ultimately, they confront in order to connect and reestablish the friendship.

They are not trying to hurt the other but help the other understand their hurt. They feel comfortable in this ocean of emotion. They never feel they are drowning or overwhelmed by all the feelings breaking over them like a wave.

Both instinctively know this will lead to a resolution and reconciliation, which is the goal. They both know that after talking it all out, they’ll say, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Peace comes and one says something funny and they start laughing. They are best of friends again. Interestingly, when measured physiologically, their heart beats during the heated exchange are normal.

For the Husband

For the husband, this doesn’t seem right, especially since during such exchanges with our wives our heart beats can get to 99 beats per minute, which is warrior mode. We feel provoked and need to exit the argument to de-escalate what could turn ugly. It feels like she is picking a fight.

But here’s the key: She isn’t picking a fight. She is trying to deal with the conflict according to the rules she plays by as a woman.

Make sense?

Football

An analogy might help you. Men enjoying playing tackle football, while 99.999% of women do not. The nature of the game is to hit your opponent, even knocking them down, if not knocking them out. When the crowd hears the pads collide way up in the stands, they cheer. The harder the hit, the better! Hitting like this is within the rules of the game. No harm, no foul.

Though combative, neither player takes it personally. Often the guy helps his opponent get back up. Hitting is not inappropriate or uncontrolled. But someone watching football for the first time might conclude the men are cruel and out of control.

After all, if one tackled a neighbor this way, one would be arrested for assault and battery. But in the proper setting, running full speed and creaming somebody on the football field is to be applauded. It is the way things are done.

By the way, my dad played football. His mother never attended a game until the last one where dad hit a guy so hard they had to carry the fellow off the field. It was a clean hit. His mom stood up, left the stadium, and went home. She couldn’t believe he’d do such a thing!

Marital Football!

Now back to your wife. Many women see the expressing of negative emotion in a marital clash as the way things are done during marital contention. This is in accordance with the rules of the game. This is why when a husband tells her to “drop it” and then he goes silent and walks out of the room, it feels to her like a quarterback on first down and goal walking off the field and heading to the locker room to shower. “Why would anybody who cares and is passionate about scoring do such a thing? This makes no sense! What’s going on here?”

To her the exchange needs to go four quarters, so to speak. One does not quit until feeling connected again.

Let me add, the analogy breaks down in that she does not see this as a winner and loser scenario. She yearns for both of you to feel like winners afterward. Also, even though she can commit some verbal fouls by using words of contempt, she really doesn’t mean it. As most wives confess, “He should know that I didn’t mean it.” A husband should not personalize the hit anymore than the guy my dad hit should personalize it. It’s the nature of the dynamic, whether in football or marriage!

Application

So absorb the hit. This is part of the female football game. Don’t take it personally. Though her methods seem negative, her goal is positive. Though she seems out of control, she is not. She expresses herself this way to get a message through. So stay cool, calm, and collected.

When she oversteps the boundary and uses contempt, later on tell her of the marital rules: “I will not be harsh and unloving but you must not be rude and disrespectful. That’s out of bounds.”  

When you are honorable and loving, you have a right to address her disrespect.

But most other emotion from her is fair game. Don’t walk off the field. Stay in there. Soon you’ll hear her say, “I am sorry. I should not have reacted that way. Will you forgive me?”

Discussion Questions

  1.     FOR THE MEN: Can you relate with the man who wrote Emerson who is concerned with how to handle his wife’s emotional outbursts? How have you dealt with similar issues? FOR THE WOMEN: Can you relate with the wife of the man, who did not deal well with her husband’s lack of emotion when in an argument? How have you dealt with similar issues?
  2.  Why do you think two women can be verbally combative with each other but make up so quickly? Why is it different when the argument is between a woman and her husband?
  3.  FOR THE MEN: Why do you feel that leaving the fight is the best option for you at times? FOR THE WOMEN: How do you feel when your husband walks away from an argument? Why do you not feel that is the best option at the time?
  4.  Emerson wrote that, outside of verbal contempt, “most other emotion from her is fair game.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain.

-Dr. E


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6 thoughts on “How Should I Deal With My Wife’s Negative, Disrespectful Reactions?

  1. Thank you for your article. My wife who feels like the one written about here shared your article with me. I have a few comments that I believe may benefit others. I did find it very interesting and admit I had mixed feelings about it. For one, I am not keen on the article basically suggesting that we men simply shut up take it like a man. But whether I should or not, I did wonder, is that advice even scriptural? Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” ANY? Not any. So who do we obey, this article, or God? I have said it many times, you cannot build someone up by tearing them down. Just my two cents. I say you choose to obey God or this article or do whatever you think best.

  2. Moderately insightful, however when “absorbing the hit” involves protecting your head and genitals from swinging fists of rage, the application loses credibility. Her methods are negative as is her goal. She is out of control. Stay cool, calm, and protect your head and genitals from rage blows. Don’t grab her arms or wrap her up in self defense or you will go to jail.

    When she oversteps the boundary and threatens to stab you with a kitchen knife, run. Don’t take the knife from her or you will go to jail.

    WHEN YOU ARE HONORABLE AND LOVING, YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT IF YOU TOUCH HER.

  3. I find it interesting that only men have replied so far. I am trying to understand what my husband sees as disrespectful. Emotions are normal for women – it is where we live day in and day out. To suggest we can easily stay calm and collected is a stretch, but I do want to learn how to talk with my husband in a manner he finds respectful. I think you can obey God and the article, Greg, if you forgive your wife for her shortcomings even those are verbal or emotional outbreaks. Ultimately marriage boils down to understanding our need for forgiveness, and therefore being able to extend grace to our partner. It does not mean it is easy, though. My husband and I have been married for 25 years and I am still trying to understand what makes him angry, on occasion, if we have a disagreement and I feel I am just expressing my feeling/perspective. I don’t get what he thinks is disrespectful about having emotion. Sometimes our disagreements are worked out quickly and with no stress, others times they become a tornado of words, emotion and reactions. I am still trying to learn and improve. Hence, I will be reading the materials and listening to several articles here to try to gain more insight!

    • I would qualify “disrespect” as belittling the other, giving CONSTANT disapproving comments or looks, putting the other person down, making negative comments about the other, calling them names or saying they are this negative way or that, being verbally, mentally and/or emotionally abusive, and in some cases (not my own), physically abusive or even sexually abusive. If this is the norm, it’s unbiblical.

      It’s not about the emotions. It’s about the attitude one presents to the other. The word disrespect means: “To act in an insulting way toward someone When you disrespect people, you think very little of them.” If your actions demonstrate that you think very little of the person, that is disrespect and is unbiblical.

      I have always taught that how you say what you say is equally as important as what you say. If you get either one wrong, you might as well be quiet because it takes both to be heard. If you’re saying all the right things but you’re not saying it in a way that others can accept it, they won’t hear it. Likewise, if you’re saying what you say the right way but it’s not the right thing to say.

      Forgiving shortcomings is the right thing to do but the other person must be willing to address their shortcomings too. How long would you allow someone to punch you in the face saying, “Oh I forgive you,” before you decide that mere forgiveness is not enough? Would you let them just keep punching you? Now you may say, “Oh that’s different,” but it’s not because the point I am making is the same — that mere forgiveness is not enough. That is, unless you plan to tolerate being “hit” the rest of your life.

      Even the Bible teaches that forgiveness alone is not enough. Matthew 3:8 says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, we are to change and show we have changed. Hebrews 10:26 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…” In other words, if you go right on doing the same old things, then forgiveness is a useless waste.

      I will end with, there is a place for us to show grace and try to really listen and understand the other person and I agree with that part of this article. However, again, people should not have to put up with unloving treatment day in and day out either. There must be growth and change.

  4. Have you ever run across a couple where these preferences, communication styles, needs, etc were reversed for the genders? My wife and I have attended many different marriage seminars, read various Christian marriage books, and listened to podcasts, sermons, etc. And they are all very helpful, however what I can’t shake is the peculiar case that the advice applies to us in the opposite on many many points. Have you seen this before in other couples, or is this a product of dysfunction?