Help for couples facing relationship problems, including both the victims and perpetrators of spouse abuse. Share your story and your marital advise.

We Are All Guilty. But Not Equally Guilty.

Here is a unwanted truth you won’t like to hear: “Every married person abuses his or her spouse.”

Most people will quickly dismiss or deny this truth because most of us don’t “really” abuse our mates.

But it is actually true.   Every married person has abused his or her spouse.

I’ll admit, most abuses are small.  But ignoring these small abuses is what gets us all into trouble.

Think about it.

A harsh word.  A criticism veiled as a “funny” tease.  These are the seedlings of verbal abuse.

The cold shoulder.  Withholding a smile or a look of affection.  Even benign neglect.  These are the seedlings of emotional abuse.  In these examples, the emotional abuse is in the form of rejection.

Remember, every person wants to feel loved.  Just as you want to feel treasured, honored, respected, admired, and cherished by your spouse, he or she wants the same from you.

The Seedlings of Emotional and Verbal Abuse

At least in some small way, any rejection or put down of the person you promised to love as much as you love yourself is an abuse of that loved one.  It is a betrayal of your vow to stand by, protect, support, encourage, and love your spouse.

But you may complain, such a broad definition of spouse abuse sets an impossibly high standard.

You’re right.  It is nearly impossible to never grow cold toward someone who has hurt you in a real or imagined way.  It is nearly impossible to never let a harsh word slip from your lips, or to say something that puts you up and your spouse down . . . if only a little bit, in a way that doesn’t “really hurt.”

But all of these things, at least in a small way, harm relationships, especially young or troubled relationships.

And recognizing this truth is essential to recognizing a second truth.  No matter how your spouse has hurt you, you are not totally innocent of abusing him or her either.

Perhaps he or she is more guilty.  I’ll give you that.  Everyone has to be free, at least at first, to think themselves less guilty than those who have hurt them.  So I won’t try to strip that real or imagined excuse out of your hands.

But I do want you to embrace the idea that it is so easy and natural for everyone to slip into a pattern of abusive behavior, and we all guilty of having done so.

When we give our spouse the cold shoulder or the silent treatment, we may feel justified in doing so because we are only trying to show how we feel rejected and hurt by some real or imagined offense.  But in showing our feelings of rejection, we are also rejecting and hurting our spouse.

The principle that two wrongs don’t make a right truly means something, especially in a marriage.

To intentionally or persistently reject one’s spouse, emotionally, spiritually, or physically never contributes any good to a marriage.  Instead, it will always cause some real harm to it.

In many cases, such lapses may be a minor and excusable offenses, but such acts are definitely never acts of love.  They are understandable.  They are forgivable.  But they are not lovable.


Stop Pretending All the Fault Lies in Your Spouse.  You Are Not Innocent.

Your acts of verbal and emotional abuse (put downs and rejection) add fuel to your spouse’s own acts of  abuse.

There may be other sources of fuel feeding your spouses abusive behaviors–like a history of child abuse, conflicts at work, substance abuse, or any other life stressors–but you are not totally innocent.

Even if the abuse “started” with your spouse, you have reacted with your own retaliatory acts of verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse which have contributed to the downward spiral, and given some grounds for your spouse to blame you for the feelings of rejection and anger that exist between you today.

So the first step to healing a relationship is for one of you (preferably both of you, but at least one of you) to work harder at becoming less guilty than you are today.

You need to replace acts of verbal and emotional abuse (even and especially the small ones which trigger defensiveness and anger in your spouse) with acts of encouragement, respect, acceptance, and trust.

This is hard work, because you don’t feel trusting, respectful, and accepting.  But if nothing else, this is where you need to rely on your vow–which is a promise to be trusting, respectful, and accepting even when you don’t feel like it, and even when everything in you screams against such a course.  (There are a few, but relatively few, exceptions to this.  One shouldn’t trust a blind spouse to drive, for example.  But the point is that you need to stretch and take risks in trusting your spouse despite past failures.)

By honoring your vow, even when it isn’t easy,  you can stop the cycle of finger pointing–his abuse is her excuse for counter abuse, her abuse is his excuse for counter abuse . . . ad nauseum.

Don’t Put Up With Abuse.  But Also, Don’t Contribute to the Cycle of Abuse.

I’m not saying you should accept and put up with your spouses abusive behavior.  But how to deal with that is a topic for later posts.

For now, it is just important to recognize and admit that you are part of the problem.

Got that?  You are guilty of spouse abuse, too.  Your are part of the problem.

You are also part of the solution.

Because we are creatures of habit, and verbal abuse and emotional abuse are patterns of habit, you will probably never completely squelch every harsh word, roll of your eyes, or rejecting huff.

But you can radically reduce these behaviors both in quantity and severity.

What Is Your Golden Ratio?

Even more importantly, you can compensate for these lapses by reaching toward the Golden Ratio.   That is the ratio of good, affirming loving things you say and do each week compared to the number of snitty, rejecting, selfish things you say and do each week.

If your golden ratio is less than 5 affirming interactions for every 1 lapse, you are a major source of your relationship problems.  With a ratio under 5, you have been steadily draining your spouse’s self-respect and good will.

Now here is the tough part.

It is all too easy to decide that your spouse is failing in this regard.  It is all too easy to think that he or she is giving you far too many criticisms and not enough affirmation.  And you are probably right.  But let’s not get caught up with the infantile game of finger-pointing arguing about who started it and who is worse.

Great leaders always lead by example.  Your relationship needs a good example.

If you want to lead your relationship out of trouble, be more concerned about your own lapses than your partners. Concentrate on improving your own golden ratio.  Pay it forward, hoping for the best but not demanding the best.

When you made your marriage vow, you promised to love and honor your spouse, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you feel unloved and unhonored.  This is what vows are all about.  Committing ourselves to do something that we may not later want to do.  It’s easy to love and honor somebody who loves and honors us, especially in good times, rich times, and healthy times.  When it comes to the bad times,  poor times, and ill times, that’s when you need to remember that love is a decision, not just a feeling, and your vow is what binds your honor to honoring that decision.

So watch yourself this week.  Be tough on yourself.  Find out what your golden ratio truly is.

At least three times a day, write down how many ways you have affirmed your spouse in the intervening hours.  And write down how many times you have let slip even a seedling of emotional or verbal abuse.

Unless your ratio 40:1, you have plenty of room for improvement on your own side of the street.  And I promise, as you concentrate on improving your golden ratio, you will see your spouse begin to improve as well.

One more golden rule to live by:  Work hard at keeping honor levels high and anger levels low.  This is one of the key pieces of wisdom imparted to Dr. Gary Smalley by a older, wiser friend.  But that little bit of advise is packed with important truths that Dr. Smalley has turned it into the core principles underlying his entire career counseling couples and publishing books, audios, videos, and seminars on improving relationships.

Don’t overlook this important principle.  Instead of focusing on those things which feed your anger, focus on ways of honoring your spouse.  When you do, you are on your way to transforming your marriage.

That’s enough for now!  Come back for more, soon!

Have you ever used emotional rejection to deliberately retaliate against or manipulate your spouse?

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