Do you have any ideas for dealing with a spouse who is overly sensitive, like a land-mine just waiting to go off? I walk around the house on eggshells, trying desperately to avoid triggering yet another emotional overreaction. Is there a better way to deal with this?
It's common for couples to develop unhealthy ways of responding to minor irritations, miscommunications, and behaviors, especially during the early stages of a marriage. Often this is due to attitudes, and reactive tendencies that were picked up during childhood. When you mix these hypersensitive habits with the stresses of and adjustments to marriage and combine them with the everyday pressures of life, you've got a bombshell waiting to detonate.
Scripture has a great deal to say about this kind of overreaction. The Bible is filled with warnings about hasty responses: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1); "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult" (Proverbs 12:16); reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:18).
What can you do to defuse the situation if your spouse is the hypersensitive or over reactive type? To begin with, you can put out an effort to understand their feelings and perspectives. This won't address the problem directly, but it will help you accept the reality of what you're dealing with. Understanding is often the first step toward acceptance, and can serve as a bridge to healthy changes.
To gain this understanding, try talking with your mate about what his or her home life was like during childhood. Start with a simple, appropriately timed question such as, "Did your parents have misunderstandings like the one we're having now?" This may enable you to discover whether Mom or Dad modeled overreaction. Knowing that your spouse's mother regularly "flew off the handle," for example, will help you identify the origin of this tendency. Throughout this process, remember that seeking understanding doesn't mean approval of the behavior. It's just a way of acquiring the insight you need to deal with the problem more effectively.
The next step is to model healthy behavior. As in child discipline, so in dealing with a touchy or over reactive spouse: you have to reinforce positive behaviors with praise and model acceptable alternatives to the rest. To put it in simpler terms, if you overreact to your partner's overreaction, you can be sure that a vicious cycle will follow. So don't enable your spouse or give him permission to continue his destructive ways by falling into the same negative pattern yourself.
At this point you can begin to move more deliberately in the direction of creating awareness and accountability. Your spouse may not realize how reactive he or she has become. Habits aren't just hard to break; they're often difficult to recognize. The next time your mate overreacts, make a conscious effort to change the way you respond. For instance, if you typically blow up, just turn and walk away. If you usually don't say anything, bring it up later and describe how it makes you feel. If your spouse is volatile, allow at least an hour to pass before addressing the conflict. This will give them a chance to calm down.
In extreme cases, you might try putting your thoughts into a letter. Writing a letter emphasizes the fact that you're wrestling with a serious difficulty and allows your partner to carefully consider your perspective without your presence or the pressure to respond immediately. It also gives you an opportunity to pray and think about what you're trying to communicate.
Finally, try to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Ask your spouse how you can help. Give some serious thought to the possibility that you may be doing something to provoke hypersensitive behavior. Most marriage issues are not one-sided. Marriage is a system; what you do affects the other parts of the system. Intentional or not, your actions, aversions, or attitudes may be a major contributor to your spouse's overreactions.
If you need help putting these concepts into practice, don't hesitate to give our staff a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your area who specialize in communication issues.
Gary Smalley discusses how to deal with a difficult and contrary spouse.