Focus on the Family Broadcast

Best of 2022: Understanding the Hot Buttons in Your Marriage

Best of 2022: Understanding the Hot Buttons in Your Marriage

In this best of 2022 broadcast, Dr. Bob Paul and his wife Jenni explain how seemingly innocent disagreements can spiral into a major argument because of unidentified personal hot buttons that trigger primal reactions that are out of proportion to the issue at hand.
Original Air Date: December 12, 2022

Dr. Bob Paul: Our marriages in the church, as a result of our knowledge and our relationship with Christ, should be materially better, different than those that are not walking with Christ.

John Fuller: Well, having a good marriage is a great goal, but do you sometimes feel like it’s difficult to achieve? Well, we have some encouragement for you today on this Best of 2022 edition of Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, we have a fascinating message today from Dr. Bob Paul of our Hope Restored marriage intensives, and his wife, Jenni. It was a big hit when we first aired this in March, so we wanted to bring it back for those of you who may have missed it. Bob and Jenni are going to help us see how hidden issues from our past can sabotage our marriage and why we can often feel like all of our disagreements end up covering the same ground over and over. And they’re actually going to dissect one of their recent arguments, point by point, so you can hear what they were feeling, but not really saying.

John: Yeah, just like an iceberg, uh, 90% of the problem seems to be under the waterline, so to speak, and, uh, I love the transparency that we’re about to hear. Uh, here now, Bob and Jenni Paul at an event for supporters of Focus on the Family.

Dr. Paul: We are so excited to be here with you guys. We have the opportunity to be part of something miraculous that is happening, uh, through Hope Restored, through Focus on the Family, every single day. And guys, we get that we would not be able to do this if it wasn’t for you. I hope you know how much we feel, uh, your support and your partnership with us. Um, God is using you in amazing ways, and the miracles that we see taking place at Hope Restored every single day are astounding. And, you know, the interesting thing we’ve learned over the years is it’s virtually never the people that are the problem. We are led to- by- by well-meaning people, we are led to pursue ideas and strategies for our relationships that cannot work. And we don’t realize that, because they’ve been told to us by people that we’ve trusted. And we have people coming to us every week with that going on, and we get to unravel that, and many times, there’s spiritual issues that are there, and we’re mostly working with Christians, but it’s so interesting I get the opportunity to tell you that a few weeks ago, I was working with a couple. And the guy has known the Lord for many years, known of Him, but what he discovered in the intensive, and this isn’t that uncommon, was that he actually didn’t understand what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ. And he was- he was there for counseling for his marriage. And he found the Lord. And you gotta believe that that’s gonna make a major difference in his relationship. And we have been learning so much about God’s design for marriage, and what happens and what it looks like when people get out of line with God, and are working contrary to His design. And they’re confused because they don’t understand because they’re believing and they’re pursuing what they’ve been taught, and they don’t understand why it’s not working. And as a result of what we’ve learned and the tools and the techniques that we have, we have, to my knowledge, the highest success rate in the world, working with couples who are in crisis. And we’ve seen miracles occur- yeah, give God a hand for that. To date, we’ve worked with over 9,000 couples from every state in the United States and over 30 foreign countries. And I just sit back in awe.

Jenni: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Paul: So, these lies have resulted in us- Greg Smalley and I produced a book last year, 9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage: And the Truths That Will Save It and Set It Free. And that’s the end- the- the model that has emerged over these years is embedded in this book, and the lies are on the surface, and then we show how the truth actually can be a source of restoration, of healing, of growth, and of discovery. So, today, what Jenni and I wanna share with you-

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: … is something that we’ve realized is actually a way that people get lost and misguided, and it’s really common because what we wanna share with you is something we’ve learned that is underlying all conflicts in marriage. Everybody is dealing with this exact cycle. The details will be a little different because we’re different.

Jenni: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Paul: And you’re different from us, but the cycle itself that is underlying it is true for everybody. When we first discovered this, we didn’t know it applied to everybody, and I’m telling you, when you finally realize you’ve been led to something, you’ve been given something that applies to everybody, it’s gold. So, what we wanna do is spend a little bit of time of, um, unpacking that for you and helping you to see, like we’ve learned, why when you get into conflict with your spouse, it virtually doesn’t matter what you’re arguing about, there will be an eerily familiar feeling to it. It’s like, wow, we’re talking about something different, we’re arguing about something different. Why does it feel so much like the last time? We wanna be able to flesh that out and let you see that.

Jenni Paul: You know, that’s because, uh, the problem is rarely the problem. A conflict is more than the topic and the process, uh, there’s a process going on beneath the surface. In fact, we kinda like to look at it this way. The issue on top is not the whole issue.

Dr. Paul: And that’s the part we see. The part that we see commonly going on between us is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more that really matters that’s going on below.

Jenni: So, what is going on beneath the surface? Uh, we’re going to show you, give you kind of a little peek about a conflict- well, we have lots of conflicts. So, we’re gonna just pick one. Okay? (laughs) One conflict, and we’re gonna use that, we’re gonna start with the above-the-surface issue, and then we’re gonna go deeper with it and kinda take you with us. All right. So, um, this issue started because, uh, I was playing a game on my phone, and this game happened to have teams, and usually, just the person kinda makes up a team and becomes the leader. It’s not, like, any qualification. So, I’m on this team, and as I’m- as I’m playing on the team, there’s 50 people. I notice, like, 20 of them are not playing. And I’m like, “Wow, I wonder what’s going on.” I’m kind of new to this, and such. And so, I just chatted in the chat box, “Hey, you guys, you know, I noticed you weren’t playing. Is there anything I can do?” Well, the leader wasn’t really happy with that and she disciplined me in the chat box in front of everyone.

Dr. Paul: Yeah, it was public.

Jenni: It was public. And so, I was like, ew, wow. I’m not six years old, (laughs) and I’m not her child. That was really, you know, hard. So, I just, you know, chatted back and said, um, you know, “Just encouraging them. No big deal.” And she, uh, chatted another one back that was even more severe, and I was like, wow. That was painful. So, I told Bob, I was like, “Bob, man, can you believe what she said?” And, um, so, anyway, so, Bob did- (laughs)

Dr. Paul: So, I- I see my wife hurting.

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: And, you know, she’s clearly disturbed by this. So, as a normal male, not leaning on any of my knowledge as a therapist, (laughing) uh, what do you think my response was? Well, I wanted to come up with something to help fix the problem. Okay? Now, when I- when I’m in my- my professional mode, I know better than this, but-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … in that moment, I was just being Bob the husband, and I see my wife hurting. So, I thought maybe it would be helpful to help her to think about what might have been going on for this gal, you know, so that she would be able to maybe just not take it so hard, and so forth, and- and for somes- it-

Jenni: And it- and it comes out…

Dr. Paul: … it- it didn’t land well.

Jenni: It didn’t at all, because it came out like I had said something that was wrong, and she was right in reprimanding me. That’s how it came out. And so, now, notice that we’re gonna have a conflict based on- on that belief system that happened between the two of us, but the- the whole issue started outside of the marriage. You know, often, when conflict happens, it’s something that happened with the kids or something in the car, something at work, and then you get home and you start sharing about it, and something below the, uh, the iceberg system, you know, goes on. So, we started into an argument, and it kinda looked like this on- on what we give the couples the chart.

Dr. Paul: Yeah. So, what we’re gonna show you now is what we understand in hindsight was going on below the waterline, because obviously, there was plenty going on for each of us that we were oblivious to at the moment. So, we’re gonna take you below the waterline for Bob and Jenni. So, um, this is what we call our reactive cycle. Okay? And, um, as you can see me at the top, there. Um, I’ve got a series of, uh, fears. Now, that- that’s relevant, obviously, here, we call them buttons, triggers, things that, you know, you- you- we’ve all got them. You cannot survive any length of time in this fallen world without getting stung. Okay? So, we all acquire these bruises, these wounds along the way, and here’s some of mine. I- I hate feeling controlled. I hate feeling helpless and powerless. I hate feeling inadequate, mis-portrayed, or misunderstood, and I react even in the- the anticipation of feeling those things, I hate those feelings enough. When the button gets pushed, I will knee-jerk react. It doesn’t take any thought, any deliberation. I will do things like I will complain, get defensive, go into fix-it mode, lecture, and talk about who’s right and who’s wrong. Now, what I really want, however, is to feel accurately portrayed. I like to feel successful, hate failure. Uh, I love feeling af- experience a partnership, uh, passion, and, uh, want to feel wanted. So, that’s a little bit about what’s going on below the surface for me. How about for you?

Jenni: I mean, I’ve got a lot of buttons, but, uh, I don’t like being controlled, uh, suppressed, invalidated, judged, and ignored. And typically, when those get hit, uh, I react, uh, sometimes in anger or blame. I might get defensive and explain myself. Uh, I might judge or I might go to wh- who’s wrong or who did what, wh- you know, right, wrong kind of a thing. Really, really what I want in the relationship is I want to feel heard, and I want support. I want approval to exist. Uh, I want value to exist, and I want validation of who I am.

Dr. Paul: So, here’s- now you know a little bit about us-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … I- just- there’s plenty more than that, but we had to condense it to fit into onto our little map, here. All right? So, this is what happens. So, Jenni is reacting, and I see that she’s upset, and when- and I feel this in a lot of different ways, but it’s always worse if it’s any one of the three most significant women in my life-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … my wife or my two daughters. I don’t manage that well. I manage tears. We have Kleenex all over the place in my office. I’m- I always tell people their tears are welcome and I really-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … believe that, unless it’s my wife or my two daughters, and then inside, I start freaking out, because I love these people and they matter so greatly to me. So, I see that and I don’t know what to do and I- and it taps my helpless-powerless button. And I instantly, without even thinking, go into fix-it mode. Now, here’s where it gets weird, and this is what’s so bizarre, that this happens with couples all the time. When I go into fix-it mode, what happened to you?

Jenni: Well, for me, when he goes into fix-it mode, I feel judged. I feel like he was telling me that I was the one at fault, and I had done something. And when I started to, you know, react to that and started to talk to him and such, I started to- the words that came out were defensive words. I began to explain myself. That’s really what being defensive is, is when you just start explaining what you did, and such. Like, “Well, you know, she- I didn’t really say anything wrong and she was the one that wrote down those statements and stuff, and I was being really kind on the chat,” and I just kinda went into defensive mode.

Dr. Paul: And I’m- since I’m trying to be helpful, and clearly, it wasn’t being perceived as helpful-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … I feel immediately misunderstood. So, my misunderstood button gets pushed-

Jenni: (laughs)

Dr. Paul: … and then, I get defensive because I want to explain to- “Hey, no, no, no, that’s not what I meant,” which pushed her button.

Jenni: Yeah. So, I feel like, well, he’s not listening to me. So, I feel invalidated. What I just said is completely ind- invalidated, and then I go into explaining who’s right and who’s wrong, and- and I’m not talking about the lady on the game. I’m talking about us. (laughs) He’s wrong and I’m right. So-

Dr. Paul: Yeah. So- so, you can kinda see how this goes. This is what is so bizarre about this cycle, and I’m not- I don’t wish- I don’t know how it gets this way and why it’s this way, but I just know it is this way for everybody. And we have couples- and we- and we took it in super slow mode, now, okay-

Jenni: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Paul: … and really slowed it down, but, guys, honestly, when this gets rolling between couples, it reminds me most of a 4th of July pinwheel.

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: You know? You light the fuse and then, all of a sudden, they start to go, and it’s spinning fast and sparks flying-

Jenni: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Paul: … and that’s common.

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: Now, sometimes, couples are not like this and it becomes like a cold war-

Jenni: Hmm.

Dr. Paul: … and it’s quiet, but it’s the same cycle underneath it. And it’s amazing how that happens.

John: You’re listening to Dr. Bob Paul and his wife, Jenni, on Focus on the Family, and we have the book that Dr. Paul co-authored called 9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage: And the Truths That Will Save It and Set It Free. It’s available here from the ministry when you donate, uh, make a gift of any amount, and we’ll also include a free audio download of the entire presentation from Bob and Jenni. So, donate today and request those resources at or call us for details, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. That’s 800-232-6459. Let’s go ahead and return, now, to the presentation from Bob and Jenni Paul.

Dr. Paul: So, what’s actually going on? Okay? Underlying this, what’s really happening is that our brain processes emotional fear in the same way as physical fear. When we feel afraid, it doesn’t even matter if something’s actually there. The thought of something that worries us triggers the same brain process. We call- it’s what we call an amygdala hijack. The amygdala’s a gland in your brain and when it gets triggered, it sends a message out that- that releases hormones like- like, uh, adrenaline and so forth that readies us into our fight or flight mode. Okay? And, um, really, what happens is there’s an amazing shift in blood flow. Any guess where the blood flows to? If you’re gonna go into fight or flight mode, it goes to your arms and your legs to get you ready to fight or flee. Where does it go from?

Audience: Your brain.

Dr. Paul: Your brain. It leaves your brain to go to your extremities. You are physiologically handicapped to think clearly in that moment. There is no way that you can think clearly when the blood has left your brain. Okay? And emotional intelligence goes out the window. So, what’s actually going on then with these buttons?

Jenni: Yeah. Um, what is it that’s getting set off in you? And basically, buttons are past wounds that we- we can h- have new buttons develop as we grow, but typically, we bring most of our buttons with us into the relationship. So, those source p-

Dr. Paul: I came with a pack of them to our marriage.

Jenni: (laughing) Me too. Um, so, it’s those past wounds that we feel when someone bumps into them, and when they talk to us or something that they may do. It’s kind of like if Bob had a bruise on his arm, and then I walked by him and I happened to hit the bruise. Now, he might say to me, “Jenni, golly, that hurt. Don’t do that.”

Dr. Paul: Yeah. What do you think I’m thinking-

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: … at that point? I’m going, I- I feel the pain and I’m going, ouch! You hurt me.

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: That’s immediately without cause and effect. Right? But what’s the truth? Did she hurt me? No, she just bumped my bruise. The bruise, the wound was already there. She tapped it and sure, there is a bit of a cause and effect, but the magnitude of what I feel is greater because there was a pre-existing wound. And most of the buttons that you possess, you brought with you to the party. And they get tapped regularly by your spouse. And do you have any guess who is more skilled at pushing my buttons than anybody on the planet?

Audience: (laughing)

Jenni: I’ll give you a hint.

Dr. Paul: Yeah. (laughing) Now, why do you think that is? Because she wants to hurt me? No. The truth is because nobody is closer. I don’t let anybody get even close to the control panel, and she’s so good at it, she frequently gets and just push a button. She just leans on the whole control panel-

Audience: (laughing)

Dr. Paul: … and the buttons depress simultaneously, and my head just spins in place. Okay? But it’s because she’s got access to it, and same thing with her. I have access, ’cause she lets me close to those tender, vulnerable spots in a way that nobody else on the planet does.

Jenni: Yeah. So, because buttons are our wounds, um, we actually become afraid of having those pushed. For instance, mine are that I’m afraid, I- I kinda protect and I- I get afraid of being controlled. I might be afraid or have a tender kind of heart for being, uh, supported. I might, you know, with approval and valued and validation. So, those are kind of tender spots for me, among other ones. (laughs) But, um, so, we think, though, is that, like Bob said, is that he pushed my button. And so, then I have this external reaction at the above water stuff that goes on, and start blaming him for pushing my button. But what we try to tell couples is that instead of blaming the- your spouse, is that you actually can feel a button go off. It actually, uh, kinda makes your- you might get, like, um, a feeling across your brow or- or palpitations in your heart, or you get a flushed feeling about you, or you get upset and kind of- you feel that energy of anger coming on you. So, when you feel that, you can actually go to the Lord instead and say, “Oh, ooh, uh, my button just got pushed. I’m gonna take some time and talk to God about this.

Dr. Paul: Yeah. So, what we teach in the intensive, obviously, understanding the reactive cycle doesn’t actually take you to a better place, but it does help people to identify what’s going on so that this unconscious reactive spin can be turned into something conscious. And once you’re aware, like Jenni just said, you go, “Whoo wee, I am triggered. I am stirred up,” and we ask clients all the time to say, “Okay, what happens in your body that’s the tip-off that you had a button pushed? How do you know? And ’cause it’s- and it’s a little different for everybody. We literally go from client to client when we’re in a group and say, “So, what physiologically happens for you, because it’s like the red light flashing on the dashboard and you say, “Whoa, I am stirred up,” and then you wake up and you become conscious, and then what we want people to see is what the options are different than just continually reacting in the unconscious spin. What alternatives do you have that you could do that would be more righteous, more loving, more caring, more true to who God created you to be, more Christlike? So, this is just something to wake people up to what’s happening below the waterline, so it opens up an array of possibilities and alternatives to be more righteous and to create a better, more satisfying relationship.

Jenni: So, when our button gets pushed, a lot of times, what we’re feeling inside of us is what we really want, also, at the same time. “Oh, I wish we had this in our marriage.” My list of wants are that I want to be heard, supported, approved, valued, and validation. And typically, I have, really, three pages of wants. Okay? But, uh, (laughing) but what we have it- have come to find out that what your wants are are those things that God has given you that you are passionate about. So, it is not the responsibility of someone else to give you your wants. Instead, we can get to know our wants, find out what God has given us that we are passionate about, grow those in the Lord, and then bring those into our relationship, our family, our community, and our world. That’s what our wants are. I know it’s really, really hard to not try to get your wants met from your spouse, or even your kids and your friends. But it is very, very valuable. On-

Dr. Paul: And to- and to just reiterate what Jenni’s saying, ’cause I think it’s so powerful, and we didn’t realize this at first, but a lot of these things we’ve just stumbled onto, and we’ve had these divine, uh, inspirational moments where we realize that we just tapped into something that’s true to God’s heart and God’s design. And what Jenni’s saying that I think is so worth repeating is that the- the things that are the desires of our heart are longings of ours because they reflect something that God created in us. The fact that she wants to be heard is because she values being heard, so she is a person who naturally listens really carefully to people, because that’s a reflection of who God created her to be. She wants to feel supported and she is very supportive of others. She wants to feel approved, and it’s amazing how much affirmation and approval Jenni’s capable of giving to people, because that’s reflective of who she is, not just what she wants from me and from others.

Jenni: I actually, when I learned this, I actually was not good at hearing others. I was really good at talking, and when I- when the Lord really revealed this to me, and He showed me that, um, that He’s really good at listening, because when we pray, how much of the conversation in prayer is, uh, us talking to Him? Yeah. So, we don’t do a real good job of listening to the Lord, and He’s a really good listener to us, and He said, “I want you to become a really good listener.” And when I did, I felt so more balanced because I wanted to be heard, and now, I was spending time learning how to hear others, and it was really a passion of mine that I had not cultivated. And so, that’s another thing that we do, is we really encourage people to cultivate their wants.

Dr. Paul: So, for over 22 years, we have been learning, now, so many things about God’s design for life. God’s design for marriage, what works, and what doesn’t, and what we’ve realized th- is that it doesn’t just work for couples in crisis.

Jenni: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Paul: It actually works- these ideas, these principles, these tools work every bit as well and maybe better for couples who are just doing good and want to do better, for the average couple out there. So, what we’ve been doing now for years is trying to figure out ways to package this information in books and in- and in events and so forth, to get the word out to the masses, because, guys, this is kingdom work. What we need more than anything is for the church to demonstrate that what we claim to be true about a relationship-

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: … with Jesus Christ is not just true in theory, but it is true in real time.

Jenni: Yeah.

Dr. Paul: Because our marriages in the church, as a result of our knowledge and our relationship with Christ, should be materially better, different than those that are not walking with Christ.

John: Dr. Bob Paul of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute and our Hope Restored intensives on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.

Jim: Oh, I really appreciate the transparency Bob and Jenni shared in this message, and I hope you found some insights for your own marriage, and let me remind you that Focus on the Family is here to bring hope and healing to your marriage. So, please, reach out to us if you need help. Here’s, uh, one success story we received from a listener named Nicole. She said, “You all saved my marriage. I literally had no one to turn to, and little by little, Focus on the Family helped me repair myself emotionally and spiritually. And then I was able to help my husband make some significant changes. We are still a work in progress in Christ, but we are so grateful for your ministry.” And let me just say, we are thankful to the Lord and those of you who support the ministry for bringing hope to Nicole’s marriage. And as we approach the end of the year, can I humbly ask you to donate to Focus on the Family? We are listener-supported and we rely on your gifts to continue our efforts to strengthen and literally save marriages, encourage parents, and protect the pre-born child, and if you can make a generous donation of any amount, we have a great follow-up resource for you. It’s a book written by Bob Paul and Greg Smalley called 9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage: And the Truths That Will Save It and Set It Free. And when you get the book from us, we’ll also include a free audio download of Bob and Jenni’s entire presentation, and right now, special friends are offering to match your donation so that it’ll have twice the impact. Get in touch with us today and let’s do ministry together.

John: And you can visit us online and donate at, and, of course, request your book and audio download when you do, or call us for more details. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. And when you’re online with us, be sure to check out our free marriage assessment. More than a million people have taken it. It’s a quick quiz to give you, uh, some ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship. Next time, Dr. Gary Chapman will help you understand the importance of speaking your child’s love language.

Dr. Gary Chapman: I’ve sometimes said, uh, in every child, there’s an emotional love tank, you know, and if a love tank is full, the child grows up emotionally healthy. If the love tank is empty, then the child feels like, “They don’t love me.”

Today's Guests

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9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage: And the Truths That Will Save It and Set It Free

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