Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Avoiding Emotional Reactivity in Your Marriage

Avoiding Emotional Reactivity in Your Marriage

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My wife, Christie recently confronted me about her need to spend more time with me. She was feeling neglected and wanted more “us time.” While her approach was well-timed, and her delivery sensitive and caring, I had to fight against an overly emotional response that would have pushed her away.

As she shared her need an old button of mine got pushed.

"You’re not enough, David,” the old voice said. “Here you are trying as hard as you can and yet you cannot meet her needs.”

All the while I was trying to hear her, listen to her needs and stay fully present, an emotional battle waged within.

“I hear you,” I said, quieting my inner critical voice. “I know I’ve been very busy and haven’t spent quality time with you. I’m sorry for that.”

My words seemed to have landed well with her. She calmed and told me that she appreciated my response. She couldn’t know how difficult it was for me to stay present when the old voice was activated. Yet, staying present helped us through a potentially difficult moment.

How was I able to remain fully present when I felt criticized by my wife? Perhaps this is a struggle for you as well. You know the feeling of trying to listen to your mate while also attending to the clamoring voice or voices inside. It can truly be very difficult, but doing so avoids the calamity of emotional reactivity—where we respond defensively, adding fuel to the emotional fire.

Consider these steps in remaining connected to your mate while also attending to your inner reaction to criticism.

First, be aware of your inner reaction to the message. Simply acknowledge that you feel defensive, sometimes even sharing that with your mate. Let your mate know you are feeling a bit defensive, but that you really want to hear what they are saying. Encourage them to continue sharing.

Second, allow yourself to be fully present to your mate’s message. Don’t force yourself to “buy” everything your mate is saying. Let it be enough to fully listen, take in and reflect upon what they are saying. Acknowledge some portion of the truth, no matter how small, in what they are saying. For me that meant looking at Christie and saying, “I can see that I’ve been very busy and that we haven’t had much quality time. I’m willing to make more time for us.” This was enough for her.

Third, attend to your inner critical, vulnerable voice. This is likely a voice from your past telling you that you’re not good enough. Reassure your Self that you will attend to that voice later. When the time is right, revisit the situation and give full attention to the voice. Weigh out the merits, or lack thereof, of the voice.

Fourth, tell yourself the truth. Perhaps you haven’t been available enough to your mate and need to acknowledge this. There is probably a "kernel of truth" or more in what they are saying, and you need to digest this and then acknowledge it. Having limitations is not the same as “never measuring up.” It is likely that there is more truth in your mate’s message than in the old voice.

Scripture tells us, “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15) Sifting through old and new messages involves “growing up” and making sense of our inner feelings instead of reacting to others.

Finally, digest and integrate messages from here and now long with those from your past. Having participated in your own mini-group therapy (voices from the past and those from the present) make new goals to be a better version of yourself. Acknowledge limitations, recognize areas of weakness that need to be strengthened while encouraging acceptance of who you are now.

I’d like to hear from you. Do you find it challenging to “speak the truth in love” to yourself? Developing a healthy self-concept comes from reconciling old voices with new messages, coming to a clear sense of who you are now and how God has created you to be. Please read more about these issues in my book, “When Pleasing Others is Hurting You” and explore more about my Marriage Intensives and Wildfire Marriage Interventions at

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including 90 Days to a Fantastic MarriageDealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, and Saying It So He'll Listen. He can be reached on Twitter at Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.