Marriage is speckled with “hot spots” that can erupt into fires if you’re not careful. Sometimes the eruptions seem to arise out of nowhere. Other times we look back and note that we could have anticipated trouble. However, with vigilance, emotional balance and a keen eye, you can manage these “hot spots” and ensure they don’t erupt into fires.
“She makes a mountain out of a molehill,” Jack said with exasperation, his deep voice exuding an air of authority. “I never know when she is going to erupt.”
Clearly Jack believed the “hot spots” in his marriage were unavoidable. He blamed his wife, Katie, for these eruptions. He felt he was largely innocent of any wrongdoing, which further left him feeling helpless to do anything about the eruptions.
“Nothing I do seems to work,” Jack said, looking critically at Katie.
“Maybe so,” I said to Jack, empathizing with his frustration. “She may be overreacting to this situation, but we need to find out what is behind her reaction.”
Calming Jack down and encouraging him to be “gently inquisitive” (asking her what prompted her overreaction) was no small feat. He was understandably annoyed when his wife reacted strongly to what he considered to be a trivial matter.
Looking to Jack and Katie, I shared what I’ve come to realize from thousands of hours of couples counseling.
“Small matters can become big issues very quickly,” I said. “Where there’s a spark, there’s often a fire under the surface. Little matters rarely turn into large issues unless solutions aren’t sought to heal the problem. Problems left to simmer will eventually erupt into something bigger.”
I explored my theory with Katie by encouraging Jack to be “gently curious.” Being gently curious requires that we put aside our annoyance and be truly inquisitive about what has caused the reaction. We must truly care and genuinely seek to understand why our mate is so upset.
“OK,” Jack began, still obviously annoyed. “What is the big deal about me forgetting to call you?”
Katie rolled her eyes, as I encouraged her to respond to him.
“He’s trying,” I coaxed.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll tell you. I’ve been feeling insecure in our marriage for the past several months. I feel a distance growing between us and a phone call from you will help me feel that you still really care for me.”
“But you know I care for you,” Jack said, exasperated.
“No,” she said firmly. “Actually I don’t. I’ve been feeling very insecure the past several months. I’m not sure why, but my insecurity has been growing. Then when I get the feeling I’m bothering you by telling you about my insecurities, I feel even more insecure.”
Jack started to settle down. Katie had tears in her eyes as she shared these vulnerable feelings. He reached out to grab her hand, as both shared a sensitive moment. They had navigated a sensitive issue, and Jack knew now more than he knew moments earlier. He could now choose to help Katie feel more secure, which would cause her to react less to Jack’s actions. Together they could repair a challenging situation.
Every couple experiences these “hot spots” in their relationship. While it is tempting to ignore them, wishing they would disappear, the wise couple leans into them, learning more about their mates and repairing underlying wounds. Here are a few additional considerations:
1. Behind every spark is a fire that needs to be put out.
Recognize “hot spots” as signals that there is fire beneath the surface. Each of these “fires” is a wound that needs attention, opportunities to bring healing to your marriage. Denying them will NOT make them go away.
2. Every spark is an opportunity to heal a wound.
Rather than viewing these situations with disgust, see them as signals that require attention. Lean into them, using “gentle inquisitiveness” to learn more about your mate. Listen, learn, and ask a lot of questions.
Scripture talks a lot about listening well: “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” ( Proverbs 12:15 ) We cannot rely upon our own understanding, but must listen to those who are wise.
3. Make it safe to talk about these wounds.
These wounds may be from your mate’s past or they may be something occurring in your relationship today. Encourage your mate to share their feelings so you can learn more about him/her. Don’t stop talking about the issue until you have a full understanding of the situation.
4. Develop a plan to heal the issues.
Have a thorough understanding of what needs to change so there is no eruption in the future. Agree together on a clear definition of the problems that led to the eruption and a decisive plan to heal the underlying problems.
5. Maintain an ongoing healing process.
Carefully seeking information and a gentle touch will do much to heal an old wound. Let your mate know you want to repair anything that might be broken in your relationship and are dedicated to lasting healing. Exhibit an attitude of humility and caring.
In many ways there is no such thing as an “overreaction”—only a signal indicating there is some area of vulnerability needing to be discussed. What are the some of the “hot spots” in your marriage? How do you tend to handle them? Where do you need to express “gentle inquisitiveness?”
Written by: Dr. David Hawkins
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