One of my favorite parts of marriage is that I can be completely and totally honest with my husband without any judgment. I used to fear conflict, thinking that any conflict could cause a break in the relationship. Now that I’m in a stable relationship and we can fight without worrying about destroying our marriage, I feel safe.
Although I’m safe to say what I want, what I say has emotional consequences.
Words have the power of life and death. We speak what we don’t mean sometimes. We speak to control. We speak to encourage. However, our words have consequences, good and bad.
When you’re uncomfortable, you have defense mechanisms, like sarcasm, insulting, or joking, but those defense mechanisms can get you into trouble if you’re not careful. Since it is part of our spouse’s job to shape us, God can use our spouses to help us surrender our defense mechanisms.
As listeners, we can’t let people speak to us however they want. I have trigger words like “What is your problem?” that will shut me down in an argument. If Lenny wants to shut me down, he can use that, because he knows it will make me stop talking. But he also knows that if he uses those words, he’ll be breaking our trust, and he could put some emotional distance between us. Lenny will accomplish what he wants (shutting me up) but it comes with consequences.
We have different boundaries, and we have to be clear about them. We can’t let people get away with their words. We can be clear about what we expect, and if people don’t respect our requests, we have to follow through with our consequences.
We hate being parented by anyone, including our spouses. However, you are not parenting your spouse. You are sticking up for yourself. Your job is not to train your spouse; your job is to protect yourself from experiencing and causing emotional damage.
So, talk about your boundaries, and what would happen if your spouse were to cross those boundaries. Now, you obviously can’t threaten to leave, unless there is abuse involved. However, you are entitled to request counseling or to say that you are not going to be as trusting of your spouse. Remember the vows you made to each other and remind your spouse of them.
If you are in a dating relationship, breaking up IS still a viable option for you. There is nothing binding you together. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious anymore that insults, sarcasm, and threats hurt people, so you need to be clear about how those words make you feel. If your SO has a history of hurting you with his/her words, and you’ve made it clear that his/her actions are bothering you and nothing has changed, you have every right to leave. Do that for yourself. Do not keep hurting yourself when you know he/she can use words to hurt you.
To demonstrate how to have emotional boundaries in the midst of defense mechanisms, I’ll use a hypothetical situation. Jack confesses to Polly that he gets fearful around the topic of family conflicts, and that when the topic arises, he uses sarcasm to deflect his feelings. Polly understands this, but she confesses that she gets angry when people make fun of her family, so she could respond to his sarcasm with an angry outburst. Polly promises that she will try not to bring up family conflicts around him, and Jack promises that he will try not to be sarcastic or make jokes about her family.
Since we’re not perfect, Jack and Polly may have some issues with this at first. But now, when they fight about Polly bringing up family conflicts and Jack making fun of her family, they have an understanding about why the conflict is happening, and they are able to develop consequences as a result. If Polly brings up a family conflict, Jack will use sarcasm. If Jack uses sarcasm, Polly will have an angry outburst. Eventually, Polly will learn not to bring up family conflicts (or will at least approach the conflict in a different manner) because she will not want her husband to be sarcastic. Eventually, Jack will learn not to react with sarcasm because he will not want his wife to have an angry outburst.
While grace is needed in this situation, do not get too comfortable with emotional tension. If your spouse is using defense mechanisms against you, continue to love him, but don’t allow the behavior to continue. Do not punish your spouse, but be clear about your expectations and continue to remind your spouse about them as the behavior continues. Remember your vows, and remember that you are both in the process of growing.