love or fear: what motivates your talk?

My wife and I were on the bright outdoor patio of a Mexican restaurant recently. What a day! The weather was perfectly balanced, warm enough to make a welcome breeze and the breeze just cool enough to want the sun back.

Then came a sudden crashing metallic BOOM! from the adjacent lot. Everyone on the patio jumped in their seat and immediately turned to locate the danger.

Ah! There was a construction project, trucks rolling up loaded with soil to level out the lot. We all saw it about the same time and relaxed a little. And then, I overheard the couple behind me. Their short “discussion” was a classic illustration of a marriage conversation gone wrong.

Wife: “Oh I see! It (the BOOM) was the swinging doors on the back of the trucks.”

Husband: “You mean the dump truck release gate.”

Wife: (pause) “That’s what I said, ‘the swinging doors on the back of the trucks,’  that’s what made that loud noise…”

Husband: “Yes, the dump truck release gate…”

Wife: (louder): “The SWINGING DOORS…”

Husband: (matching tone) “RELEASE GATE….”

(tense pause)

Wife: “Why are you being like that?!”

Husband (shrugging): “Like what?”

Just moments earlier they were anticipating a nice lunch on a sunny patio. But in a mere twenty seconds, their “date” had unraveled. Now, they were ready to be finished with the dip (the one sitting across the table).

My wife and I both grimaced, recognizing the familiar cycle. So easy to pivot from a nice conversation to a competitive tit-for-tat about something insignificant. Of course, when you are in the moment, it doesn’t feel insignificant. No, it feels absolutely vital, something worth fighting for.

You have to be at the next table to hear it for what it is. And you never know when a marriage therapist is sitting nearby. But you don’t have to be a therapist to recognize the pattern.

So what exactly is going on here?  A few questions might help us understand what happened:

1. Who started it?

Interesting question. From the transcript above, you’d be tempted to say the husband. Why did he think it was a good idea to correct her excavation equipment vocabulary?  Why not just listen more broadly? The startling noise was the bigger idea, not the truck terminology.  But wait, maybe it started earlier. Perhaps the wife had just corrected the husband about his pronunciation of a Spanish term on the menu. Thus wounded, maybe he saw this as an occasion to even the score. Or maybe it started years ago, with some verbal one-upsmanship during courtship. Maybe they’ve been besting one another ever since?

Who knows? But this interaction escalated so quickly that it implies a familiar cycle.

2. Who kept it going?

It seems like they both had a stake in continuing this. They both wanted the last word. They both wanted the other to concede first.

3. What was motivating them?

I don’t know what possessed him to interject a more “precise” term. Maybe he thought that would be helpful or maybe he gets irritated with things aren’t described precisely. But once that slipped out, it affected her. Negatively.

I don’t know why it triggered her. Maybe he corrects her a lot. Maybe she felt like he wasn’t listening to what mattered (her relieved discovery) but instead focused on something that didn’t matter (a different label for the truck part). Maybe she can’t handle being corrected in any way. But once that nerve (whatever it was) got activated, she felt like she had to defend herself.

Why was he so activated?  Maybe she speaks sharply a lot. Maybe she always has to be right and he saw this as a chance to be right about something. Maybe she doesn’t listen to him and he was insisting on being heard. Maybe he needs to be “the expert” to feel valued. Whatever, but once that nerve got activated, he felt like he had to stand his ground. And so, he maintains his position, asserting, “release gates.”

At this point (ten seconds in) they both feel like the other is being petty and childish and that they are maintaining a rightful maturity. (It doesn’t sound that way from my table, but when you are locked into this tonal war of dignity, you can’t hear but one thing.)

What is motivating them? They are operating out of fear, but that’s not likely what they would say. If you asked them what they were feeling, they would probably say frustrated, annoyed, and irritated. But those are secondary emotions. Their more basic emotion might run more like this:

Wife:When he corrected me, at first I was surprised, then I was hurt that hed care more about being right than about us sharing that odd moment. Sometimes, I just dont know if I am important to him…if I really matter.”

Now, that last part— “if I really matter”—gets at a basic human insecurity. And once that basic insecurity is threatened, we go into defensive mode, even over stupid matters. The matters themselves are stupid, but the sense of mattering is vital.

Husband: I was just talking. Boy, if I dont respond just the right way, then she makes out like I am some kind of bad guy. I don’t want to be told what to say. I work hard and do right. Why cant she value that? Im not a bad guy, am I? Will she ever see me as okay?”

Once that insecurity is activated—“am I okay?”—we go into defensive mode. Again, the sense of mattering is vital.

Odd. We end up fighting for our hearts to matter by fighting over something that doesn’t matter. We end up looking petty when we are only wanting to be found important.

This couple might not remember the specifics of the tension a week later, but those nerves will still remember the feeling and will be ever more watchful lest they feel it again.

4. How might they recover?

If fear is motivating them, then they need a more healthy motivator. The most healthy motivator is love.

But in order to give the love that their spouse wants, they first need to be loved from a trustworthy source. They need to know that their sense of mattering isn’t based on being right about excavation equipment. They need to know that mattering isn’t based on knowing the right thing but by being known by the right person. If our primary source of mattering comes from God, then we’re not so touchy in conversation with people.

The whole gospel message is that we matter to God. God’s love secures our identity. Because God loves us first, then we can love our seconds.

We can even love the dip across the table.

Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.

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