A high percentage of couples I counsel say they need to learn communication skills. However, they seem to communicate with me just fine!
Proverbs 18:14 says, “The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” The problem for many couples who are baffled by seemingly ordinary interactions in their marriage that suddenly go sideways isn’t their communication skills. Rather, it is their inability to recognize the sudden appearance of emotional pain masquerading in irritable and insensitive behavior that results in a crushed spirit.
Imagine the following scenario: Rebekah is distressed after getting into a big argument with their teenager, and she calls her husband, Matthew, for comfort. Matthew, driving home in heavy traffic, is distracted so he tells Rebekah they will talk when he gets home. When Matthew arrives home later than expected, he eats a quick dinner and leaves for his men’s Bible study. Rebekah is left alone with her distress and now feels the additional pain of Matthew not being available to comfort her.
The following week, as Matthew kisses Rebekah goodbye and leaves for his men’s Bible study, Rebekah angrily criticizes him for never being home in the evenings. He feels attacked for no reason at all and harshly reminds her that going to the Bible study was her idea in the first place. He returns home later than usual that night, hoping Rebekah will already be asleep. So, what is going on here?
Recognizing a raw spot
A crushed spirit, which could also be called an emotional raw spot, needs the healing balm of connection. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, defines a raw spot as a “hypersensitivity” that is painful when poked. Raw spots, or emotional bruises, are created when the need for closeness, belonging, safety or acceptance is repeatedly ignored or dismissed.
Sometimes the bruise forms because of marital fights that turn ugly, mean behavior or harsh words that appear when we haven’t been our best selves. At other times, partners bring these wounds from their childhood or past romantic relationships. Traumatic experiences contribute to this sensitivity, but these raw spots can be formed through everyday interactions where we are unresponsive to the emotional needs of a loved one.
Unbeknownst to Matthew, a raw spot formed when Rebekah reached for care and support, but he was not available. Even though Matthew may be generally loving and available, he missed this opportunity, and it was painful to Rebekah. It is not about his intention but about the impact.
Reacting to a raw spot
When Rebekah criticized Matthew for never being home, Matthew felt blindsided. When a raw spot is activated, there is an emotional shift, often leaving the partner to wonder, “What just happened?” When the emotion feels disproportionate, that is a pretty good sign that a deeper hurt was poked. I tell my clients, “If it is hysterical, it is historical.” The past just invaded the present; the emotion from an earlier experience has popped up in a situation that feels familiar in some way.
Too often, couples fixate on the current situation and all the big emotion that has blindsided them in this moment, and it doesn’t seem logical. But emotions make sense if we dig a little deeper to discover the crushed spirit that is asking to be soothed.
On the surface, there may be intense “fight” responses such as attacking, yelling, name-calling or criticizing as seen in Rebekah’s response. Or you may see “flight” reactions like ignoring, avoiding, becoming engrossed in one’s phone or, as Matthew did, coming home later than expected. These reactive behaviors can be painful (more raw spots in the making) and often fuel an argument. Unfortunately, the underlying hurt doesn’t get addressed and remains unhealed. Chances are high the residual pain will reappear in the future.
Revealing the raw spot
Raw spots may seem mysterious, until you have an idea what to look for. We all have normal needs for acceptance and belonging. When we perceive rejection and abandonment, especially from the very people that are the most important to us, we get scared. More than anything, we want a significant other to see us and accept us for who we are, to want to be with us and regard us as special.
When we receive messages to the contrary, like criticism (perhaps camouflaged as “helpful feedback”) or not recognizing one’s contribution to the relationship (such as shutting down to avoid an ugly fight), a raw spot of rejection is formed. Likewise, a raw spot of abandonment develops when a partner ignores invitations for affection, declines time together or doesn’t share their thoughts and feelings.
Unfortunately, how someone with a crushed spirit behaves often activates a raw spot in the other. Rebekah felt abandoned, unsupported in her time of emotional pain, so she lashed out and criticized Matthew. Matthew, with a hidden raw spot of rejection, may fear that no matter how hard he tries to please Rebekah, like attending the Bible study, he will never receive acceptance. So, Matthew pulls away, confirming to Rebekah that he really doesn’t want to connect with her, and on and on it goes.
Repairing the raw spot
Sue Johnson says raw spots are inevitable, even in loving marriages. As much as we desire to be present and available to those we love, sometimes we miss the opportunity due to our own raw spots, fatigue, lack of awareness or circumstances beyond our control.
The good news is that we can change the way we respond to raw spots, steering clear of the negative cycles of reactivity. There are specific steps we can take to soothe and heal the pain of a raw spot. How can Matthew and Rebekah follow these steps to navigate this situation differently?
Pause. Don’t react when you see the disproportionate emotional response. “The wise person overlooks an insult” (Proverbs 12:16b). Both Rebekah and Matthew can choose to stop the reactivity and not respond hastily to Rebekah’s critical attack or Matthew’s harsh response and avoidance.
Be aware. Recognize that a raw spot has been poked. Matthew or Rebekah can be the first to name the raw spot. Either partner can notice that a deeper hurt just surfaced, but it takes wisdom and insight to see it. I echo Paul’s prayer found in Philippians 1:9, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.”
Be curious. Ask about your partner’s deeper feelings and experience. Proverbs 20:5 states, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” Matthew might gently ask Rebekah what his leaving is triggering in her. With tenderness, he can allow Rebekah space to share the origins of her crushed spirit. He needs to be ready to listen without defensiveness, often easier said than done. Rebekah can soften and inquire about Matthew’s reaction to what was poked in him.
Be vulnerable. Risk sharing the hidden hurt with your partner. Vulnerability fosters intimacy. Rebekah might share how she reached out for support and felt abandoned in her distress. When Rebekah lets Matthew into her hurt, she allows him to share her pain, reflecting the encouragement in Galatians 6:2 to “carry one another’s burdens.”
Offer compassion. Connection is a healing balm for the raw spot. Matthew may hear how his inability to respond to Rebekah’s distress sent her the message that he wasn’t there for her, touching her deeper fear of being abandoned. He listens with compassion, giving her a new experience of support and love that he was unable to provide earlier. In this process, Matthew and Rebekah embody the exhortation of Ephesians 4:32: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
The adage “Time heals all wounds” often isn’t true. Couples need to actively repair their raw spots, or they will resurface time and time again. The content of the fight may vary but the core needs will remain unmet. A healing balm needs to be applied regularly to heal emotional bruises. It is not the presence of raw spots that determines the health of a marriage but the ability to recognize and repair raw spots when they appear, fostering greater connection.
Cheryl Dueck Smith is an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She is also a licensed marriage and family therapist at Link Care in Fresno, Calif. Smith is married and has two sons.