Taking Offense in Marriage (and other relationships)

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

woman crying and taking offense to her husband's words

Taking offense is being hurt, upset or angry by something your spouse (or anyone else) says or does. Always at the heart of taking offense is feeling treated unfairly. Your partner has been insensitive, inconsiderate, dismissing, condescending or disparaging in some way. What you’re hearing or how you’re being treated doesn’t fit with how you want to be viewed, so you’re likely to react in a harmful way by either withdrawing and shutting down or defending and going on the attack.

By reacting in these ways, you are no longer in charge of your feelings and reactions but give your personal power to someone else. You feel good or bad depending on what they say and do. Not a fun way to live.

What Causes Us to Take Offense?

The root cause of taking offense is that your ego is rooted in what others think of you more than what you think of yourself. Most of us learned this unconsciously as children by tuning into how we perceived that our primary caregivers saw us. We grew up relying on their approval to approve of ourselves. Now as adults we bring self-doubt from the past into the present and so overreact when we perceive that our spouse is questioning our worth, competence, attractiveness, or integrity.

I want to suggest two remedies to taking offense.

1. It’s not about You

First, realize it is not about you. Let’s say you’re driving down a road, going a little slowly because you’re looking for an address, and someone comes up behind you and lays on the horn. It is not about you. This person doesn’t even know you. Their reaction is about them. Maybe they’re in a hurry, maybe impatient and upset. Their thoughts and feelings are driving (no pun intended) their behavior more than your behavior is driving their behavior.

Or imagine a child who throws a fit when you tell him it’s time to get ready for bed. He stomps around and yells, “I hate you.” You wouldn’t take this personally. You’d realize it has to do with the child—his disappointment about not getting to stay up, his underdeveloped ability to handle his feelings. It is not about you.

Or, say your spouse tells you to stop being so sensitive when you’re recounting an upsetting event. Or, perhaps he criticizes you for how you talked to a child, or rebuffs your attempt at intimacy. I could go on and on with so many examples. These comments and reactions of a spouse are more about him or her than you. They reflect their thoughts and feelings, even their level of emotional maturity more than you.

Step Back with Empathy

What works is to notice what is underneath their words or behavior. How is their comment a way of trying to solve some emotional discomfort going on in them at this moment? The driver may be upset about not getting somewhere fast enough. The child is disappointed about not being able to stay up. Telling you to stop being so sensitive is a way your partner is attempting to calm his own anxiety.

Seeing another’s offensive behavior in this way can help you detach and let it go. You can let it be about him or her and not you. Learning to not react is an important way for you to take greater responsibility for yourself. It helps you grow in emotional maturity.

2. Maybe it is About You

I said there were two remedies to not taking offense. The second is to realize that sometimes it is about you. Maybe you are driving way below the speed limit. Maybe you did talk harshly to a child. Perhaps your partner feels rebuffed every time he or she tries to initiate sex.

This is not to make you wrong or feel bad. It is to say that taking offense can sometimes be an opportunity for you to learn and grow in areas where you have unfinished business or emotional pain. You don’t feel whole and so become extra sensitive to ways in which others say and do things that seem to be disparaging in some way.

If I were to tell you that I think you’re wearing ugly shoes, you’d probably not react. It isn’t an issue. You’re not insecure about your shoes. No big deal. But if what I say taps into an insecurity, you’re much more likely to react. I said something that touches something inside you.

Offer Yourself Empathy and Compassion

The way you deal with this is by offering yourself empathy and compassion. Don’t criticize yourself for your reaction. Understand it. What is the sensitivity or emotional pain that got triggered? Allow it. Give it space rather than run from it or be defensive about it. The more you can bring compassion to your reaction the more you’ll be able to heal. Make it your goal to notice when this is happening. Stop focusing so much on your partner (or other person) and instead focus on healing yourself.

The second thing you can do if it is about you is to open up. I’m not talking about defending yourself or blaming your partner. I’m talking about being honest about your more vulnerable feelings. “I felt hurt and cut off when you told me to stop being so sensitive.” “I felt ashamed when you told me I was being overly harsh.” “I feel lonely and unimportant when I initiate sex and you don’t respond. I wonder if you love me.”

Being Vulnerable

It makes you very vulnerable to share your softer feelings rather than defend and lash out. And you have to be clear in your own mind and with your partner that you’re not doing it to shift responsibility to them or ask them to fix it for you. You’re commenting and owning the part of you that needs healing.

Of course, if this is a new way of talking then your spouse may not know how to respond. Can you make that okay rather than getting critical of them which is giving up your responsibility again? When you take responsibility for your own feelings, they don’t have to respond to everything perfectly. You’re in the process of healing yourself. Maybe they can be there and listen as you do so. Some can’t, simply because they haven’t been taught how.

But for now, this is about you taking responsibility for taking offense. You do so by knowing that often it is not about you. On other occasions you do this by knowing that it is about you and focusing on your own healing rather than your spouse’s behavior when that is the case.

In truth, you always have a choice about how to react to your partner. Although it is easy to slip into simply getting angry and defending or hurt and retreating, it’s a lot more powerful to be clear and own your reactions and let others own their reactions.  If you focus on what your partner says and does then you’re focusing on what you don’t control. You put all your energy into trying to get them to change rather than changing yourself. The magic is in keeping the focus on yourself, what you control, so you can better understand what’s going on and find better ways of responding.

About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

6 responses to “Taking Offense in Marriage (and other relationships)”

  1. Connie says:

    Excellent as always.

  2. Barbara Engel says:

    Such good advice, Roger—-thank you so much !!

  3. Yasmina says:

    Exactly what I needed to “hear” today, as I am searching on what I can do NOT to feel so easily offended by my husband. Thanks, it gave me an idea

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