I am a big fan of cactuses, as evidenced by the header on my blog and emails. (By the way, if you’re not signed up for my email list, you can easily do so at the top of the side bar. You’ll never get more than one email a week from me, and it makes it easy to never miss a post.). Back to cactuses. I think they are beautiful, unique, and fascinating. There are as many different kinds of cactuses as there are other types of plants, and they are really hard to kill if you don’t have a green thumb.
The problem with cactuses is that they’re prickly. My daughter that learned the hard way last year when she was playing in a neighbor’s yard and backed up into one. Let me tell you, pulling those spines out of her back was not fun for either one of us.
A problem that I see over and over again in my work with families and couples is that they often communicate like cactuses with one another. (Let’s be honest. I do this too sometimes. You probably do this as well.). When my kids use a harsh tone with me, or come at me already defensive about something I often respond by saying, “Whoa! Do you think that using that tone or those words with me is going to get you more of what you want? I’m not inclined to go out of my way to help someone who is talking to me like that!” Kids need to learn this lesson, but we need it as adults too.
So often we approach our spouses, and we want them to do something different or sometimes we want them to stop doing something. But when we approach with anger; when our cactus spines are out on full display, we rarely get more of what we want. Instead the other person feels defensive (probably rightly so) and responds out of that defensiveness. That escalates the situation, and since we aren’t getting more of what we want, we hop on the escalation train and pretty soon no one is getting what they want.
What do I want in my marriage? Connection.
Your answer doesn’t need to be the same, but you need to be able to answer that question with as simple of an answer as that. There can be a million things that improve connection and another million things that tear it apart. So I could get really technical and say that I want to be heard, I want help around the house without asking, I want my needs and wants met when they are appropriate, etc. The truth is all of those things boil down to wanting to feel connected and safe in my relationship. If connection is my ultimate goal, then approaching my husband like a cactus and letting him run right into my sharp spines (which I learned from my daughter’s experience are barbed on the end and make removal painful!) is not going to get me what I want.
I don’t know why we do this, but we behave this way in relationships all the time. Actually I do know why we do this. We do it because we’re hurting, or frustrated, or angry, or anxious, or hungry, or tired, or we didn’t get hugged enough as a kid (that was sort of a joke, but . . .). We behave this way for a lot of reasons, but having a good reason for doing something doesn’t mean its effective.
If you want greater connection in your marriage, or with your friends, or with other family members then don’t be a cactus when you communicate with them. The Bible says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1). Is this easy? No! Doing the right thing isn’t usually easy, but it can become easier. You can train yourself to respond softly to your spouse. You can remind yourself that you’re friends, not enemies. (You can read more about that here.).
You can’t control your spouse, but you can probably guarantee a healthy dose of anger and disconnection with how you approach them. If you’re in an abusive relationship, this isn’t going to play out for you the same way. Sure, there are times that you probably respond harshly, and get a harsh response, but an abuser will always blame you for their harsh response even if you are doing nothing wrong. You can read more about the truth in abusive relationships on the tab at the top.
Don’t be a cactus in how you communicate. Just like no one wants to sit on a cactus, no one wants to communicate with one either!