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Alternative Explanations

Alternative Explanations


Spouses are known to behave badly at times. They whine. They nag. They criticize, complain, lecture and rant. They lie. They forget. They neglect their responsibilities. They neglect themselves. They neglect us! In fact, the number of bad things they do is just too large to enumerate. Why do spouses behave this way?

When your spouse behaves badly, how do you explain it to yourself? Do you use any of the following popular explanations?

  • He or she is trying to hurt me.
  • He or she is evil.
  • He or she is incredibly stupid.
  • He or she is an awful person.
  • He or she is mentally ill (although not diagnosable).
  • He or she is just like his or her evil mother/father.
  • He or she is out to get me.
  • He or she gets pleasure out of my pain.
  • He or she is a damaged person.

Think Again.

Toxic explanations for toxic behavior are, to put it simply, toxic. That person you stood under the wedding canopy with is still that person – that precious human being who you joyfully signed on with as life partners. Now that you're living together, you see other sides of this person. You see how s/he functions under pressure and stress, or handles overwhelming responsibilities. You see that he or she sometimes falls to pieces, doesn't cope, disintegrates and otherwise demonstrates human frailty. You see how that person deals with your displeasure and frustration, and how that person handles being hurt or diminished.

There is a commandment in the Torah to judge others favorably. This means we are obligated to look for benign reasons for their misbehavior unless all the evidence repeatedly points to a negative judgment. Even when a particular action must be judged negatively, we are not allowed to condemn the entire person – only that one behavior.

Here are some benign alternative explanations for bad spousal behavior. How often do you use them when your spouse behaves badly?

  • He or she is tired, stressed or under the weather.
  • He or she never learned a better way in his or her family of origin.
  • He or she doesn't really understand how destructive this particular behavior is.
  • He or she is reacting out of hurt.
  • He or she has emotional baggage that accounts for this and it is not as "personal" as it might seem.
  • He or she has been accidentally encouraged or reinforced in this particular negative behavior by my own actions or reactions.
  • He or she can't do any better in this area due to various mental or emotional limitations.

Benefits of Alternative Explanations

Alternative explanations help reduce our rage and disappointment in our spouse's failings and errors. Although we may still feel hurt or frustrated, the intensity of these feelings can be lightened. Spiritually, a more positive spin on things is promised to come back to us on our own day of judgment when G‑d will judge us just as we judged others – most notably our spouse. The Torah teaches us that we are judged according to the very same standards we used with others – either a tendency to be strict, harsh and condemning, or a tendency to be lenient and understanding. Would you be willing to be judged according to your own rules?

It's hard to deal with our imperfect spouses. However, it becomes a bit easier when we look at them with compassionate and forgiving eyes. We can still set boundaries, ask for what we need, go to marital counseling and all the rest. We can still work toward improvement. We don't have to tolerate improper behavior. However, we can certainly interpret it in the most beneficial way possible to help ourselves and our partner. We can look for alternate explanations.

Sarah Chana Radcliffe is the author of The Fear Fix, Make Yourself at Home and Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. Sign up for her Daily Parenting Posts.
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Jeremy Stack Everett September 26, 2017

You wrote, "The Torah teaches us that we are judged according to the very same standards we used with others", can I get that verse from you? Where is this in Tanahk? Reply

Andrea Schonberger University Place, WA via May 13, 2010

Toxic behavior does not equal annoying behavior Spouses will behave in annoying ways for various reasons since no one is perfect. Toxic behavior, however, is just that: TOXIC. In situations where the behavior can cause serious damage, even death, it is better to get out entirely and permanently rather than ignoring the behavior or making excuses for it. By all means, encourage the abuser to get theraputic help but it will have to be without you by their side. An abuser is in no way a precious human being--precious human beings will make mistakes but not abuse. Reply

Anonymous nyc May 12, 2010

Thanks The stresses of life seemed to be harder to handle than we were capable of, and it didn't matter that I knew my husband was acting out of stress- it still bothered me a lot. I need to lean on him when I'm having a hard time, and if I can't, we both fall apart. Thank G-d he pulled it together and saved me from drowning in misery. But your article is very appropriate and the points you made are good to keep in mind. Reinforcements are always helpful! Reply

Anonymous Boynton Beach, FL May 12, 2010

changes in spouse I agree with anonymous. After the glow of the new relationship wears off, sometime the true behavior comes out because the spouse was hiding that side from you and that can't last forever. If that spouse never smiles, can't laugh at jokes, and tends to 'turn' on his/her spouse, it could be clinical depression or some other form of mental illness. There is danger here in making excuses for the abusive partner. They don't need excuses, they need professional help. Reply

Anonymous Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic via May 12, 2010

SPOUSAL PROBLEMS While your explanations of how to "justify" a spouse's behavior in line with the Torah seem valid. What needs to be said here is if their problems are explained in such a way, what way is there to help them if they, too, cannot see the destructiveness and abusiveness of their behavior, to see what they are doing to their spouse, the kids and the bond of the family? I am personally experiencing my own form of this hell right now, and while I can use these reasons and they fit my spouse quite well, they don't solve my problem, which is her lack of recognition of what she is clearly doing to destroy our family. Reply

Anonymous May 12, 2010

Maybe the spouse is just abusive Ignoring the abusive rhetoric and actions can put the victim's life in danger. Explaining away abusive behavior with your invented explanations is just wearing the victim down. Then the abuser can strip away the person's self esteem and the abuse can continue without challenge. You can't set boundaries with an abuser. Verbal abuse is still abuse. Reply

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Sarah Chana RadcliffeSarah Chana Radcliffe is the author of The Fear Fix, Make Yourself at Home and Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. Sign up for her Daily Parenting Posts.
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